How Were the Names on the World Trade Center Memorial Arranged?

It has been ten years since the September 11 attack at the World Trade Center. Thousands of lives were lost in the attack that shook the world and the frightful images from the attack are still fresh in my mind.

A bronze memorial engraved with names of all victims has been laid out to commemorate all the lives lost at the attack. It names all those who lost their lives and there are 2,983 names in there. However, you will be surprised to know that these names are not arranged in alphabetical order or any other common order known to man. The arrangement is in a particular fashion, where these names are placed as nodes in a network of their relations to one another.


The relating factors are both professional and social. The work of sorting out those thousands of names and placing them in this complex network is attributed to  Jer Thorp, who is a Data Artist at the New York Times and has a long-standing experience in visualizations.

The arrangement of names on the memorial makes use of “meaningful  adjacency”, the data for which was collected by asking the families of victims. Some of the adjacency is also based on the place of accident. With over 2900 names as nodes and over 1200 relations as edges, the result would have been an  enormous  graph. The handling of this huge dataset was done using an open-source language called Processing.

Processing is an open source programming language and environment for people who want to create images, animations, and interactions. Initially developed to serve as a software sketchbook and to teach fundamentals of computer programming within a visual context, Processing also has evolved into a tool for generating finished professional work. Today, there are tens of thousands of students, artists, designers, researchers, and hobbyists who use Processing for learning, prototyping, and production.

The use of Processing brought significant elegance to the work, and as CNET says,

This led to about 99 percent of the requested adjacencies being honored. In addition, the system tackled problems such as name length, spacing between lines and potential interference between letters, and other aesthetic challenges–such as the fact that 12 panels are irregularly shaped. The designers worked with the output to produce the tribute.

Processing has also been used for other visualization work as exhibited here in this gallery.

(Image via: Scientific American)

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Chinmoy Kanjilal

Chinmoy Kanjilal is a FOSS enthusiast and evangelist. He is passionate about Android. Security exploits turn him on and he loves to tinker with computer networks. You can connect with him on Twitter @ckandroid.