Dear Data has been acquired by MoMA, but this isn’t what we are most excited about.

giorgia lupi
Nov 22, 2016 · 9 min read

by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec

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It’s always thrilling to look back on your life and see how often it’s the smallest of interactions that completely change your life’s direction and set you on a new path.

For us, it was a conversation over a beer, where, barely knowing each other, we nervously started dreaming of ways to collaborate. This small interaction was the impetus for a project that consumed the next two years of our lives as well as became the foundation for a working relationship that, while not without its struggles, has developed into a collaboration with unexpected longevity.

We are two data visualization designers living on either side of the Atlantic (Giorgia in New York, and Stefanie in London) who live lives seemingly in parallel. We met, and — struck by how many personal and work similarities we shared — we wanted to get to know each other better. So we challenged ourselves, we would do this this using the material we were most familiar with: data.

For our project Dear Data, each week throughout a year we collected and measured different types of personal data relating to our lives and then visualized it as a drawing on a postcard which we then sent as a type of “slow data” transmission of our personalities and our days to the other person.

This was first and foremost a personal project, created in the evenings and on the weekends as our immensely-patient partners watched as we made space on our kitchen tables to draw, crumple up, throw away, tear our hair out in frustration, then draw some more until we finally had a postcard we felt was good enough to be shared with our newfound collaborator.

But most importantly, this was a project where we put all of ourselves as human beings and designers into this radical experimentation: approaching the data we collected from as snapshots of our days and lives, and sketching our personalities for the over person to discover with the most contemporary material, data.

As this project unfolded, we began to understand each others’ personal and professional foibles both in the postcards we sent each other and the messages we would furiously text back and forth as the project developed. We shared the most revealing and vulnerable aspects of ourselves: our flaws, our bad habits, and even shameful revelations from our pasts and our thoughts in the form of drawn data to be interpreted by the other person. It’s as though we were keeping a shared diary within a weekly rhythm, where we used this tool — this material — to compose a portrait of the other person through these weekly fragments of her nature.

Over a year we connected at a deep level, learning to love each other’s imperfections, but we could do this — though data — only because we’ve been working in a very manual and personal way. In fact, as we gathered our weekly data, the process was more labour-intensive than just deriving standard metrics from technological devices: we conceived Dear Data from the beginning as a “personal documentary” more than a “quantified self project” where we didn’t only quantify numbers but we were also adding contextual details to our logs, thus making them truly personal, about us and us alone.

And so Dear Data — a project that started with an almost casual conversation — led to outcomes we never anticipated: being exhibited at Somerset House and London’s Science Museum, winning ‘Most Beautiful’ award (the highest accolade) at the Information is Beautiful Awards 2015, being nominated for the Design Museum’s illustrious ‘2016 Designs of the Year’ awards, received incredible attention and kind words from the press and so, so many more incredible opportunities, all culminating in a self-titled book published by Penguin and Princeton Architectural Press.

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But ultimately, this journey led to an incredible honor: we are proud and pleased to announce that the Dear Data has been acquired early in November 2016 by the Museum of Modern Art as part of their permanent collection.

As a matter of fact, our 104 original postcards and the many sketchbooks we filled with intermediate data drawings every week have found the best possible home for years to come. They will live in the archives and catalogue of one of the world’s most prestigious institution (well, we think so, at least!), humbled by being in the presence of the dazzling company of the great masters of art of the past two centuries.

The Museum of Modern Art acquired its first artworks in 1929, the year it was established. Today, MoMA’s evolving collection contains almost 200,000 works from around the world spanning the last 150 years. The collection includes an ever-expanding range of visual expression, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, photography, architecture, design, film, and media and performance art.

In an era where everyone speaks about virtual reality and big data, our laborious year of small, analog and slow data encoding evidently touched some interesting chords, as Paola Antonelli — senior curator of the Department of Architecture and Design — beautifully states:

“There is deep beauty and poetry in this exchange between two very contemporary women and colleagues, who about two years ago decided to entrust their nascent friendship to old-school snail mail. 52 weeks of postcards with hand-drawn visualizations based on intimate data sets, gathered with pen and notepad from everyday occurrences: this engaged conversation describes the future of our relationship with information.”

This acquisition and these cherished words from Paola Antonelli would seem a natural happy ending to the Dear Data ‘story’, and we would expect you to close the book and stop reading now, safe in the knowledge that Giorgia and Stefanie lived happily after.

But there is much more to this story, at least for us.

The most unexpected and heartwarming reward for us is how our project resonated with an incredibly wide and diverse range of people: with Dear Data we have been able for the first time in our professional lives to truly speak beyond the closed rooms of designers or data visualization practitioners. Since the project was made public, we have seen hundreds of postcards made by people who after hearing our story wanted to try the process for themselves, many seeking out their own data ‘penpals’ and also setting their own yearly challenges to draw their data.

We are also touched at how many young children are reading their parents’ Dear Data book and are excitedly-drawing their own data (though we would have written about less adult themes in our postcards had we realised we’d have such a youthful audience!)

And more incredibly, teachers from grade school to university and beyond are using the Dear Data format to teach their students the world of data: an amazing (and humbling) result from what started as a side project.

This analog, manual and even imperfect way we approached data has opened the idea of data to a wider audience and made it more accessible, more understandable and more easily relatable to their daily lives. We’ve both found with previous projects that it’s often difficult to get people to understand (for example) what big data is, or what open data is, if they don’t know and fully understand what data is in the first place.

Starting small is how we hope to increase data literacy and further these conversations.

So isn’t this what constitutes true success?

The most important achievement for a designer or even an artist is to have an impact on people’s lives and also, to explore further how we — as designers who work with data — can use our daily tools and materials to speak beyond our closed circles and truly engage unexpected audiences.

We are part of the data visualization community, and as in any community, there is healthy debate on a discipline’s function and best practice. There have been debates that seek to define what is and isn’t data visualization, what is data art and and what is data design, or whether if to “enjoy” a visualization you should clearly know if it was meant to be an artistic exploration or a design project. When we hold Dear Data up to these definitions, it doesn’t quite fit: it might be art, it might be communication design, it might be data visualization, it is probably all three: but its interdisciplinary qualities are an asset, not a failing.

We need to embrace the in-between as practitioners to move forward: by following the ‘rules’ and not taking risks, we ourselves risk treading water in one place, never extending the boundaries of our community.

Would a data-driven project that firmly adhered to specific disciplinary rules inspire a child to draw their own data and see the world through the eyes of a data collector? Or would defining a project only as an artwork offer an opportunity for a data visualization practitioner to become interested in ways they could make their practices more human-scaled, smaller, and more memorable? By working in purposely-blurred spaces, we we were able ultimately reach a broader audience and help our practice to progress.

If we set out to create something that neatly fit within the boundaries of our discipline, our project would been indistinguishable from all the other projects that conformed to these boundaries. However, by placing an emphasis on working in the fuzziness and the in-between spaces, in revelling in being truly interdisciplinary, we made a project that stood out, was noticed, and made an impact outside of our community through its very nature of not quite fitting.

There is more power in being that which doesn’t ‘fit’ than that which does.

And so, we see our MoMA acquisition as validation that Dear Data — for all its difficulty to be defined — has extended what is possible both for data visualization and for visual communication. This outreach and extension is what we are truly proud of.*

*And what about the goal of the project, you ask? Did you get to know each other better? Needless to say, that the premise of the collaboration couldn’t have been personally more successful for us: through our data we truly became friends, deeply close friends, as we would never have imagined.

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You can find more information on us, the project, the book, and how to get in touch on our website, thank you!

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