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One of the characteristics of our increasingly information-driven lives is the huge amounts of data being generated about everything from sporting activities and Twitter comments to genetic patterns and disease predictions. These information firehoses are generally known as “big data,” and with them come the grand challenge of making sense of the material they produce.

That’s no small task. The Twitter stream alone produces some 500 million tweets a day. This has to be filtered, analyzed for interesting trends, and then displayed in a way that humans can make sense of quickly.

It is this last task of data display that Zachary Weber and Vijay Gadepally have taken on at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts. They say that combining big data with 3-D printing can dramatically improve the way people consume and understand data on a massive scale.

They make their argument using the example of a 3-D printed model of the MIT campus, which they created using a laser ranging device to measure the buildings. They used this data to build a 3-D model of the campus which they printed out in translucent plastic using standard 3-D printing techniques.

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