Keeping Data Personal: Big scopes, little people

Every now and again I wonder about whether big data can still be personal. This generally occurs after I get a pop-up on my computer or an up-date on my phone which asks if they can track and use my background data.

But it does get me thinking – I hear a lot about us being in the era of “big data”, with mass data collection all around. Some of this is used to categorise us according to our likes and shopping desires. Some is used to actually better the systems and interfaces we work with.

But I know from my own data collection experiences how easy it is (once everyone’s answers are turned into numbers and categories), to lose sight of what those answers really mean in context to each person, and in turn what this means for your research.

But there are people out there making huge efforts to keep our interfaces, data collection and communications not just individual but personal too. I only recently watched a TED Talk by Aaron Koblin from 2011 called, “Visualizing ourselves… with crowd-sourced data”.

Aaron spoke about a number of very cool projects which he’s been a part of over the years:

  • In one project he mapped the flight patterns of North America as a time-lapse revealing the patterns of day/night, altitudes and flight types. It looks like skeins of thread weaving the US together.
  • Another project called the “Bicycle built for 2,000” involved getting a couple of thousand people to each contribute a recording of themselves singing less than 1 second of a tune – without telling them why. It was then put together as the “Bicycle Built for 2” song online . Hearing all these people contribute to such a large project, singing high, low, really well, or terribly is incredible! Yes, in the end they do sound like a slightly out of tune pionola but it is so touching and funny and real.

Another project Aaron was involved in is The Johnny Cash Project, where a clip of his last studio song recording “Ain’t No Grave” was put online and transformed into global art. People were given a single image (from a series of old Johnny Cash footage) and a custom online drawing tool so they could draw their version of that image. All these thousands of drawings were then put together as the music video for Johnny Cash’s song. As each one of these drawings flicker by when you watch the clip, you get such a personal sense of what Johnny Cash and his songs meant for people.

Aaron Koblin ended his talk with saying how, “the interface can be a powerful narrative device” which he believes we can use to help us all, “maintain the humanity of data collected”.

I really appreciated his whole perspective about making the process of data collection, analysis and display be something that we craft and meld to work for us, rather then blindly persisting with our slightly-difficult-to-interact-with and not-always-intuitive-to-use programs, interfaces and visualisations.

He made me feel quite hopeful. And much more determined to spend the extra time and effort with my research to find clear and creative ways to communicate the findings and keep a better sense of the people behind the data.

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