Linking Art, Technology, and Data for Online Communications

A host of great speakers were in attendance at the event Public 2.0: Culture, Creativity and Audience in an Era of Information Openness. The free event was held on July 21, 2011, in London. It examined the link between these areas of work and its relevance for communicating today and was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the University of Westminster. The event brought together a small gathering journalists, academics, developers, artists, activists, and business people to share ideas, experiences and talk about future possibilities in this space.

Historic Figures Used Data Visualization to Create Change

Florence Nightingale was one of the first people to use data to help inform public policy. She discovered that the majority of deaths in the Crimea were due to poor sanitation rather than casualties in battle. She was able to use her Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East to persuade the government of the need for better hygiene in hospitals. John Snow was also able to disprove the theory that cholera was an airborne disease and prove that it was actually caused by contaminated water using a data visualisation.

Nonprofits have long known the power of images (in particular photos) to gain support for and increase awareness of their work. Today, data visualisation, when done effectively, can provide additional, insightful images. These can also be powerful tools in helping organizations understand needs and influence others with the goal of realising positive social changes in communities.

Diverse Mix of Speakers/Presentations at Event

  • Simon Rogers, Editor of the Guardian Datablog and Datastore gave a great presentation featuring some of the ways in which the paper is using data for reporting. Full datasets are also available for download from the paper's website. I particularly liked the transparent data model, which shows how the paper processes its data before it is presented as a visualisation.
  • Ian Forrester, Senior Producer at BBC Research & Development, revealed some of the ways that the BBC is emphasising data and social media for reporting, but also examined the patterns and trends that are emerging with the proliferation of data online. He discussed how the ability for individual users to monitor and aggregate their personal data from social media sites and self-tracking devices is leading to the Quantified Self.
  • The presentation by Drew Helment of Manchester's Future Everything examined the latest developments at the intersection of art and technology. The group is working with public sector partners to free Greater Manchester's public data via the DataGM project.
  • The Founder of Furtherfield, Ruth Catlow, also spoke about the need for cross fertilisation of art and technology during her presentation on an open source art world.
  • The showcase of the DataArt project for BBC Data by Harry Robbins of Outlandish Ideas illustrated just how easy it can be to find data with the right interactive visualisations. Do explore! Santiago Ortiz of Bestario's live demo of the new Impure visualisation software was also interesting.

NGOs Should Visualize Their Data for Greater ImpactBBC Data Art

Powerful images will forever continue to help nonprofits communicate effectively, so too can data visualisations. Nonprofit communicators need to understand how they can use visualisations to communicate not only internally but also openly with the public. I'd venture that art, data and technology will continue to merge rather than collide. The resulting visualisations and underlying raw data may become a vital means of communications in a globalised world. This is especially true if nonprofits can interact with and question the data visualisations they produce and are presented with.

How can we achieve such data literacy? There's help!

Most notably, the new Data Without Borders initiative supported by Jake Porway, a data scientist at the New York Times, “seeks to match non-profits in need of data analysis with freelance and pro bono data scientists who can work to help them with data collection, analysis, visualization, or decision support”. Data meetups are also sprouting all over the world to help anyone who wants to learn more about these issues. Find one near you. I look forward to seeing this type of work develop and increase!

Image Credits: BBC Data Art 2 - Title: BBC Data Art copyright BBC

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