Getting creative with data

12th August, 2011 by Anonymous

When does information become a force for change? Adam Oxford finds art in analysis.

You’re in the local supermarket buying a box of breakfast cereal. You pick up a box, and before dropping it in the trolley, give it a quick swipe with your smartphone. The near field communications (NFC) transceiver in your phone wirelessly reads the box’s radio frequency identity (RFID) chip. Up pops an app which cross-references the ID with an online database – and instantly relays the nutritional details of all those oats and nuts.

Intrigued, you open your other shopping app. This time, instead of calorie counts, a first-hand account of where the cereal comes from appears on the screen, with the option to listen to comments from the farm workers who grew it. Anecdotes of long hours and unpaid wages accompany some shots of the rainforest that was cleared to make way for the plantation. Zoom in and there’s a list of species whose habitats were destroyed in the process, along with real-time reports of water levels in the river used for irrigation and the historical depth of topsoil in neighbouring fields.

You put the box back on the shelf…

It might seem far-fetched, but this is how ethical shopping could work within the next couple of years. Product tagging with RFID  technology is fast becoming the norm, and the latest Android smartphones already come with NFC radios built in. The seemingly improbable part – an online database of production data matched to RFID codes and maintained not by communications specialists but by people on the ground – is about to be launched by a Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, Mark Graham.

It’s called Wikichains.

“The goal of Wikichains is not to push any particular standpoint”, says Graham, “but rather to allow people to make more informed ethical choices.” For him, it’s “vitally important” that consumers can access information about the impact of their purchasing decisions. His ambition is to encourage a “new type of consumption based on knowledge [and] transparency” by attaching information to everyday objects – and that this transparency will drive better practice up the supply chain.

Good old activist zeal might get Wikichains off the ground, but what will make it possible is a relatively new approach to data. More rapidly than ever before, we can gather, disseminate and access data from almost anything, and turn it into something useful, such as a statistic, graph or Google Map. And more of us are asking how we can harness these new skills for sustainability.

The promise is great. If we can interpret and apply the information we have access to in an intelligent way, we could solve many issues – such as how to cut waste in our food supply chains, make it easy to move around our megacities, or turn our gas-guzzling homes into smart systems.

But for some, it’s more than mere problem-solving: it’s a form of art. Take David McCandless, Founder of Information is Beautiful: a book, online platform and – arguably – an aesthetic movement. His aim is to create data visualisations which reveal the “hidden connections, patterns and stories” in the world. Recent examples, including one which charts the decline of North Atlantic fish stocks from 1900-2000, and another showing the risk to major cities of sea level rise, are worth a thousand words about climate change...

For Hugh Knowles, Principal Sustainability Advisor for Forum of the Future, this issue of presentation is the question of the data age. Data by itself is overwhelming, he argues. But if your aim is to use the data to incite more sustainable patterns of behaviour, making it look pretty isn’t enough:

“Even the most beautiful visualisation has to be given cultural relevance if it’s going to encourage sustainable change”, says Knowles. “If you can make data meaningful within the community, through comparison or by giving it a social context, then you have a chance to create behaviour change on a long-term basis.”

To illustrate the point, Knowles turns to smart meters. Though it’s still early days to measure their impact precisely, evidence suggests that current domestic smart meters only have a temporary effect on energy consumption. After three to six months, the novelty of seeing real time usage figures wears off and householders revert back to their previous behaviour. It’s just numbers, which – taken out of context – are neither engaging nor significant.

A more effective strategy for engaging consumers in the long term, says Knowles, is that used by Opower in the US. Opower takes the data from smart meters and compares it (without naming names) to that of your neighbours, using graphics, bar charts and SMS alerts. Suddenly you’re no longer looking at numbers: you’re looking at well-presented information about the behaviour of your neighbours – and, crucially, how you match up. This added dimension – peer pressure – is a real motivator.

Derek Foster is trying to replicate this comparative approach at an institutional scale. A researcher at Lincoln University’s Social Computing Research Centre, Foster is part of the team working on Electro Magnates, investigating ways of encouraging staff and students in universities and other public buildings to meet goals for reducing consumption.

“A lot of energy reporting tools are really hard to comprehend”, Foster says – citing measures like the kilowatt-hour, which remain unfamiliar to many. Foster’s team of computer scientists, psychologists and sustainability experts wants to use a mix of games, dashboards and social networking sites to help people understand their impacts. But for Foster, the big challenge isn’t so much making the data relevant to people, as getting hold of it in the first place:

“You actually have to use a dial-up modem to dial into the meter, which is hideously slow, costly and unreliable. Then the software to read it is really expensive: you’re talking around a thousand pounds per licence per modem, plus some sort of corporate analytic software... and that’s tens of thousands of pounds, plus a yearly maintenance contract.”

