Technology makes 9/11 memorial unique

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By Calder Phillips-Grafflin

Like all major memorials, the 9/11 memorial in New York City has been controversial. Memorials, by their nature, have to satisfy everyone from the politicians who fund them to the families of the victims memorialized on them. It isn’t easy to agree on a design, and that’s partly the reason so many memorials are simply alphabetical lists of victims, if they even have names at all.

The 9/11 memorial, however, is different. Instead of ordering names based on alphabetical order, by floor they worked on, or even by company, names are grouped based on relationships. As a result, family members, friends and coworkers are located near each other. At least in theory, the memorial attempts to preserve the context of the victims’ lives.

How this is done, however, is a completely different story. First of all, it isn’t easy to figure out the relationships after the fact, and even when that is possible, it’s not easy to figure out how to arrange them. To come up with a solution, the memorial planners had a New York software artist design an algorithm to combine the names.

First, the algorithm combines names together into clusters, such as combining the employees of a particular company. In addition, families and friends of the victims submitted requests, which were also used to build the clusters.

The second stage of the algorithm handles the arrangement of names on the memorial. Everything from the length of names to the shape of the memorial’s edges needs to be taken into account.

This is a complicated problem, even for a computer, and students here who have taken the algorithms class will appreciate just how hard it can be to find an optimal layout.

If the 9/11 memorial is received well by the public, it’s likely that future memorials will also use algorithms to arrange names.

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