Last week I was in Edinburgh to run my co-discovery Embodying Data Workshop with 24 of Chris Speed‘s Design Informatics Masters students at the Art College. The workshop was devised a few months ago as part of my Creativeworks residency at Birkbeck College to introduce computer scientists to the possibilities of approaching the problem of data analysis and computation differently by manifesting data in tangible ways. Thus we may bring more of our human senses to bear on meaning making than merely relying, almost exclusively, on vision and hearing as with standard data visualisation techniques.
It is a hands-on workshop using paper-prototyping methods to explore manifesting data as physical objects – why would we do this? what sort of objects? how could it benefit data analysis and computation methods? – and is an opportunity to speculate on how we might discover new ways to generate insights into complex data sets to discern previously undetected patterns and make meaning.
The workshop starts off by engaging the participants in identifying 11 major human senses (touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing, temperature, balance, pain, time, proprioception and interception) and discussing other sensory factors. Then we begin to map how many senses we actually use in everyday activities and tasks. In this way it becomes apparent how reliant we are on multiples senses to interpret our experiences of the world around us. How much then are we missing in trying to analyse data using just our visual and occasionally auditory senses? What patterns might also exist that we are simply not able to perceive because the senses that would detect them are not being activated? The last part of this exercise asks the participants to think about data sources and types, such as different kinds of sensors or data feeds/streams as well as the kinds of data coming through – energy use, health, environmental, sales, traffic, communications etc. We then follow on by mapping how we might interrogate such data using additional senses to sight and sound. What benefits might we get from having new ways to explore big and complex data sets? What could happen when we take digital data out of the machine and into the physical world?
This exercise is followed by a short presentation on Proboscis’ Lifestreams project: how and why we developed the life charms from biosensor data and what implications we believe it has for creating new insights into health and fitness data for wellbeing. Lifestreams provides both an actual context and talking point to discuss the difference that embodying data in the physical world – making it tangible to the senses – could have.
The second workshop exercise involves each participant using a blank StoryCube to imagine a data object of their own. I encourage them to use the 6 sides of the cube to indicate data types or streams that they might be using in their existing work or projects which could be used to generate a hypothetical data object. Then, placing their cube on a worksheet, the participants are prompted to consider how their data objects would connect with different human senses; how the objects might interact or connect with each other; whether they are personal or shared objects; what kind of conditions might people encounter them in. Participants are encouraged to consider what implications may arise from all these too.
Finally we discuss the ideas that have emerged from the exercise and, more generally, the potential for new insights into complex datasets to emerge from creating the possibility for senses other than sight and hearing to be involved in analysis. The point of the co-discovery workshop is to allow participants to come to their own understanding of the potential and what might be possible, not to be didactic. It aims to plant a seed of curiosity by exploring the gaps and absences in our toolkits for creating new kinds of knowledge, hopefully to inspire entirely new ways of expressing data in physical or environmental forms such that we can move beyond the ghetto of the primacy of the screen.
I am available to deliver the workshop to other groups (academic, cultural or corporate). Please contact me for prices and bookings. The workshop lasts about 3 hours, is suitable for a range of abilities and works best with groups of 10 and more. It has been designed to engage scientists at both postgraduate student (Masters/PhD) and professional staff level (lecturer/researcher). It works equally well with designers, artists and others who are also exploring the use of data as a creative material/medium.