Category Archives: Sharing Stories

Civic Thinking for Civic Dialogue

Over the past six months or so I have been focused on my work for the UnBias project which is looking at the issues of algorithmic bias, online fairness and trust to provide policy recommendations, ethical guidelines and a ‘fairness toolkit’ co-produced with young people and other stakeholders. My role has been to lead the participatory design process on the Fairness Toolkit, which has involved devising and facilitating a series of workshops with young people in schools and a community group, as well as with stakeholders in the ICT industry, policy, civil society and research fields. My colleagues in the Human Centred Computing group at the University of Oxford and the Horizon Digital Economy Institute at the University of Nottingham, as well as Informatics at the University of Edinburgh, have been wonderful collaborators – providing a rich intellectual and pragmatic context for developing the tools.

The co-design workshops with two schools (in Harpenden and in Islington) and with a young women’s group in Oxfordshire explored what their levels of awareness of the issues were, how relevant to their own lives they perceived them to be, and what they thought should be done. In each workshop, and with each group, we consistently encountered quite different perceptions and experiences – often unexpected and surprising – whilst also observing certain commonalities, which were echoed in the findings of the Youth Juries which our colleagues at Nottingham have been running for UnBias since late 2016. Many of the young people expressed a certain fatalism and lack of agency regarding how they use technology which seems to foster a sense of isolation and inability to effect change. This was coupled with a very limited sense of their rights and how the law protects them in their interactions with service providers, institutions and big companies. Unsurprisingly, they often feel that their voice is not listened to, even when they are the targets of some of the most aggressive marketing techniques.

The tools have thus been informed and shaped by young people’s perceptions and their burgeoning understanding of the scale and depth of algorithmic processes affecting modern everyday life. The tools have also been designed to address the atomising effect that personalised technologies are increasingly understood to have – whereby the increasing personalisation of platforms and services isolates our experiences of media and the mediated world from each other. Where broadcast technologies used to be understood to have a homogenising effect on societies, networked technologies, and the highly personalised software services running on them, are creating a sense of isolation from other people’s cultural and social experiences as they serve each of us something more bespoke to our own tastes and preferences. Recent controversies over the use of targeted advertising in US and UK elections has exposed the iniquitous consequences of such hyper-specific campaigning, and offered a new set of insights into the wider, and deeper social and cultural impacts happening around us.

I have tried to design a toolkit that could build awareness of these issues, offer a means to articulate how we feel about them, and provide a mechanism for ‘stakeholders’ (in the ICT industry, policymakers, regulators, public sector and civil society) to respond to them. What has emerged is something I call a ‘civic thinking tool‘ for people to participate in a public civic dialogue. By this I mean a mode of critical engagement with the issues that goes beyond just a  personal dimension (“how does this affect me?”) and embraces a civic one (“how does this affect me in relation to everyone else?”). And then, when we participate in a public dialogue about these issues, it is not simply conducted in public, but it embraces the co-construction of our society and acknowledges everyone as having a stake and a voice within it. It is about trying to find co-constructive and non-confrontational means to engage people in critical reflection about what kind of world we want to have (and the roles algorithmic systems in particular should play in it).

On Monday we held a workshop to preview the first draft of the toolkit and seek feedback from a variety of stakeholders. Take a look at the presentation below to find out more:

The response has been very encouraging – highlighting the strengths and revealing weaknesses and areas that need additional development. The next stage is to start a testing phase with young people and with stakeholders to refine and polish the toolkit.

We are also developing relationships with “trusted intermediaries” – organisations and individuals who are wiling to adopt and use the toolkit with their own communities. As the UnBias project concludes in August, our aim is to have the toolkit ready for deployment by whoever wants to use it this Autumn.


Phantom Tomes from an imaginary library

Ever since she was little, my daughter Clara has loved games of invention and imagination – especially ones which involve creating stories and fantastical worlds. Inspired by Edward Gorey (and others) we have been making up absurd titles for fictional books as we walk around London for sometime.

Recently a chance email reminded me of the amazing collection of book covers and other images that the British Library made freely available online and we came up with a way to share our pastime with others, and to expand on it as well. Thus was born the Phantom Tomes a collection of fictional books from an imaginary library – with covers adapted from ones we found online.

