Data Artifacts of the Arnold Arboretum
Image Credit: Yanni Loukissas

Last week, I attended the two-day symposium Thinking with Your Eyes: Visualizing the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences along with metaLAB graduate student researcher Krystelle Denis. We presented a lightning talk (just five minutes long) and an animated poster to illustrate our work in progress on a segment of the Data Artifacts research initiative. The broader initiative is an inquiry into how metadata are made at diverse public and private institutions of collecting. Using a novel combination of visual and ethnographic methods, the project aims to reveal what we call “data artifacts,” patterns in data that speak to the social and material history of their creation. This new work is sited at the Arnold Arboretum, Harvard’s living collection of trees, vines and shrubs. Dating back to 1872 and host to over 70,000 plants throughout its history, the Arboretum is an opportune context in which to learn about how data collection and management can change over the course of an institutional lifetime. Indeed, metadata used to trace the development of Arboretum collections over time have themselves evolved.

Each image (above and below) is a radial timeline displaying accessions data from 1872 to 2012. These visualizations are structured by yearly rings, similar to the way trees record the microphysics of their annual growth. Around the circumference of each ring, months and days index accumulated specimens, represented by translucent dots of different sizes and colors. Although this method presents some distortions, we feel that the metaphor to embedded arboreal processes and its preliminary results are evocative enough to bear further exploration.

The first visualization illustrates fluctuations in the way the Arboretum has created accession numbers. It shows that these data have their own histories, changing in response to the complexity of the collection as well as more mundane technical limits. For example, acquisition dates have been an element of more recent numbering systems. This has resulted in an artifact at the Y2K line, when date codes switched from two to four digits.

Image Credit: Yanni Loukissas

The second visualization tracks changes in the provenance of the collection:

Green = a plant collected from the wild
Yellow = a cutting from a plant collected from the wild
Black = a cultivated plant
Grey = a plant from an unknown origin

These variations reveal shifts in the organizational mission of the Arboretum, between wide-ranging scientific exploration and local horticulture.

Image Credit: Yanni Loukissas

The last visualization displays the understories of each day at the Arboretum in 3D, exposing the true rate of accumulation along the z-axis. Thus, moments of rapid growth in the collection appear as vertical sections, whereas periods of slower development flatten out the overall form.

In addition to changes in the Arboretum itself, these visualizations implicitly register external cultural and even political rhythms and events. Look closely and you can spot World War 2 and Christmas in the gaps between accessions. These examples are early sketches and furthermore, merely screenshots of richer interactive pieces. But they already suggest ways in which the Arboretum’s metadata are materially, culturally and historically situated. In the next few months, we will be working towards a series of full, interactive portraits of the Arboretum, which tell the story this aged institution through the inner lives of its metadata. Check back soon for more updates.