We’re constantly reminded of the huge volumes of data being collected by everything from our phones to the cars we drive. What’s often lacking, however, is any understanding of what the data means.
Without any irony, we’re inundated with statistics about the amount of data being created. As with much of the data, these statistics have no practical application.
Proponents seek to impress with size and hope the lack of substance will go unnoticed. The missing piece of the puzzle is context and understanding.
There are many people and companies who can help make sense of data sets through various means. There’s data science, data visualisation, infographics, dashboards and charts produced by insight teams, planners, data journalists, designers and research consultants.
The uniting element behind all of these activities and people is that they seek to unlock the complexity of the data they study and help others understand its meaning.
Throughout history and across disparate cultures, one group of people have excelled at taking the complexity of the world around them, distilling it and communicating its essence in such a way that people make an emotional connection with it.
They move people. They do this through a variety of linguistic devices. They deploy rhymes and metaphors, they work with cadence, they play within stanzas and sonnets. They are poets.
The Charge of the Light Brigade by Lord Alfred Tennyson isn’t the only poem or record about the terrible waste of life in a war.
Yet it is the only one I remember with such emotion. I do so because the futility of the action and the bravery of those who took part was captured by Tennyson in a way that is deeply moving.
Were the Charge to be captured by today’s data specialists we would know much more about it, but we would not necessary feel the emotional connection to it that we do. It would be an exercise in analysis, not understanding.
World War I is known for its poetry. Despite the loss of life on an industrial scale, culturally we have an emotional connection to it. World War II, however, has an altogether different aura.
In both wars the sacrifice of those who perished and the scars of those who survived are great, but World War II is a media war, its popular memory captured by cinema.
I draw upon these battlefield examples because such loss of life is difficult to comprehend; the raw numbers of deaths and injuries do not bring to bear the full horror or valour of those involved.
Poetry by numbers
It is for this reason that I’m launching this project to explore data poetry or, as I call it, poetry by numbers.
The project seeks to distil meaning from data by partnering poets and brands. Throughout 2015 it will commission poets to explore data. Follow our progress on this site where we’ll be publishing original poetry and commentary about how poetry and data combine.