In the Phantom Tomes you are invited to dream up and write down your versions of what the publisher’s blurbs might say for these books. Or imagine that you are a literary reviewer composing your critical exegesis of these pseudo pot-boilers.

There is a distinguished literary tradition of creating fictional books, and amongst my own personal (and perennial) favourites are authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and Stanislav Lem. Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum, remains for me a highpoint in absurdity of the genre – an entire book of critical essays devoted to non-existent books.

Clara and I have had enormous fun putting this little book together and sincerely hope it offers as much pleasure to others in using it as it has afforded us in imagining it.

Read it online or download, print out and make up your own paper copy.

Exploring Risk


Over the past 6 weeks I’ve been working with Professor Lizzie Coles-Kemp and her team in the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway University of London to produce a publication as a deliverable for their part of the TREsPASS project.

TREsPASS : Technology-supported Risk Estimation by Predictive Assessment of Socio-technical Security was a 4 year European Commission funded project spanning many countries and partners. Lizzie’s team were engaged in developing a “creative security engagement” process, using paper prototyping and tools such as Lego to articulate a user-centred approach to understanding risk scenarios from multiple perspectives. The three books and the poster which comprise TREsPASS: Exploring Risk, describe this process in context with the visualisation techniques developed by other partners, as well as a visual record of the presentations given by colleagues and partners at a Summer School held at Royal Holloway during summer 2016.

The publication has been produced in an edition of 400, but all 3 books included in the package are also available to read online via bookleteer, or to download, print out and hand-make:

We are now starting a follow on project to develop a creative security engagement toolkit – with case studies, practical activities and templates – which will be released in early 2017.

Fairness and Bias in an Algorithmic Age


Last month a new research project of which I am part got underway – UnBias: Emancipating Users Against Algorithmic Biases for a Trusted Digital Economy. Its a collaboration between the Universities of Nottingham (Horizon Digital Economy Institute), Edinburgh (Informatics) and Oxford (Human Centred Computing) funded by the EPSRC through its Trust, Identity, Privacy and Security in the Digital Economy strand. Over the next two years it will look at the complex relationships between people and systems increasingly driven by personalisation algorithms and explore whether, and to what degree, citizens can judge their trustworthiness.

My role will be to lead a co-design process that will create a ‘fairness toolkit’ : raising awareness about the impact of algorithms on everyday behaviours; devising pragmatic strategies to adapt around them; and engaging policymakers and online providers. We will be working with schools and young people to co-develop the toolkit – following in the wake of previous projects exploring young people and social media, such as Digital Wildfire.

For me this project cuts to the quick of concerns at the heart of today’s society: empathy, agency, transparency and control. I will be bringing ideas and practices to the project I have been exploring from a number of different trajectories over the past few years, from my work on the Pallion project to data manifestation and reciprocal entanglements. I am particularly excited as this marks my first formal collaboration with Oxford’s Human Centred Computing research group with whom I’ve been in dialogue for a couple of years.

Data Manifestation Talk at ODI

Video of my talk at the Open Data Institute on Friday 17th June 2016:

For further details, read my post, How Do We Know?

How Do We Know?

The following is the text of a ‘provocation’ I gave at the Responsible, Ethics-Aware Research and Innovation in Data Science symposium hosted by the Alan Turing Institute in March 2016. For the event, my colleague Stefan Kueppers and Professor George Roussos at Birkbeck University of London generated a new set of Lifecharm shells using data from a research trial with sufferers of Parkinsons Disease. We 3D printed multiple copies of 4 shells which were given to the participants as a tangible souvenir of the data manifestation concept.


I’m going to speak today about a concept I call “data manifestation” and how I believe it can add a significant dimension to data science and how we make meaning from data.

First I wish to pose a question –

How do we know what we know?
And how do we make meaning from what we know?

The answer is, of course, through the interaction of our senses with the stimuli coming in to them from the external world – and how this is processed by our consciousness and woven in together with our memories and emotions.
This is a system of high complexity and entanglement. It produces judgements based on multiple factors and dimensions all working together.

I believe that this is qualitatively different to the kinds of inference driven systems that are increasingly coming to dominate our civilisation and how it operates.

For instance: when we feel that something we have eaten is delicious, how do we know this?
It is not just the taste that defines this judgement, but includes many other factors such as smell, look, texture, sound, shape and size, whether it invokes memories, or causes a momentary shift in our sense of balance. If each of these factors is seen as a data input, how would we begin to map such complexity into the decision-making systems of today?

