Richard Saul Wurman isn’t a fan of President Barack Obama’s push for data.gov, an online repository for big data. “That’s just politicians talking,” the 79-year-old TED (technology, entertainment, design) conference founder told me. “I think there will be a pushback saying, ‘We don’t understand all this fucking data.’” The way Wurman sees it, that bulk collection of raw information has no value without a creative means of diagramming, mapping and comparing it all in a way that gives it meaning. “[You] have to have it in a form that you can understand. They’re leaving that step out,” he said. It’s that approach to the organization of data that has directly informed the creation of Wurman’s high-tech information-mapping project, Urban Observatory.
“He thinks big data is bullshit; it’s like [carbon] atoms. You could either make a nuclear bomb or a bouquet of flowers with them. It’s not helpful,” said Dan Klyn, co-founder of Michigan-based information-architecture firm The Understanding Group and Wurman’s biographer. “Some of the rah-rah-rah about big data is how precise and accurate it is,” he said. “Precision and accuracy are not in a causal relationship with understanding.”