Not only do Meander’s pillars tell a story about the history of the Mississippi River, but the color, pattern and intensity of its lights do as well. The lights are a dynamic visualization of recorded data about the Mississippi River: the lights’ colors, brightness and timing are computer controlled to illustrate observations about the Mississippi River, including the changing temperature of the water and the changing amount of pollutants in the river over time.
The Mississippi River is extensively studied by a number of agencies and organizations, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, the University of Minnesota and the Metropolitan Council. There are a number of sensors located along the river’s course. We have partnered with the Jacques Finlay with the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory at the University of Minnesota, and used information from Army Corps of Engineers and the Metropolitan Council.
Figure 7 – Charles Joseph Minard’s 1861 diagram of Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign of 1812 – an early example of an information graphic, and a predecessor of today’s data visualization. The graphic is notable for its representation of six different types of data: the number of Napoleon’s troops; distance; temperature; the latitude and longitude; direction of travel; and location relative to specific dates.
Figure 8 – A less complicated (but more colorful) data visualization, Crayola Chart, is a visual history of the evolution of Crayola colors over the last 110 years.
How we translated this collected data into a colorful light display is based on data visualization techniques. In recent years there has been an explosion in the use of computational tools and techniques for the visualization of large data sets. (See Figures 7 & 8.) Such techniques are used in an attempt to find meaning in large data sets that may not otherwise be visible or understandable to the naked eye. We utilize similar tools and techniques in the design both of the lights and the sculpture. What you see in a few minutes corresponds to the visualization of tens of thousands of data points collected from corresponding sections of the Mississippi River. Indeed, we think of Meander as a kind of three-dimensional data visualization. In a nod to the influence of data visualization on our creative process, we refer to our technique as “data spatialization.” We worked with Max McDougall from MathStatic and Monkey Wrench Production for the programming and install of the lights.
:00 – :06 – Visualization #1 – Water Quality
The visualizations reset every 30 minutes (at the top of every hour and :30 past the hour). This visualization is indicated by white light on only the first pillar at the start of the visualization.
The first visualization illustrates the change in water pollution levels over 32 years from 1980 to 2012. We measure the pollution by the amount of nitrates in the water. Nitrates can have many sources, most of which are man-made, especially fertilizer. The color bar above indicates the meaning of the color of the lights: the more orange the light, the more polluted the water relative to the previous year. The greener the light, the cleaner the water is relative to the previous year.
:06 – :15 – Visualization #2 – Wind Speed
The visualizations reset every 30 minutes (at the top of every hour and :30 past the hour). The second visualization is indicated by white light on the first two pillars at the start of the visualization.
The second visualization illustrates the change in wind speed over the corresponding section of the Mississippi River over the course of the year 2014. The color bar above indicates the meaning of the color of the lights: the more magenta (purplish-red) the color, the stronger the wind; the more cyan (bluish green), the calmer the wind; no light represents the absence of wind.
:15 – :25 – Visualization #3 – Water Temperature
The visualizations reset every 30 minutes (at the top of every hour and :30 past the hour). The third visualization is indicated by white light on the first three pillars at the beginning of the visualization.
The third visualization illustrates the change in water temperature over 15 years from 1999 to 2014. The color bar above indicates the meaning of the color of the lights: the bluer the light, the colder the water; the redder the light, the warmer the water; white light represents frozen water. In only 10 minutes, you you are seeing 15 years of changing water temperature data!