Art and aesthetics are another example of this complexity. When you encounter a work of art the experience itself which determines your aesthetic reaction to the piece – whether one of awe, delight, revulsion or indifference – is driven by similar complex factors. The use of materials, colour, scale, lighting, etc as well as memory and emotion create each person’s own aesthetic experience. There can be no right or wrong aesthetic experience, only how each individual experiences a work of art in relation to the summation of their own existence.

Much of the data that is captured, recorded, analysed and used as the basis of inferential decision making systems in the everyday world is principally derived from visual interfaces, from the writing of the software that generates it to the representation of the data in screen-based visualisations – from spreadsheets, to graphs and animations. There are in a few cases some sonic representations of data, and in extremely rare cases some haptic interfaces. But on the whole the way we create, analyse and present data is visual and screen-based.

But not all experiences are visual. And my proposition is that by failing to encompass the whole and extraordinary sensitivity and careful tuning of the human sensorium in our methods of expressing data we are missing huge potential.

Back in 2012 Proboscis was commissioned to collaborate with scientists at Philips Research Lab in Cambridge as part of a public art programme. We were asked to explore the problem posed by the failure of commercial biosensor devices to engage people in leading more healthy lifestyles. Essentially the FitBits, Fuelbands and similar devices were being switched off within a few weeks of activation. Philips is a big player in the separate business of TeleHealth (where people with serious medical conditions have instrumented homes that record and transmit data to health professionals and back to the users). They were interested in how these emerging life-tracker devices could have positive well-being and health benefits for nominally healthy people over the long term. But the usage data suggested this was simply not happening.

Looking at the problem, our insight as artists was that this was an issue of relevance to people’s sense of their own self, to their identity. Our hunch was that the ways in which the narrative of a person’s life helps construct their sense of self were just not being engaged by the graphs of data represented on smartphone screens or laptops. Humans frequently invest meaning in objects that act as triggers for memory and personal significance. These can be highly ritualised objects such as wedding rings or other kinds of jewellery. They can also be seemingly random objects, such as a piece of cloth or a pebble from a beach. With all these things, the memory is evoked not just by the sight of the object, but through other factors such as the way it feels.

Our insight was to connect this tactile relationship to meaning with the kinds of data that could be collected by tracking devices. We built a simple data logger with off the shelf components and collected a range of data over a week from members of our studio: step count; pulse rate, sleep patterns, blood pressure, stress factors etc.

My colleague Stefan Kueppers then developed an algorithm based process to flow this data into a shape that could be 3D printed. We looked to nature for inspiration and realised that the mathematics and geometries in shells would allow for extraordinarily complex and unique expressions of data in a 3 dimensional form. Here are a few examples of the objects we made from our own biodata. We called these “Lifecharms” and the project, “Lifestreams”.

What I am going to show you next is our latest experiment. We have been collaborating with Professor George Roussos at Birkbeck (where Stefan is currently working on his PhD about the Lifestreams work) to adapt and extend the data manifestation concept to other uses.

Birkbeck have been running a data collection project working with Parkinson’s Disease patients – mapping the wide variation of symptoms that they experience. Parkinsons is a disease encompassing high variability in symptoms between individuals; ideally this ought to imply a high degree of personalisation in their medical care and disease management regimes. Yet health policy and medical care management for Parkinson’s sufferers are determined by a ‘scale’ (called the UPDRS) derived from about 70 factors of motor performance criteria a Parkinsons patient is classified against. These factors are collapsed into a single “summary statistic”, which is then used to assign treatment for patients according to where they lie on the scale. Whilst this is an effective way to communicate the multiple dimensions of Parkinson’s on a linear scale of progression, because of the enormous variation it is common for people with entirely different symptoms to score similarly on the scale, yet require very different care.

For patients and health professionals alike, finding ways to express the unique characteristics of an individual’s actual experience of Parkinson’s would be a big step both for personal dignity and as a way to convey the wide variations in an easily appreciable manner to policymakers.

