Living With Data

ideas on communicating with numbers

Earlier this week an old friend of mine sent me a message outlining a request. In an effort to get back to his habit of drawing and creating he was reaching to a few of his friends for some inspiration and ideas.

Simple premise. I’m inviting important people that I admire, respect, and care about to gift me one creative brief—a specific, attainable objective—to complete by my next birthday.
Example: Some sort of insight as to why people do something, don’t do something, or another aspect of human behavior. Think, “I want x because y”.

What follow is slightly edited version of my response. I’m sharing it here because a) I want to be more productive as well b) I want to practice writing and publicly exploring my thoughts and c) sharing is fun.

As you know, I’m very interested and engaged with what it means to live in a world of near ubiquitous personal data. The Quantified Self movement is a key piece of this and we’ve seen some amazing work by individuals and institutions (commercial and not). We’ve observed that the power that drives real insights can be directly traced to informative data visualizations. However, I feel that we are still in the infancy of what it means to really live with personal data. See this talk by Lev Manovich to see how little our data visualization techniques have changed over time. (Did you know the bar chart has been around since 1778?)

I’d like to challenge you to explore what it means to Live With Data. The conversation around QS typically centers around the reduction in autonomy and a move towards algorithmically driven lives (e.g. computers telling us what to do and when to do it based on our personal data). I’ve seen this expressed as Living By Numbers (Data). However, I feel this misses a big piece of the cultural shift. What happens when we Live With Data as a piece of our human experience? (Some might say that the difference between “by” and “with” isn’t meaningful, or I’m being pedantic. However, it’s good to remember that words have meaning and how we use them is important.) Data can live, breath, and communicate (listen and talk) with us. But, what form does that take?

I’d like to challenge you to explore this idea. Art and creative design can be a big influence on this concept. Here are a few examples of ideas I’ve been thinking of lately:

  • What if the walls in your home were made of LEDs or screens that could reflect your current mood? Would you want it to reflect or change, and how? (Thanks to Laurie Frick for prompting this idea during a conversation in her home studio. You should check out her QS based art here.)
  • What would it be like if you had physical manifestations of your data in your home or place of business. See this project from MIT for inspiration.
  • Data is typically represented as a direct manifestation of numerical information. Explore ideas of data abstraction. Data as art that tells you a story. This has been explored before with techniques like Chernoff Faces and more recently with Chloe Fan’s Fitbit Spark visualization. What if we went further, more abstract and more interactive?
  • This one is a little out there so proceed with caution. In the near future robotics and AI might be advanced enough to create actual human replicas or clones. Imagine this happens. What would it be like to create a clone of yourself and stream your personal data to it? Would you test experiments? Would you watch it (them?) try and learn new things? What data would you not share?

If you’ve read this far I’d love to hear what you think. What are the ideas that come to mind when you hear “Living With Data?” I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

As always, comments are welcome. This post is available on Github if that’s your style or connect with me on twitter or email.