The Meaningful Algorithmic Placement Of Names On The 9/11 Memorial

Data visualizer Jer Thorp created a program that would depict the relationships between the victims through the location of their name.

Today, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, a memorial to commemorate the lives that were lost will be dedicated to its planners. The names of the victims will adorn bronze etched panels surrounding the memorial pools that represent where the towers once stood. Although initially the names appear to be placed at random, their placement is in fact completely deliberate. Family and friends worked in the towers together and architect Michael Arad wanted to do justice to those relationships. The placement will commemorate both the 2,983 lives lost as well as the victim’s relationships to each other when the towers fell.

To make sure these relationships were properly remembered requests were made to living family members and friends to provide insight on how victims were connected. Using these ‘meaningful adjacencies’ they employed the help of design firm Local Projects and data visualizer Jer Thorp to develop a solution that would figure out the best way to place the names together.

With approximately 1,200 adjacency requests they had to figure out how to do the most justice to the requests within the alloted space of the memorial. Many names had complex relationships with each other that revealed themselves in large clusters. Using the programming language Processing, Thorp developed an algorithm to clearly layout the names with consideration to the adjacency requests. The layout was both intuitive and interactive so that human oriented problems such as aesthetic choices and design could be solved by the architects and designers.

As much as the more complex work was done by algorithms they merely provided a framework for humans to operate within. Once the program ordered the names, the designers and architects applied their own aesthetic choices to the layout.

WTC Names Arrangement Tool from blprnt on Vimeo.

Overall there were 18 panels per side plus one corner for a total of 76 panels. The placement of the names also reflects which tower the people were in. The names of those who’s lives were lost in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, as well as first responders and airplane passengers are present as well. in the end, 98% of the requests were able to be fulfilled. As Thorp stresses on the blog, the use of algorithms to design the layout is largely invisible from the final product. Instead the names of victims is foregrounded above all. Each of the names is given the same amount space and weight so that they are all perceived as being equal.

Photos and video courtesy of Jer Thorp

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