What you see in these four examples here, a version of which you are being given to take away and keep, is an expression of three data sources from four individuals who participated in the Parkinson’s trial, each mapped in 3 dimensions into the form of a shell. They demonstrate the clear variations in symptoms experienced by these individuals. The data used were :

1) Tremor in the Left Hand – which maps to how much the spiral of the shell stretches outwards.

2) Left Leg Agility – which maps to the overall growth scale of the shell (i.e. how big it gets in terms of volume)

3) Two Target Fingertapping (Left Hand) – which maps to the change in the frequency of the recurring ridges on the exterior of the shell.

These four shells are only a very initial experiment and there are many more factors that we will be able to control with data sources from the trial in future iterations, such as the number and increment of rotations, ripples in the curve of the shell exterior, the sweep curve of the main shell, twists in the shell curve, other geometric entities occuring on the shell surface (spines and nodules) as well as the number of segments that make up the whole shell.

A key indicator in Parkinsons is how it affects a person’s left and right sides of their body so, in the future, we also propose to develop twin or “clamshell” forms that spiral out from a common centre and reflect differences recorded between a person’s left and right symmetries.

As you can see, and soon feel, even with just 3 data sources informing the shell growth parameters, it is possible to appreciate the individuality of each person in a way that is qualitatively different to looking at a graph. As we introduce more granularity and complexity, the individuation will become even more pronounced.

Taken as snapshots, such shells, could over time reflect the changes in Parkinson’s symptoms as experienced by sufferers.

What use is this? We believe that this kind of approach offers a very different and rich way to express complex datasets for making meaning in a world where data is ubiquitous, is increasing exponentially and – as we are constantly being told – is overwhelming us.

My proposition is that in this way we can find alternative ways to make meaning and take decisions based on human insight and judgement from complex data sets. We don’t just have to simplify and summarise data in linear ways to make it easier to represent visually on a screen, we can also use our other senses – touch, sense of scale and balance, taste, smell, hearing, time and temperature. We can also benefit from other knowledge traditions (as well as contemporary science) and apply methodologies and critical analysis from the arts and humanities, such as aesthetics, to make meaning and draw judgements from highly detailed material artefacts that reify complex data sets into actual things, not just representations on a screen.

Thank you.

Characteristics of the Shells

Shell 1 – spiral not so pronounced, which indicates that the left hand tremor amplitude is not so strong; the shell size is quite big indicating the patient has significant increase in amplitude of left leg tremor; the ridges are also become quite pronounced indicating that there is a growng lack of accuracy and slowness in finger tapping.

Shell 2 – the spiral is at the higher end, suggesting the patient has a higher amplitude of left hand tremor; the shell size is a bit smaller so the patient experiences less left leg tremor amplitude; the ridges are very small indicating a higher degree of accuracy and speed in the patient’s finger tapping.

Shell 3 – the spiral is a median, indicating a moderate but not pronounced amplitude of left hand tremor; the shell size is slighty above average, suggesting increasing tremor in the left leg; and the ridges are fairly pronounced suggesting a greater lack of accuracy and slowness in finger tapping.

Shell 4 – very pronounced spiral suggesting very high amplitude of left hand tremor; shell size is smaller indicating less amplitude of left leg tremor; the ridges are very pronounced suggesting a high lack of accuracy and slowness in finger tapping.

Peeking over the Horizon

When trying to imagine what’s possible how can we look beyond what we can already see on the horizon?

Yesterday I ran a workshop on Peeking over the Horizon as part of the Making London event at the University of Greenwich. The event invited participants interested in “making London a city where arts and innovation can continue to thrive” to take part in “a day of inspiring presentations and engaging workshops on how to make London better“. The theme of the day was to: “rethink the relationship between markets and communities in London. Do you have a different vision of work and life in London, of its communities and businesses? Do you have a project, problem or question you would like some time and some tools to explore? Do you just want some new ideas? ‘Making London’ is a day of workshops for designers and non-designers, to help rethink and remake our experience of London.

The workshop I devised aimed to encourage the participants to stretch their imaginations beyond what we can see on the horizon now; to think through potential impacts and consequences, to anticipate next directions and emergent themes and to aim at some uncommon insight into the kinds of creative and socially innovative interventions that could be possible. I cited our Urban Tapestries project as a model for this kind of critical and creative projection, specifically because I have recently reviewed the project’s final report (which was published 10 years ago in June 2005) to see how our ideas and policy proposals have held up.

