Online data as a design resource

“Data is of key importance for the future — it will be used a lot and is a very important skill to master especially in our field of studies (service systems design)” (participant)

Data skills and methods for working with data, no doubt deserve a place in the service design practice. Interestingly, there is a duality in terms of how data figures as a resource in doing design and doing research: 1) The obvious potential lies within data as a ground for validation: The sheer size of data and the convincing ‘muscle force’ of factual numbers work well as an evidence for validating hypotheses and fueling arguments. 2) A second type of inquiry no less important, is when the messy act of making sense of data works as a source of inspiration to help generate new understandings of context and use — enriching the existing approaches of the designer.

The workshop process of diverging and converging design diamonds.

Digital footprints and datafied entities abound — inviting design practices based on data

A vast amount of data is constantly being generated via the Internet, just by us, users of multiple services and applications; doing what we do as we’re online and engaging with our websites. We report our lives on social media, leave our reviews of the places we visit — or just simply search for new information and algorithmic advice via Google. All these actions are capturing a great essence of what people do; giving shape to our digital footprints, while “datafying” things in the physical reality, like tagging which places are popular (and how popular!) in a city. 
Designers already juggle a rich toolbox of methods to assist them in collecting in-depth insights during the research phase, from simple interview studies to deploying complex design probes. Capturing, scraping and making sense of public online data can be a valuable and complementary approach to understanding users and their context.

Configuring scrapers is a lot of trial-and-error to get the wished dataset extracted. (Photo credit: Fanny Giordano)

“Doing it with data!”

How designers might concretely tap into this online potential remains a fairly recent exploration — not yet too deeply grounded in the design practice. Borrowing from tools and practices from data journalists and new media scholars, the road is nevertheless paved for designers to acquire data expertise and making sense of available online data. To better explore this space, between 15–17 March 2017, Péter Kun (PhD researcher at TU Delft) worked intensely with service systems design students at Aalborg University in Copenhagen; supporting them to make their first independent experiences with data, through acts of scraping, cleaning, transforming and analyzing the data. The aim was to invite the students to find and use data actively in their ongoing design projects on tourism.
The students struggled hard through trial and error — frustration and victory, as they followed a process of scraping data during the first half of the workshop:

“Although it proved to be difficult and even impossible, we managed to do it, and were very happy” (participant)
Exploration of the Copenhagen district of #nørrebro based on hashtags provides a new perspective on what is happening in the urban space. (Image credit: team Yellow Vibe)

Based on their semester design brief, the teams had to define what research questions to tackle through collecting and analyzing online data, that is both interesting and within reach. They scraped and analyzed through occasional iterations, realizing that something more should be collected or different choices should be made. It was a demanding period with an intense trial-and-error process; iterating on the collected datasets and transforming it for the different tools to work with it. During the second half of the workshop, the teams focused on analyzing the data, mostly by different ways of visualization, from plotting on a map to generating special diagrams. The essence of this process was not to create fancy infographics, but to advance the understanding on the research questions. For example, through their efforts the teams managed to create new and different snapshots of what is going on in the neighborhoods of Copenhagen — relating to tourism and local residents; as it is recorded in hashtags on Twitter and Instagram. In this usage, data became a generative design tool and helped exploring the research question more comprehensively.

“I think the value of the workshop was to understand the stories you can tell with data, by visualizing the data. Furthermore it is (to me) a new analytical tool to use” (participant)
The teams worked really hard, but gained future-proof data skills during the workshop. (Photo credit: Louise Torntoft)

As we are keen to work in various ways fulfilling our aim of lowering the barrier for people to become better able to work with data, the learnings and experiences from the workshop will inspire our continued development of the Open4Citizens methodology and the data toolkit for our hackathons.

Credits to Louise Torntoft for editing this post, the AAU team for the invitation and the Service Systems Design master students for being a great crowd to work with.

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