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Data, Storytelling and Remembering 9/11


Post Date: September 11, 2013
By: Stephanie Miller

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As a New Yorker 9/11 has special significance and heartache for me personally as it does for the families, friends and co-workers of the 2,996 people who lost their lives. Each year on the anniversary of that horrifying morning – I personally replay in my head my state of being that day, the panic, the waiting for information and the shock and sadness that surrounded it. I was not even in NYC that day and still have raw emotion about the whole thing. Each year I uncover a story I haven’t heard, a memory worth savoring or a connection to someone in one of the towers.

The people, the stories, the memories, the timeline of horrific events all are things that the 9/11 memorial team was tasked with dealing with. With many questions and much debate, which I won’t get too deeply into but you can find out more about it by watching the 60 minutes special.  The curators decided to use data to tell a powerful story; one that presents both the timeline of events and as well as the human element of lives lost.

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The memorial and museum team decided to group names by where they were on 9/11, they began the process of collecting data by sending out letters to the victim’s families, gathering the information from the firehouses, the company rosters, the flight records and other sources. “Sometimes victims were cohorts, or best friends. In other cases, the families knew, from last phone calls, whom their loved ones had been with in the end . . . and wanted those people listed together.” The information received in response to the request was both complicated and amazing according to an article in the New Yorker one data scientist called the project of representing this data impossible.

 

Eventually, this complicated set of data was then fed into not one but a combination of algorithms which they called the Names Arrangement. This would eventually allow the curators to be able to translate the information visually on the memorial. Two brothers would be listed together, co-workers side by side and so on. The arrangement allowed for the inter-connectivity of the humans lives to be preserved in memorial. The museum that this data feeds is not yet open but updates are available at the 9/11 website. 

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The 9/11 memorial and museum is a perfect example of how  interpersonal relationships and memories can be amplified by data to tell a powerful story of human connections. So, how does this apply to us as marketers? Data equals people – do you really know the people/customers/clients/consumers/donors behind your data? Do you understand what story they have to tell? Perhaps a new story will emerge if you look to connect the dots or visualize that data in a different way? All worthy of a thought. It is certainly something DMA is helping members think through on a daily basis, our Data Visualization program being a good example of this in action.

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