In the first part of the workshop we used some large worksheets to address the event’s theme along a series of 6 vectors : heath and wellbeing; transport; work and leisure; housing; social behaviour; and communications. The exercise asks participants to identify current outliers : i.e. things which are causing change but which we do not yet understand the impact of. From there the next stage is to think through the potential impact these outliers may have and anticipate future directions that could result from them. At the confluence of these vectors the participants were asked to identify emergent themes.

In the second part of the workshop I introduced 15 critical concepts that underpin the way our our modern developed world functions : algorithms, chains, contingency, corridors, efficiency, energy, infrastructure, labour, logistics, parameters, protocols, standards, waste and zones. These were offered as specific lenses which we could apply to the previous exercise’s emergent themes. The concepts were inspired by those used in the Logistical Worlds research project. Each participant used a StoryCube to select up to 6 of the concepts and marry them up with the themes to distill their ideas. The resulting cubes could then be used individually or together to generate more ideas on the large map of London which the event hosts were using to coalesce outputs from the different workshops of the day on.

I was very pleased with the level and depth of conversations that the workshop provoked, participants told me it was challenging and rigorous, and that the way it helped to focus ideas and then make them transportable (via the StoryCubes) was inspiring.

Further Iterations
If you’d like me to deliver or adapt this workshop for other groups (academic, cultural or corporate) please contact me for prices and bookings. The workshop takes about 2 hours for groups of 10 to 30, is suitable for a range of abilities and levels of expertise.

Creative Chrysalis

Do not follow where the path may lead.
Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Just a few days after I returned from Australia and Papua New Guinea at the end of March I heard that I’d been shortlisted for a Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellowship. In between re-adjusting to everyday life back in the urban developed first world (from being in a remote village on PNG’s Rai Coast) – I suddenly found myself having to consider two critical questions in fine detail : what, ideally, would I like to do with such a fellowship and the resources it offers; and, how would this be a step-change in my career that would propel me towards a different future?

Its not often that such open-ended opportunities come up – where the constraint is truly on the scope and scale of your aspiration and imagination rather than on the project itself. The brief for the fellowships is refreshingly open – but terrifyingly so! In answering this challenge it is essential to step off the treadmill of routines, to turn aside from the path you are following – blindly or otherwise; to stop and survey the whole landscape of your life from as many perspectives as possible.

There followed a month of close scrutiny of myself and my ambitions, of reviewing the period of change that I initiated at the beginning of 2014 and how this has been a slow transformation as I have unwound habits, patterns of behaviour, settled beliefs and practices. After focusing my energies on creating, building and sustaining an organisation for nearly 20 years, the past couple of years have involved a tumultuous reorientation that has invoked feelings of relief and release, emptiness and the desire to cling on. It feels very much as though I have been cocooned in a kind of creative chrysalis – effecting a slow transformation as I try to reimagine what kind of work I want to do, what kind of communities I wish to be part of and what I want to achieve. This process is by no means complete. But in preparing, writing and editing my proposal for the fellowship I have been forced to reconsider how different routes to those I have taken before might now offer me the step change in developing my aspirations that is clearly required.

Emerson’s oft-quoted saying (above) has, perhaps, been emblematic of the path I have been making over the last 25 years, weaving a collaborative trail through disciplines and sectors that most likely seems random and confused to those who encounter my work through individual projects and do not see the long term trajectory. But there comes a time when its necessary to consider stepping off the idiosyncratic trail you have been creating yourself to be able to perceive new kinds of opportunities. There are moments when it becomes important to see that doggedly pursuing your own individual course and modus operandi can be as constraining as following a channel laid out by others before you. Recognising where your personal trail intersects with a larger trail and allowing yourself to be drawn along; merging your effort with that of others. For a while; or perhaps longer.

Having submitted my proposal a few weeks ago I am now in the strange limbo of waiting to hear whether or not I will make it to the next round of interviews. The trick will be maintaining my resolve to pursue this new trajectory irrespective of the outcome of the selection procedure for these fellowships. Attuning myself to a new beat without reverting to older rhythms. I have written before about my ethic of trying to stimulate public agency in my work (here) and on the nature of pioneering as a way of life rather than a career choice (here). The habit of dissenting, the role of the outsider, is as much a self-selecting, self-limiting groove to become funnelled in as any other. It is time for a different suppleness of character to take hold, to bend as the reed in the wind without becoming like the gnarled and hardened oak. I think that the aim of this creative chrysalis of the past couple of years is to emerge out of the cocoon of self-reflection with a different form and to leave out-dated habits in the dry husk that remains.

