MINE - A tangible interface to help you gain control and reflect on your personal data.

Background

Every day during our online wanderings we are exposed to constant tracking and our personal information are harvested for multiple reasons, most of which we are not aware of. Even though this is a very relevant issue that has increasingly been discussed and brought to the public attention ( one of the latest examples of this is, at the time of writing, the recently released documentary “The social dilemma”), this project doesn’t try to critique and demolish the data tracking and collection as a practice but rather tries to explore new ways in which this can be expressed and visualised.

Intro

As I am writing this article, most of the privacy policies tend to be a very good example of dark patterns that people tend to avoid as much as possible for lack of understanding and ease of use. Multiple lists of unfamiliar names are listed, most of the time with one or even multiple switches where if on one side a lot of customisation is allowed, on the other end the experience gets quickly overwhelming due to the number of options and as result, people tend to skip this step and either accept or reject all the options.

This project tries then to explore the “in-between” space, ditching the current binary, on-off solutions and explore the possibility of having a more fluid and organic decision-making experience.

Design goals

There are three different aspects that I decided to explore and emphasise with the visual appearance of this “thing”, both from a digital and physical perspective: visualise the invisible, give control, express preciousness.

These explorations also try to stand on an “in-between” space, bridging the gap between digital and physical. Where a physical interaction generates a digital reaction, vice versa a digital event reflects into the physical. In this way, the data, which are the material that I am trying to use and manipulate in this project, becomes a fluid entity that flows back and forth between the two spheres and is always under our control.

Visualise the invisible

The question that before anything else I asked myself was “What do data look like and how can I make them visible?”.

Data visualisation of course comes to mind as the first answer. There is a very long history of this discipline and now more than ever it is implemented in every possible dimension, from two-dimensional applications to three-dimensional representations that can now be even implemented in augmented and virtual reality experiences.

However, more than how I could represent them technically, my interest focused on what metaphor I could use to create a more relatable experience. More clearly put: how do invisible entities in the real world manifest themselves to our perception and how can I use them to my advantage?

With this question, I started to look at the manifestation of invisible natural elements such as wind or magnetic fields as a good example of this concept. We only “see” the wind as it interacts with either us or other tangible and visible elements, a flag, dust or the wheat in a field just to mention a few. The earth magnetic field becomes perceivable only seeing the needle of a compass aligning itself towards the poles or observing the majestic northern lights. These are all very representative images of what I mean and this is also what I tried to explore and express in the final concept.

But how do I translate this to the virtual space of a webpage? What is my virtual wheat field? What my ionised air particles of the virtual atmosphere?

Trackers and ad providers are already elements that we encounter daily, if we look carefully, in every policy popup. We might not be much familiar with them but they are represented already in many ways. Usually, they are part of the endless lists of toggles that promise to give us control and safety over our data. But they are also those entities that want to feed on our data, a sort of wolf in sheep disguise. I thought they were the best element for me to use as a marker of the presence of my personal data, something that could be displayed and also have an attraction towards my information.

Next, I gave these entities a shape, or more precisely a body and also a space in which they could live. That is the popup itself. At this point, I had a system that could naturally represent, thanks to its interactions, the presence of personal information and also show the state of what it is happening in the system.

Giving control

Part of the issue around personal data is, as mentioned above, the lack of clarity and transparency in those stages when the decision has to be taken. I tackled this problem by exploring a more natural way of releasing and disclosing my personal data to these platforms. If I can comfortably hold an object in my hands I feel more in control of it, more in charge of what is going to happen to it. I tried to transfer this feeling into the “thing” by creating the physical interface which is originally inspired by a ring box, or a chest. Something that holds something precious within, keeps it safe and that it is opened only on special occasions.

Keeping the interactions and the different parts of it to a reasonable level of complexity was extremely important as making it too simple, too meta-representative of the concept would have hidden too much of the real complexity and making it to articulated and complicated would have created too much friction, something that I wanted to be present but that I also didn’t want to overwhelm the other aspects of the “thing”.

The interface is therefore composed of one central circular light, that displays whether or not the data is present and the current outcome of your data usage (more on this later). Around the light, a dial is used to select different interactive elements in the digital interface. Finally, an array of sensors is built into the body of the thing, these allow the readings that determine what the user is doing and therefore decoding his/her intentions.

Express preciousness

The element of preciousness was very central throughout the process as I found the intimate relationship between us and our data to be crucial in order to develop the interactions. This intimacy is never shown in current implementations, for obvious reasons, I could add.

Moving from the idea of sterile switches and binary states to a more organic way of expressing consent, I developed starting from the concept of sharing, a gesture-based interaction in which the user opens up his/her data to the platform in a very natural way. This is reflected in the digital interface with a flow of data that goes form the original position to the destination. As mentioned before, the data, in this case, are not directly represented but are made visible by the interaction with the cookies and trackers that are instead visually represented. This sort of interaction tries to build a feeling of preciousness, of care and value around the data that flow, as result of the user’s decision, towards one of the locations in which they can be accessed.

What’s next?

The next natural step, which was originally intended to be implemented but didn’t due to various restrictions, would be adding an additional layer of information that would provide even more control and transparency to the user, adding as consequence more value to the whole experience. I am in this case referring to the consequences of the users' actions. Deciding how much of our personal data we decide to expose to different kind of data collection entities also provides different outcome and impacts in the real world.

For example, the decision of sharing data with the website in order to improve the quality of the service but refusing data sharing with third-party cookies would probably increase the website revenues and audience due to nicer browsing experience and it would keep the personal economic impact on the user low due to a reduced advertisement.

These changes would be mirrored in the system, both from the digital and the physical side, with variations in the colour of the background and of the light in the physical interface. These colour gradients would be the same and as the data move back and forth from the object the light and colours would follow and be a representation of the decisions taken until that moment.

These decisions however are based on assumptions that additional research could either justify or dismiss. This is the reason this was not expressed in the final concept but would absolutely be very interesting to continue exploring.

Conclusions

It is hard to tell what the conclusions of this project are. This was a pure exploration of the human interaction with, not directly the browser or the web platforms, but most importantly with our personal data. It was a way to analyse the relation between us and what we generate, a gold without shine, that tends to be more valued by anyone but us. What I tried to create with this project is maybe that shine, a marker for the preciousness of our data and hopefully a tool for discussion around this topic.

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