"Data Canvas: Sense Your City," a partnership between swissnex, Lift, and Gray Area collects data for visual understanding
By Joe Ferguson
There is a theory individuals are hardwired with a perceptual preference for either visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic learning. For instance, if you are visually-inclined you probably find it difficult to understand a lecture that lacks a slideshow or illustrations.
Research suggests that 60% of the population are visual learners. Science texts are peppered with illustrations because of this theory. Many of us have been moved by these science illustrations, but it may be difficult to qualify them as art. Illustration, by definition, is bound to a semiotic relationship with the viewer--it must communicate an idea visually. Art, on the other hand, is usually weighed on its aesthetic merits and may communicate a distinct message or be purely expressive.
As art critic Robert Hughes suggested, if art must provide us with a coherent experience that we cannot attain otherwise, and if some of us are hardwired to understand through a visual medium, it stands to reason that illustration would provide a way to understand an idea or data through experience. In other words, illustration can be art.
Enter Data Canvas: Sense Your City, a partnership between swissnex San Francisco, Lift, and Gray Area. The project collects data from a network of DIY environmental sensors built up around the world by citizens in seven cities--Bangalore, Boston, Geneva, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, Shanghai, and Singapore. The data streams online and is open for anyone to see and use--it can be viewed graphically or as raw data, whatever your preference. The different ways this data can be visualized has been put forward as the Data Art Challenge, which is accepting submissions through March 20th.
Data Canvas: Sense Your City has provided me with an understanding of environmental contributors that raw data did not communicate as effectively. I’m looking forward to what I can learn from the Data Art Challenge. Sophie Lamparter is the Associate Director of swissnex San Francisco, and answered some questions about the project for this brief interview.
JF: What is Data Canvas: Sense Your City?
SL: Sense Your City is the second edition of an international, online, open data competition to create innovative visualizations by opening up data to the public.
Last year’s challenge focused on public transportation--Data Canvas was previously called the Urban Data Challenge--and brought cities and their citizens closer. This year we want to empower citizens to gather their own data with the use of open source and Do-it-Yourself (DIY) environmental sensor technology--giving the power to the people to sense their cities by measuring air quality, noise, pollution, light, and temperature and opening these data streams for all to use.
The overall Data Canvas initiative will result in a one-of-a-kind network of art and information, using data. Through hackathons, challenges, and technology partnerships, the project increasingly diversifies data sources, from open data to DIY sensors, and hopefully leads to the establishment of citywide sensor networks with actionable, open data.
The project strives to make the information contained in the data digestible through data art that is shown online and in public places, fostering data literacy and prompting engagement.
JF: Why did you use this style of data representation (visual), as opposed to just the raw data?
SL: We understand the power of storytelling and visual storytelling as one of the most powerful ways to convey a message. Already in 2010, we hosted Datainsight hackathon, where we gathered designers, software engineers, data specialists, programmers, and curious citizen scientists to bring data sets to life.
As the sheer amount of data collected grows at unprecedented rates, we have the responsibility to understand what this data is saying to make better decisions. And to communicate that in an effective way to a mass audience, you need to make it easy to understand. This is where the art and design come into play to make interesting patterns visible so that the finished product is not only informative and educational but often beautiful to look at.
JF: What is the Data Art Challenge?
SL: It’s the third and last component of Sense Your City, where the data collected by these 100 sensors around the world is made available to the public. Anyone is invited to participate and use publicly available data to augment the one provided by the sensors to tell an interesting story about a city, or neighborhood, the air in that city, or even the weather. In this final phase, we hope to see the data come alive in unusual visualizations, games, and even sonifications.
We will be helping beginners put their arms around the data collected, the challenge, as well as help them meet others that could complement their own skills to put together a submission by March 20, 2015.
We are also very lucky to have a high caliber jury to select the winners. The jury members include graphic designers, interaction designers, data scientists, a Fast Company editor, a journalist among others.
The winners will get to travel to a swissnex office around the world, $1600 worth of Seeed Studio products, an opportunity to fly to Geneva and attend a LIFT Conference, and obtain a creative coding fellowship from Gray Area. Most importantly, the winning projects will be displayed publicly in San Francisco, Geneva, and Shanghai.
You can hear more from Sophie Lamparter here.