The problem of access is widespread, and most theorists believe the solution lies in the ‘semantic web’. The term was coined by Tim Berners-Lee to describe what some think will be the next major stage of the internet. In the semantic web, a common set of languages and readable formats will be used for all machine-to-machine communications.                                                

If realised, the semantic web could look a lot like Pachube. Pronounced ‘Patch Bay’, this online service bridges the gap between collecting data and formatting it for general use. Anyone can plug a tool for collecting data (such as an environmental sensor) into Pachube, and its servers translate the output into a ‘language’ that open-source software, such as Google Maps, can use.

One project which uses Pachube to compare data from multiple sources is Japan’s Geigermap. Real-time radiation-level readings are fed into Pachube from over 200 sensors scattered across the country, and plotted on a common Google Map. Any individual or institution is free to connect their meters to the network, and they do. At the time of writing, several sensors near to Fukushima were showing radiation levels 100 times that of the average public space in Japan.

Other examples include six ‘weather tunnels’, which gather data about carbon dioxide and monoxide levels, humidity, light, noise and temperature – from Helsinki, London, New York, Berlin, Seoul and Arizona. Together they create a real-time air quality monitoring system that anyone can access.

It all goes to show that, once data is published and accessible, it becomes a catalyst for creativity. Rewired State, an organisation based in London, is dedicated to unleashing that force, finding new ways to use the information we have.

John Bevan is responsible for running ‘hack days’ on behalf of the organisation. At these, up to 100 developers get together on a voluntary basis, tapping into data streams to create application prototypes in as short a time as possible.

“There is an energy that comes from doing things quickly”, says Bevan, “It’s something you can work on for a day or two and forget about. It’s an intellectual exercise, a test of your skills, an opportunity to learn a new language.”

But the aim isn’t just to give geeks a fun day out. “Our motto is ‘Coding for a better country’”, Bevan explains. “[We use the] developers’ skills to make things better: save time, money, energy, reveal inefficiencies in supply chains and take cars off the streets.”

One application to come out of these hack days helps people with electric vehicles work out how far they can go and where they can juice up. EVPointFinder, by Michael Dales, draws on data generated by charging point companies to offer drivers information on the location of charge points and their status (available, in use, offline). They can even see where coverage between different areas overlaps enough to make a longer journey possible.              

Another is PedalMania, which takes data about the status of bicycle sharing stations in London’s citywide cycle sharing scheme, and encourages users to ride bikes from full racks to empty ones. This way, fewer trucks have to be sent round in the evening to do the job.

The potential of such creative energy is vast. And all that’s required in way of fuel is … data.

Former journalist and internet entrepreneur Greg Hadfield is leading a campaign to turn his home town of Brighton and Hove into an “open-data city”. Based on the models of San Francisco, Washington, Edmonton and London, the Open Data Brighton and Hove group is pushing local authorities to open not just their books, but their servers too.

Open data in this sense, says Hadfield, is about creating cities that “think like the web”. Developers draw on technologies which “grew up in the global village” to create cohesive, networked and sustainable communities. Locals can access applications which draw on public data to tell them things like where the buses are, which farmers’ markets are open, what the air quality is like, and how much power this street or that municipal building is consuming.

“It’s about much more than transparency”, explains Hadfield. “It’s about co-production. We generate the data together; we clean it, curate it and add value to it. We all benefit from outcomes that are, quite literally, unimaginable.” No one really knows what the open data city will look like in the future.

“Open data is the straw to build the bricks: the mansions are yet to be designed”, Hadfield enthuses. And that, for him, is what’s really exciting: “The architect is as likely to be the teenager in a backroom in Barnsley, Brighton, Boston or Bangalore, as a person sitting in
bloated bureaucracy.”

Some worry that this new age of omniscience could alienate the less data-literate among us – or that we could find ourselves too rich in knowledge and too poor in understanding. Hadfield is dismissive: “Information overload is nothing compared with ignorance overload. We didn’t build libraries because people were literate; we built them to help people to become literate.”

Adam Oxford is a freelance writer specialising in technology and efficiency.

Photo credits: Jaume Plensa, courtesy Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago, Galerie Lelong, Paris and New-York; Juanmonino / istock; Mdeon / istock

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A fascinating read and raises, for me, far more issues of interest than I could have imagined.

Ian Eldridge, Chief Executive, Pizza Express

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