The first strand of CSM’s year long RESTLESS FUTURES season got off to a flying start on 16 May with ‘Open Data as a Creative Material’, a thought-provoking set of presentations under the ‘Democratising Innovation’ banner. The event was curated for Central Saint Martins by Charlotte Webb and introduced by head of CSM Professor Jeremy Till.
Speakers were Gavin Starks, CEO of the Open Data Institute; Julie Freeman, artist and ‘Data as Culture’ programme leader at ODI; Chris Downs, service design pioneer and data entrepreneur; and Sarah Pennington and Nadine Jarvis, research fellows at the Interaction Research Studio at Goldsmiths, University of London.
‘There’s something about the way artists and designers think and work that can be put to more productive use,’ said Jeremy Till in his introduction to RESTLESS FUTURES, a suite of events, discussions, workshops and seminars arguing that at a time of turbulence, of ‘liquid modernity’, the standard tools of human rationality are no longer fit for purpose.
‘RESTLESS FUTURES,’ Jeremy said, ‘invites us to imagine new ways of thinking, working and living. Using our ‘Democratising Innovation’ and other strands we’ll be exploring how we at CSM can make a meaningful contribution in the age of turbulence.’
Data at a tipping point
Opening the guest presentations on the session’s central theme, Gavin Starks defined open data as material freely available to everyone – a bus timetable, for example, or a schools league table. He went on to describe the ODI’s remit to unlock the value of open data.
With the G8 putting its weight behind an open data charter, and the G20 set to follow suit, Gavin highlighted a growing readiness on the part of corporates and governments to open up their data, matching rising levels of grassroots activity with a newfound political engagement.
‘We’re at a tipping point,’ he said. ‘Open data is increasingly a global movement, but we’re seeing more and more recognition of the challenges open data exposes. How, for example, can we use open data to provide the systems we urgently need in our overcrowded cities? Is it even possible to imagine meeting current and future challenges without open data on our side?’
Julie Freeman spoke about the ‘Data as Culture’ project she heads up at the ODI. In 2014, the programme commissioned an outstanding line-up of artists to create highly individual artworks using open data in intelligent and provocative ways.
‘Why do all these top artists choose to work with open data?’ Julie asked. ‘Because there’s a lot of it about, and it’s a great way to interrogate our culture.’ At the same time, the art, like the data, throws up questions. What does it mean? What impact does it have on society?
Ellie Harrison’s ‘Vending Machine’ taps into live online news feeds, automatically dispensing a consolatory snack in response to the latest negative economic update.
In ‘Metrography’ by Bertrand Clerk and Benedikt Groß, the physical map of London morphs to echo the familiar shapes and patterns of the iconic Underground map, playing with versions of the truth by mashing up two sets of data.
Fabio Lattanzi Antinori’s ‘The Obelisk’ gathers data about international crimes against humanity and broadcasts it to the world as from a gorgeous jukebox, juxtaposing the ugliness of our worst instincts with the beauty of the here and now.
Adventures in data land
‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ admitted Chris Downs as he took to the podium. ‘But the good news is that no one else does either …’
Addressing himself to artists and designers within and beyond CSM, Chris welcomed the volume of data available to us and suggested we should view it in the way we viewed early polymers. It took designers years to go on to develop the plastic items we take for granted, after all. ‘Iconic products of the future won’t be made of plastic or glass,’ Chris said. ‘They’ll be made of data.’
As part of his formative adventures in data land, Chris famously sold all his personal information on eBay for £150 to affirm his belief in the intrinsic value of open data. He also accessed all the records at Companies House, publishing them on websites dedicated to every UK business. The data is already there, he pointed out. Just because it’s hard to find doesn’t mean it isn’t public.
‘Data,’ Chris said in closing, ‘is not like oil, whose value rises with its scarcity. The more data we have, the more value it assumes. I’m excited about the material properties of open data. We need creative students to help us explore its potential in new products and services.’
Sarah Pennington and Nadine Jarvis spoke in turn about their ‘Designing with Data’ work at the Interaction Research Studio. Set to launch in 2014, their latest ‘Datacatcher’ project features a device that captures data with a political or social relevance triggered by the user’s location – the chances of developing cancer, say, or of having your car stolen, in this postcode or that street.
Permission to play
In the Q&A that followed the presentations, the speakers explored ways to attach value to open data. ‘The gamechanger right now,’ said Gavin, ‘is the shift towards an open-by-default culture.’
Added Chris: ‘The commercial imperative driving proprietary ownership limits progress. But we can all challenge this position because as artists and designers we have permission to play.’
‘It’s important,’ Julie said, ‘that artists consider their role in the widest context. Become leaders. Take up positions of responsibility or influence from which to move your world forward.’
A related workshop, facilitated by Julie and Chris, took place at the ODI in London on 17 May. With a practical, ‘hands on’ emphasis, ‘DATA JAM!’ explored the creative uses of open data.
Read another account by Jo Morrison on the Digital Present blog.