The story of Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec is a rather unusual one. Living miles apart across the Atlantic in two geographies - Giorgia in the US and Stefanie in the UK - they have always been fascinated with collecting and organizing information from around them. Although they discovered their passion early on in their lives, it was only much later, as information designers, that they realized that there is so much one could communicate with data and the latter’s compelling power to push boundaries. Spanning 52 weeks, the book highlights a year of learning, doubts and indecision as well as love, affection and humor.
Sannita Chakraborty Saha of Wipro speaks to Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec on their book, Dear Data, a gripping read that takes an artistic twist to data collection through a non-linear mysterious journey. In a world where everything can be mapped, counted and measured to compute and seek answers and insights, Dear Data inspires individuals and businesses to view the world through a different lens, and understand more about themselves and their consumers.
They share interesting tidbits on their unusual friendship, how this project helped them discover newer ways of seeing and engaging with the world, and ways of using data to ‘quantify’ the self and also become more efficient, optimized humans.
What inspired Dear Data? A friendship in data, drawing and postcards?
Like many other great ideas, even ours was hatched over a few beers! It’s hard to believe but the truth is that we had only met each other twice in person when we decided to embark on this project together. In the summer of 2014, we were both speaking at the Eyeo conference (eyeofestival.com) and finally nailed it.
What’s interesting is that we both had a very analogue approach to working with data - a relatively unique quality in our field. This made us feel that we could work together and create a data project that showcased our interest in the analogue. We wanted to use a slow, manual method of rendering data.
However, the biggest constraint for us was that we stay in two geographical locations - one of us lives in London and the other in New York - and it was difficult for us to exchange our data-drawings. Then came the idea of becoming ‘data pen pals’ and sending postcards to each other across the sea. It seemed captivating. This is how Dear Data became our way of getting to know each other.
It was a year-long, analog data-drawing correspondence between the two of us. Every week, for one year that started on September 1, 2014, we collected and measured a particular type of data about our lives. We used this data to make a drawing on a postcard-sized sheet of paper, and then dropped the postcard in an English ‘postbox’ (Stefanie) or an American ‘mailbox’ (Giorgia)! Eventually, the postcard arrived at the other person’s address with all the scuff marks of its journey over the ocean: A type of ‘slow data’ transmission.
All through, we were curious to learn if it was possible to get to know a person only through the medium of data and drawings.
Why did you choose traditional ways of collecting data and designing the results? Does taking technology away from the process add more meaning to the data itself?
The very act of drawing our data helped us extend ourselves as designers - by removing the technology from the equation, we’ve (each!) been forced to invent 52 different visual languages. Hand-drawing with data leads to designs that are incredibly customized to the data one is counting and working with. A common approach to data visualization is through tools that often return a very standard visualization. However, by hand-drawing our data, we’ve been compelled to craft the visual model specifically for the very dataset we were dealing with. At the same time, by radically limiting ourselves and our tools, we were able to ‘spend time’ with our data and were able to understand it at a deeper level.
Do you think the process created more opportunities for self-discovery? How?
In data gathering, it’s vital to be honest. So it was important for us to have integrity and ensure that we were revealing ourselves as we really were, warts and all.
It’s a fact that while presenting even the most dark and personal matters in data form, you are offered a bit of thoughtful distance to the subject and are less afraid to reveal such secrets. But we were both ready to confront this part of ourselves on our own and even more ready to share our whole self to the other person.
Grasping the routine and ordinary moments of your lives revealed intangible, subtle aspects that we so often ignore. Do you think being designers helped bring meaning to mundane activities?
We believe that data collected from life can be a snapshot of the world in the same way that a picture can capture a moment in time. Data can describe the hidden patterns found in every aspect of our lives, from our digital existence to the natural world around us. And once we realize that data can be gathered from every single being and thing on the planet, and we know how to find these invisible numbers, we begin to see these numbers everywhere, in everything.
We hope that by highlighting the ubiquitous, almost domestic nature of data, our work is a friendly way for a wider audience to learn about data, in the hope that this will function as a ‘stepping-stone’ for their interest/engagement in some of the bigger issues surrounding data (such as big data and data privacy) in society today.
As designers, we’ve not only observed our lives in the form of data for one year, but we have found visual shapes for our data. And visualizing our logs have helped us ‘see’ the patterns hidden in our data in a much more impactful way.
Why do you say ‘imperfection is a sign of exploration’?
