Data Jam at Open Data Institute

Restless Futures Data JamThe hottest day of the year so far, the FA Cup Final and the Data Jam event at the Open Data Institute all coincided on 17 May 2014 in London. Enough has been written about Arsenal’s victory, so this post concentrates on the creative exploration of open data.

As part of Central Saint Martins’ Restless Futures programme, UAL’s Charlotte Webb organised a workshop with the ODI, for curious students and staff to collaboratively and creatively engage with the possibilities of open data.

This article focuses on the challenge given to the 20 or so workshop participants to develop a product or service that utilises open data for social, economic or environmental good (all in 2 hours!)

The winning service was ‘Flockr’, a mobile app designed to answer a specific and clearly identified question: can open data be used to help people suffering sight loss through retinitis pigmentosa (RP) to navigate independently the urban environment? RP affects people in different ways, such as causing difficulty with seeing in dark places or the loss of side or peripheral vision. This can cause people to hurt themselves by bumping into objects outside their limited peripheral vision, which in turn can cause embarrassment, a lack of confidence to walk alone, and so forth.


Flockr team from across UAL discussing ideas. Copyright Brendan Bell 2014

Members of Flockr team from across UAL exploring data driven ideas

The Flockr team focused on this problem after discussing a range of themes relating to health and well-being that were provided by all of the workshop participants in an earlier exercise. These included:

  • How can we make mental illness tangible?
  • What happens when we drown in our own data?
  • Does generalised diagnosis from data analysis lead to less adventurous humans?
  • Can open data stop obesity in Western society?
  • Can open data help to cancel noise pollution?

Of interest here is the way the group determined which path to pursue. Initially they attempted to select the ideas that attracted them as individuals, with the intent to create a collective short-list. It was then deemed an easier and more productive process to eliminate ideas that were jointly undesirable. After doing so, the team grouped the remaining ideas thematically, and started to gravitate to particular clusters. Once managing to select three questions, they became unsettled and brought back questions or broader ideas previously discarded. More discussion ensued before the same three questions were singled out once more. At this point all of the members agreed that they would be happy to explore any of the trio of questions in front of them. One member of the team, actually me, was personally invested in one question and took the opportunity to ‘pitch’ for the others to use the workshop to focus on the ways in which open data might help those with RP to better navigate city streets. What happens to the ideas left behind?


21c workshop signifiers at Data Jam. copyright Brendon Bell 2014

21c workshop signifiers at Data Jam. Copyright Brendan Bell 2014

Having agreed to apply their collective imaginations to the subject of navigation, and seemingly confident, the group faltered and wondered whether this specific form of question was in fact “the wrong sort of question for open data to address”. What is interesting here is the notion that there might be a right kind of question for open data, and whether there are conceptual frameworks that most usefully lend themselves to open data as an avenue for exploration. In turn, what types of questions would help us to better understand, as well as exploit, open data?

Rather than provide an overview of the Flockr solution (it brought together open map data, with automatically generated personal gps data and manually imparted location data) which will be provided on the Restless Futures website as part of the Data Jam output, this post asks two questions raised from the weekend’s data driven creative exploration:

  • How can we, within an art and design institution, most meaningfully frame and interrogate open data within our disciplines?
  • In order for CSM’s staff and student community to make an original, critical and creative contribution to understanding the possibilities of open data, what sets of skills and knowledge are necessary at the College?
Data Jam winning team with judges: Flockr. Copyright Brendan Bell 2014.

Data Jam winning team with judges. Copyright Brendan Bell 2014.

Coincidentally, the recently launched ‘Designing the Digital Economy Report’ addresses open data and makes a set of recommendations:

  • Designers should work with on ‘transformer projects’ to demonstrate the social and economic use of open datasets.
  • Government, thorugh the Technology Strategy Board and its partners, should find ways to embed designers in the testbed big data projects.

It seems that the CSM students and others participating in the Data Jam will be well placed to take advantage of these new opportunities.


Interesting Links

CSM Restless Futures Programme