Jer Thorp is something of a data puppeteer. As a 2013 Emerging Explorer, data artist, and the co-founder of the Office for Creative Research, he pulls the strings that allow large, complex data sets to speak through computerized visualizations.
Jer merges scientific know-how with artistic vision to take raw numbers and turn them into shapes and textures that people can interact with. Jer’s work ranges across disciplines and media to help information systems speak to the fundamental experience of “what it’s like to be a human.”
“It all started out of an act of rebellion.”
Jer’s forays into the art world began at home, where he would watch his mom—a textile artist—work at a loom in the family’s basement. At first, however, combining his artistic genes with what he calls an “inherent interest in science” proved difficult.
“In high school,” he says, “it was really clear: You were either the science kid or the arts kid”.
In fact, Jer’s high school guidance counselor flat-out told him he “couldn’t do both science and art.”
After years spent playing in a rock band, working in an aquarium, and honing his skills as a web developer, Jer decided to go against his guidance counselor’s advice and build a bridge between the arts and sciences.
“There wasn’t a set-out plan at all,” he says.
But in his time exploring different fields, Jer says he managed to “gain a really broad set of skills … everything from computer programming to visual design and critical thinking”, something that has helped him thrive in the interdisciplinary world of data visualization.
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
For Jer, the biggest thrill comes from engaging with a completely new topic.
“I get to become a little expert in a lot of different things,” he says. “We work on projects that are in all kinds of categories and all types of subject areas, and we really make an effort to become as educated about all of them as we can.”
But if you think the life of a data artist means jumping from topic to topic without studying each one in depth, you’d be mistaken. According to Jer, the worst thing somebody in his field can do is to “come in to something really naively and to take a big pile of information and assume that they know what’s going on. It takes a long time to understand the context.”
That’s why Jer places special emphasis on reaching out to experts and becoming informed.
“This is the world we live in,” he says. “If you are excited and interested in something, you can engage with the people who do it.”
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
When you push the limits the way Jer and his colleagues do, failure often comes with the territory.
“If you want to do new and exciting things, you’re going to fail a lot . . . you have to try to keep yourself reminded of the fact that you have to do this to get to where you’re going,” he says.
Despite the setbacks inherent in his work, Jer has never shied away from a challenging topic. For him, the beauty of success comes from how hard you have to work for it.
“If we all just do safe things all the time, we’re going to succeed a lot more but those successes aren’t going to be as interesting.”
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
“I bring it back to this idea of understanding the world. Geography is a pursuit of the understanding of the world. We’re trained to think about it in a certain way because of how it’s defined for us in geography class, but I don’t really think about it in that way.”
According to Jer, the connection between his work and geography lies in the concept of mapping: “Visualizing data is an act of mapping,” he says. “If we think about mapping as a mechanism to understand the world, then that’s what we’re always doing with data visualization.”
In fact, Jer believes that data visualization and mapping grew out of the same desire to “give ourselves a picture of where we are in the world.”
SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . DATA ARTIST
“The worst thing you can do if you want to be the best scientist in the world is focus entirely on science,” says Jer.
“Science can do a really good job of explaining things to you,” he says, “but I don’t know how often it gives you a feeling of what it is like to be a human being.”
For Jer, that meant exploring the arts as a way to understand scientific concepts in a different context. Over his career, the people he’s interacted with have reaffirmed this idea: “The best scientists I’ve ever met always have some piece of the arts with them. And the same thing goes with artists. The best artists that I meet are competent mathematicians.”
For Jer and many of his colleagues, success did not come from following a “straight path,” but inventing their own.
To get started as a data visualizer, all you really need are a pencil, paper, and lots of questions.
Jer first emphasizes the power of drawing “as a thinking tool and as a design tool.” The next step, he says, is to “always have a question to ask”: what do you want to learn? What are you trying to communicate? Finally, Jer encourages everyone—of all ages—to “understand that this fake boundary that we’ve erected between the sciences and the arts doesn’t need to be there.”
To see some of Jer’s past work and learn more about the Office for Creative Research, visit http://o-c-r.org/work/.
set of facts having to do with a specific event or situation.
process of analyzing and evaluating the truth and worth of a concept.
(singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.
field of study.
an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.
to become actively involved with something.
brief, initial venture or invasion
study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.
intrinsic, or existing as an inseparable part of something.
having to do with more than one academic subject, or discipline.
complex apparatus used for weaving yarn into a textile.
making and using maps.
person who studies the theory and application of quantities, groupings, shapes, and their relationships.
process or assembly that performs a function.
showing a lack of experience, judgment, or information.
cloth or other woven fabric.