For the year of the project, we had to create 52 (each!) different visual models because we wanted our postcards to be original and very customized to the data we were analyzing for the week. This is why we’ve been forced to come out of our comfort zone and extend ourselves as designers.
We saw this project as an opportunity to experiment and explore; so every mistake (if these are even really mistakes) was a chance to learn something new. We are happy with the project, imperfections and all, as it forced us to be less afraid and just make something without spending too much time making everything perfect.
The data that you captured were mostly in a mysterious, non-linear mode, with personal context. Did you take artistic liberties or break rules when displaying the patterns?
We were always faithful to the data and never lied with what we presented. But we challenged ourselves to come up with new visual languages and extend and experiment with how we present data visually.
While most of us are storing data in some way or the other, how does this data make us more human and connect us and others at a deeper level?
We are said to be living in the age of ‘Big Data’, where algorithms and computation are seen as the new keys to universal questions. A myriad of applications can detect, aggregate, and visualize our data for us to help us become these efficient super-humans.
Dear Data approaches data in a slower, more analogue way. It is a ‘personal documentary’ rather than a quantified-self project, which is a subtle but important distinction. Instead of using data just to become more efficient, we argue that we can use data to become more humane and to connect with ourselves and others at a deeper level.
In fact, over the period of a year, we shared everything about ourselves in the form of tiny quantitative bits, addressing and then revealing the most hidden patterns of our inner selves. With Dear Data, we wanted (and we want) to explore the role that data can have in understanding our personal experiences and in telling stories of our lives from it.
Many people associate the ‘quantifiable’ and ‘quantitative’ with precision and objectiveness, and they are drawn to personal-tracking because they believe that this would solve some of their problems, and help them find rational answers. We think that kind of investigation isn’t really about finding definitive answers about ourselves; rather it is more about raising novel questions. We didn’t do this for optimizing our lives. We have always been more curious to discover even the small, little things, and the process of discovery and experimentation is intrinsically motivating and personally rewarding - it has been like a personal anthropologist.
While you were putting this together, what proved the toughest - collecting data, designing, drawing, finding relevant context, revealing private moments or something else?
There was one particular week that I found incredibly hard because the data-gathering turned out to be very intrusive in my life at that moment. It was week 36, where we tracked our ‘indecisions’. That week, my grandfather passed away as he was ill for a while. I had seen him for the last time in February during a quick visit to my family in Italy. That particular week, I seriously considered buying a last-minute flight to pay him a visit and bid goodbye. But I didn’t. So, I felt incredibly undecided whether to go or not before he passed away, and immensely ambivalent on how to feel after that, later in the week.
How do I feel about my family? About living so far away and knowing that I won’t be there for emergencies? How do I feel about my loss, about not seeing him again? I found that week the most invasive since we started Dear Data, not only because I was struggling with the hesitancies in my life, but also as I had to focus on them since I needed to record them. I was really overwhelmed. On the other hand, I now see my postcard as a sort of homage to his memory, and to my particular conflict in dealing with our missed goodbye.
I always found ‘performative’ weeks challenging: Where we would gather data on a habit we would like to cultivate in the hopes that the data-gathering would compel us to engage in the behavior more frequently. Smiling at strangers, being nice to people, trying new things: I dreaded all of these tasks because it meant I would have to interact with people on the street: surely something difficult for any Londoner to do?
It’s fashionable to say that everyone should learn to code. Do you think Design and Data also need to be more widely taught and learnt?
We feel that more designers need to understand how to work and present data - after all, data isn’t going anywhere, it’s only proliferating more and more! Instead of data visualization being seen as a niche design subject, it should be the front and center in design curriculum, alongside more traditional communication design subjects.
Any favorites from your own book?
My favorite week was our week of gathering data on how many swear words we use because I love to swear :-)
My favorite week was our week of gathering data on the sounds of our surroundings, at week 32. Listening, trying to grasp and describe the sound I heard in the form of data was a reflective and meditative practice.
Is there a designer or design you admire when it comes to expressing data and telling a story?
Martin Wattenberg’s ‘Shape of Song’ was a visualization project that I would often refer to when I was completing my design studies. I even pasted it in my sketchbook! I love it for its simplicity and elegance, and how it beautifully presented the underlying rhythms of repetition in a song. Since I saw this project, I’ve always considered it a benchmark to set my own work against (alongside much of Martin’s work, including the one he’s done with Fernanda Viégas).