A story about a reed and an oak, urging us not to rely on strength.
A reed got into an argument with an oak tree. The oak tree marvelled at her own strength, boasting that she could stand her own in a battle against the winds. Meanwhile, she condemned the reed for being weak, since he was naturally inclined to yield to every breeze. The wind then began to blow very fiercely. The oak tree was torn up by her roots and toppled over, while the reed was left bent but unharmed.
Those who adapt to the times will emerge unscathed.
Aesop’s FablesA new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World’s Classics): Oxford, 2002

Magna Carta 800

800 years ago on June 19th 1215 King John was forced, by Archbishop Stephan Langton and a group of barons, to sign the Magna Carta – a document setting out limits to the king’s power and guaranteeing the pre-eminence of the rule of law over the executive. John almost immediately repudiated it, but over the next 80 years or so it was re-issued several times, with the 1297 version extending the freedoms it offered to free men across the land. Alongside Magna Carta (and the 1217 Charter of the Forest, or Little Charter) the 13th Century in England featured the calling of the first English Parliament and with it the establishment of the foundations of modern democracy and a just and fair society.

To celebrate the events at Runnymede on 19th June 1215, I am selecting a series of manifestos and texts written over the centuries that build upon the Magna Carta’s legacy in their own period of history. Each month, from January to June 2015,  I will juxtapose two or more texts in a book made with and shared on bookleteer (and distributed as physical copies to subscribers of the Periodical) as a way of reflecting that, across the generations, the quest continues apace for a fair and just society in which the rights and responsibilities of individuals are respected and upheld without prejudice. By re-presenting these ideas in a series of books I hope others can also draw inspiration from them and help frame the questions and challenges that face both the UK and other countries in the time ahead of us.

I’m particularly keen to shine a light on ideas and writings from periods such as the mid-17th Century that have inspired me in developing my own sense of what a just and fair society might be like and how it could function. There is much we can learn today from those called Levellers and Diggers – what they sought then has resonated across the centuries and still seems so relevant in our own time. Perhaps we are seeing history repeat itself : then, a chance was missed during the Interregnum (or Commonwealth) for a new kind of society to emerge that could have swept away inherited privilege and arbitrary exploitation of the poor and landless. Instead, the power of the City, landowners and merchants usurped the dominance of king and nobility. Now, over three hundred years later we are seeing the Welfare State – a kind of postwar commonwealth – being dismantled by a similar nexus of wealth and privilege. This process goes hand in hand with the rapacious exploitation of the natural world, subtly reinforced even among environmentalists by the placing of money values on natural ‘resources’ as an argument for their protection from extraction. In this way, every relationship humans have to each other or to the ecologies we live within are divorced from context and connection with the flow of life – anything which could bind us to people and place in ways other than can be defined by money. By elevating money as the paramount value, we are isolating ourselves from each other, from inherent rights and from any sense that we have intrinsic responsibilities and obligations to others and the world we live in.

I’ve begun the series with a book containing two texts written roughly two hundred years apart, at the apogee of two great moments of change in the UK – the English Civil Wars and the Chartist movement. Both sought radical change to the status quo of how the country was governed, laying crucial foundations for the development of our modern parliamentary democracy and for a just and fair society based on individual rights and responsibilities. That both were rejected by those in power in their own times is a reminder that each generation must continue to strive for its own version of a just and fair society. These texts serve as an inspiration for us now to continue to question and challenge the Powers That Be – to reject their surveillance state, their dismantling of the Welfare State, their greedy pilfering of the commonwealth for their own private gain. And to remind ourselves that, across the centuries, others have stood firm against tyranny whatever form it takes.

If you’d like to receive the physical versions of the books, please subscribe to the Periodical here. And there’s now a special limited edition (40 sets only) bound together with a red satin ribbon, buy your’s here.
You can, of course, also read each book for free, either online in their book reader versions or if you download, print out and make up the handmade versions – just visit bookleteer and browse the collection.

Embodying Data Workshop

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?

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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.

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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.

Further Iterations
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.