Visualising Data: an Innovation Week art project
Each year, the Geckoboard team stops working on their regular projects to spend five days exploring new ideas for Innovation Week. The main aim of this is to give everyone the chance to work with people from different teams, and explore new ideas and projects that perhaps don’t fit in with our current priorities.
This year, we saw more ideas come to life than ever before. For example, we created an an iOS app that allowed everybody in a conference call to use their phone as a speaker — dramatically improving the audio for remote attendees. We also experimented with Kubernetes for our infrastructure, built a new version of our Printbot, created a Customer Support Game, and invented a new system for borrowing books from our growing Gecko-Library.
One particularly ambitious group decided to spend the week thinking about how we visualise data, and created a 3D art installation for the office. Over to the team to explain…
The mission: To create a physical data visualisation installation to be exhibited in the office.
The team: Aspasia, Ina, Klara, Tom, Nico, and Mike.
Where is the data from?
We decided early on to choose a public dataset, mine it for insights and create a physical installation in the office visualising that data. When we came across a dataset about how EU citizens feel about the lives they lead and what their expectations are for the future, we immediately agreed that this was what we were going to use for our installation.
To reveal our sources, the data we explored was taken from the Standard Eurobarometer 88 survey (EB87), which was carried out between 5 and 19 November 2017 in 34 countries or territories.
We only analysed the 28 countries which are currently members of the EU. The full survey explores topics such as the European political and economic situation, people’s attitudes on European citizenship, the Euro, and migration, among many others. However, what we all found interesting and fun to discover was the happiness levels of some of our own countries and our neighbours.
What did we create?
The installation looks amazing, but we also wanted to make it fun and easy to understand. So, we created a digital character called “Joy” to tell the story and explain how to “read” our installation:
The size of the origami balloons tells you the percentage of people from different European countries who are happy with the lives they lead. The bigger the balloon, the more people in this country expressed that they were very satisfied.
The height the balloons are hanging represents the percentage of people who expect their lives to get better over the next 12 months. The closer to the ceiling, the more people in this country were optimistic.
How did we build it?
To build the art installation, we used a number of lean and agile techniques:
- Timeboxing: we time boxed the original discussion on finding an idea for the art installation
- Prototyping: we were unsure how to create the “balloons” that represent each country, and considered doing this with origami. We created an origami balloon as a “prototype” and considered it a success, and so used origami balloons
- MVP: our “Minimum Viable Product” was a balloon to represent the country with the highest score. If the origami balloon for the largest country “worked” then we would create origami balloons for all the countries
- Development in small batches: we did not create a production line, to create the origami balloons, in which each person would have a different role. Each of us created balloons from start to finish. This meant that there were no “bottlenecks in production” and we created the balloons as quickly as is possible.
- A small cross functional team: our team included two programmers, a tester, a designer, a marketing research analyst, and a data science journalist
- Building Quality In: we found that if the first two folds of the origami were accurate then the origami balloon would look great, so we teamed up to get the first two folds correct. We also measured and planned the display area before starting work on displaying the installation.
- Testing in production: once all the balloons had been created and hung in the installation we replaced those that looked “substandard”
- Feedback loops: from talking to people outside our group, we found that our representation of mass and area could cause confusion, so we focused on representing area
The Cube of Happiness
We also wanted to create an installation that explored a similar subject — happiness — but was connected to Innovation Week itself. We knew it would have to be smaller in scale and finished on the last day of that week. That’s how the Cube of Happiness, a physical representation of the euphoria and frustration levels of the team throughout the week, came to life. To gather data for this visualisation, we surveyed everyone in the office every morning and evening across Innovation Week.
The installation is arranged in five columns, which represent the five days of Innovation Week. The cube integrates three levels of information: First, the colour of each strip is the colour that team members picked that day to represent their mood. The strips within each column are arranged by colour. Second, the length of the strip depicts the euphoria level on each of the days. Finally, to discover the frustration level of each person that day, you have to search for the black dot. A dot to the left, means no frustration, and a dot to the right indicates frustration.
As a company that works on the display of data on TV screens we found creating a physical 3D data visualisation a valuable lesson on how to show data in a way that provokes conversations and leads to meaningful conclusions. Bringing data to life and allowing people to walk around it, touch it, point at interesting values and spot relationships, offered a fresh perspective on how our dashboards can be used collectively to raise questions and find answers in the data. Both art installations live on in the couch area of our office and are now a frequent point of conversation with guests visiting our office.