I believe one of the astute visualizations of data is the very old ‘Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign’ by Charles Minard. Minard’s chart shows six types of information: Geography, time, temperature, the course and direction of the army’s movement, and the number of troops remaining, telling the terrible story with painful but very elegant and smart clarity.
The book says: ‘To learn to design, you have to learn to see’. Can you tell us more about that?
When we start a project, we always allow ourselves to get truly inspired by the world that is around us. We ask ourselves the questions: “What is that we like of what we see? What elements, aspects and features are we appreciating, and why?” If a set of aesthetic rules for shapes, colors, and spatial composition works in a context we observe, we believe there should be a way to apply them to the designs we are working on. Before sitting down and crafting our postcards, we always lose ourselves in images. It is our belief that one of the main resources for a designer is understanding where to get information from and how, and how to handle it and channel it into something original and curious, yet somehow ‘familiar’.
How does honest data gathering start conversations that lead to meaningful storytelling?
Once we would get the delivery in our mailbox, we would spend some time with the postcard, deciphering what the other person encoded and trying to unfold the narrative of her week through her drawing. But then, we most often texted each other to comment about tiny details, or even to ask for more. We would like to say that data should be seen more as a beginning of a conversation rather than as an ultimate answer to any question.
How do you feel about the obsession with ‘Big Data’ and ‘Fast Data’? Do you think data can make the world a better place?
Everyday, we create data almost just by breathing. Our purchases, our movements through the city, our explorations across the Internet, all of these contribute to the ‘data trail’ we leave in our wake as we move through life. This data is being collected, counted, and computed, both on a massive scale by companies and institutions seeking insights and answers, and also on a smaller scale by individuals seeking to understand more about themselves using data to ‘quantify’ the self and become more efficient, optimized humans.
Because of this, we are said to be living in the age of Big Data, where algorithms and computation are seen as the new keys to universal answers, and where a myriad of applications can detect, aggregate, and visualize our data for us to help us become these efficient super-humans.
However, instead of only focusing on ‘big’ data, we believe there is value in the ‘small’ data of our lives. We began to understand the benefits of small data as we embarked on our project, Dear Data, where we decided to get to know each other (and ourselves) better by using the ‘language’ we both spoke everyday while working as information designers: The language of data visualization.
With Dear Data, what are the key messages you want to send across to the world?
It was an intentional attempt to show how data is not scary, not necessarily ‘big’, but is present in everyone’s lives – we are all made of small and big data, quantitative and qualitative ones. This project allowed us to speak about data to an audience that is not only made of designers or data geeks. We explored the role that data can have in understanding personal experiences and people’s lives. Data is often considered to be very impersonal, but this project aims to highlight the opposite through the exploration of something seemingly ‘cold’ to communicate messy, emotional aspects of being human.
In the age of Big Data, algorithms and computation are seen as the keys to universal answers, and a myriad of applications can help detect, aggregate, and visualize our data for us to become efficient super-humans.
Data collected from life can be a snapshot of the world in the same way that a picture can capture a moment in time. Data can describe the hidden patterns found in every aspect of our lives, from our digital existence to the natural world around us.
Can you get to know an individual only through the medium of data and drawings? Start with the patterns you found in the data you collected. Look for the main story that the data is unfolding and then create the base for your data drawing.
Hand-drawing with data leads to designs that are incredibly customized to the data one is counting and working with. A common approach to data visualization is through tools that often return a very standard visualization.
Highlighting the ubiquitous, almost domestic nature of data is a way for the audience to learn about data, in the hopes that this will function as a ‘stepping -stone’ for their interest or /engagement in some of the bigger issues surrounding data in society today, such as big data and data privacy.
While gathering data, it's vital to be honest. It's important to have integrity and ensure that we are revealing ourselves as we really are, warts and all.
Find an opportunity to experiment and explore, so that every mistake (if they are even really mistakes) can be a chance to learn something new. Be happy imperfections, be less afraid and just create something without spending too much time making everything perfect.
Data - small or big, quantitative or qualitative - is present in everyone’s lives. It can help us understand personal experiences and people’s lives, through the exploration of using something seemingly cold' to communicate messy, emotional aspects of being human.
Data is proliferating more and more! Instead of data visualization being looked at as a niche design subject, it should be the core of design curriculums, alongside more traditional communication design subjects.