Often, data is seen as neutral and objective. Yet, we find that data, and especially how we read it, is more subjective, born out of a thousand human decisions, goals, constraints and opinions, explicit or otherwise. With Data Epics, we wanted to emphasize the interpretative side of data and highlight the processes of translation that happen whenever we try to make sense of data. Another motivation for this project is that users usually don’t get to encounter, let alone actively interpret, their data. As we found out through this project, accessing the data of commercial smart devices is sometimes tricky. When it is easily accessible, the data is not necessarily easy to read. By turning data into fiction, we sought to make it more legible and also to expand the data imaginaries of home smart devices. The sense of neutrality and objectivity of data was dissipated into the stories told about it––instead, the readers get to imagine where data is from, where it goes, and what kind of life it may have.
We were designing both for people who own smart devices at home, as well as a much broader group of people who may not own any smart devices, but who still encounter data in their daily lives. The goal was to empower people to reclaim agency over their own relationships with data, in a way that allows them to consider surveillance and privacy risks, and to be aware of how they participate in the data economy.
With regards to our design process, we used a variety of strategies to collect each dataset. In some cases, the data collection was straightforward, such as downloading files from the smart device company’s online platform. In others, the process was more complicated, such as asking the participant to initiate a data request to the company, which took many weeks. In other cases, we had to develop hardware and software solutions to collect data from devices. When we received the data from the households, it often contained additional metadata we didn’t need. In order to make the data easy to ‘read’ for writers, we cleaned the data and created simple visualizations.
To create the Data Epics website, we developed a visual and interaction language that embraced the ambiguous, open, and fluid definition of data that is central to the project, but that also offered clear connections to the devices producing the data. The core of the project are the stories themselves, so our team created a comfortable two column structure for the story pages. The story (on the right side) is accompanied with the anonymized datasets (on the left side) that were used to imagine the stories. This juxtaposition allows readers to explore the links between data and stories. Each story page also includes a quote from the writer of the story, offering a view into their creative process with data.
In summary, the Data Epics destabilize widespread conceptions of data and, through expressive voices, start to build new imaginaries for data.