How Can We Create a Democratic Cultural Code for Data Collection?

A speech by Monique Grimord presented at AIGA New York City Fresh Grad symposium, in the Parson’s Auditorium, on June 10th, 2015.

What if data wasn’t surveillance, but a tool for democratic participation? The Agora is a sculptural space that prompts this social alternative, a redesign of our interactions. Data collection today is surveillance, despite the contemporary perception and definition of this concept, it still remains a one-way communication model. There is a passive doer, and an active viewer. The public conversation is bored, uncreative, and we are comfortable in our ignorance, shy of experimentation. Without any societal tinkering, data has been left mostly to the hands of an aging mentality, such as banner-clicking advertising, paranoid security measures, and bureaucratic maintenance — those organizations that have the resources to collect and structure it, utilizing it for their private agendas, and creating the monopoly of data that we live in today.

Reactive criticisms cling to its pure preservation of privacy and lawkeeping mechanisms as the only solution. But we can’t slow the roll of advancing technologies, and that’s why Edward Snowden suggested another approach — creative solutions from the makers, thinkers, and development community. We need a redesign of data, a new perspective. What if we create a new democratic code for data collection? What if we define data as collective knowledge? Our individual motions form data, our life performance creates dialogue, and our everyday actions become advocacy. With this, data becomes something like the artificial intelligence of the community.

This thesis prompts a mental transition from being passive carriers of data, to active participants. The design community is a perfect place to start, by building digital places where data collection has three new and clear goals: critical introspection, creative problem-solving, and empowering agenda-setting. If we keep in mind at least one of these goals while designing data UX, then we are making a big change. I wanted to prompt us to think about this new perspective, so I created a data collecting interactive installation. The Agora is a social experiment with a sculptural and analog data infrastructure. Each gallery-goer would pass through the space, consider the content of my thesis statement, which was presented on small, movable magnets. Each word could be deconstructed and recomposed on a larger-than-life bar chart, allowing everyone to create questions and responses. There were small blocks for casting votes, building the chart higher with each passerby.

Everyone could weave through this shared space, discussing the information as they remodeled it, and see the results of their intellectual contributions take material form in the same space that they were occupying. Physically interacting with something as mysterious and intangible as data gave users the novel experience of a collective creative synthesis. The experiment didn’t create a design methodology, a blueprint, instead it’s a call to action — let’s change our mindset about the social possibilities of data. Let’s head into a transition from surveillance to civic data collection, empowering our users with the opportunity to invent their own forms of micro-political debate.