Making data physical means that more people can access it in more ways. Taking data from the screen and making it do things in the real world dramatically increases the potential impact of this data. And as far as being able to touch data that can never be touched, then space and time have to be it. Things that are far away or things that are lost in time are two physical barriers we simply can’t cross and we want to find a way to do this.
For me, one of the most dramatic pieces of data I have come across are the chunks of wall that are missing from the Victoria and Albert Museum on Exhibition Road in London. I used to walk past these every day and wondered why no one had filled them in – as the V&A is one of our most precious buildings we have. Then one day I saw the small plaque where these word are carved in stone.
The damage to these walls is the result of enemy bombing during the blitz of the Second World War 1939-1945 and is left as a memorial to the enduring values of this museum in a time of conflict.
I could literally touch the holes where shrapnel from bombs had blown holes. I could touch the data. I held my breath and for that moment I was there in far more a real experience than any I had previously had of the war. The data from an event 70 years ago had touched me when I touched it. I had travelled through time.
So can we do this to space data? Can we build connections between people here on earth that reach across the vastness of space – to far-off stars – and across the vastness of time – to the very origins of the universe itself? We hope we can! Which is why when Ali Llewellyn from Open NASA got in touch a year ago we literally jumped for the chance to work with her and her team in making space data real here on earth.
We’ve been hacking together examples as demonstrators, or starting points, of new ways to connect people to space data. To give an example, if you start to put people’s emotions first then loneliness rather than measured distance is a great way to connect people to space. Rather than think of Mars Rover or Voyager as machines sending data over distance you start to think that they are out there all alone; on cold dark planets or at the far reaches of space. Forever alone. It is this starting point that can start to make data more human. To make data a thing we want to love… Then we start to connect people to their loneliness… what would this mean? What could we design?
Our friend the jeweler Jayne Wallace is on our panel and her take on this is about the way data we receive now has been generated in the past, possibly billions of years ago – right back to origins of the universe itself.
“Our lives have a pace to them and time is both something we crave more of yet know has an ultimately finite quality for us. Our interactions with the digital are quickening our pace of life and altering not only the texture of days and years but also how we value, measure and perceive the passing of time. But there are things that are bigger than us, things older than we can imagine, things that give our atomized view of life and the time we have a very different perspective and we simply have to look up to start to engage them. We want to explore what it would mean to use digital technologies and space data to subvert our relationship with time and bring fresh potential to the digital objects we live with and through. Through design we can use space data to create ways to experience now things that occurred before humankind existed, we can read by the light of a lamp connected to the live feed from a telescope and know that when it flickers a new planet has been discovered and we can connect to the orbits and rhythms of planets through objects that gently respond to these different cycles and be reminded that we are part of something much greater, much faster, much slower and much more fascinating than our atomized lives sometimes allow us to consider.”
We’re also sharing our panel with someone who has more than a little knowledge and authority on the science behind all of this – David McGloin (many of you will know as @dundeePhysics). His team of undergraduate, high school teachers and pupils have been exploring ways to connect to the dark side of the moon for use in the education of ways of conducting optical measurements of space objects.
“We know that space is one of things that most inspires high school students to study subjects such as physics at University, but it’s clearly a challenge to get hands in practical work while still at school. Our project is an example of how we can use space data to try and make a more physical and immediate connection to the subject.”
Heading up our panel is Open NASA’s very own Ali Llewelyn. I asked her what excites her about making space data Physical.
“From the time I was a child, I wanted to touch the stars. I wanted to walk on other planets with my own feet and fly a spaceship with my own hands. While I am not an astronaut, and there isn’t yet a human presence on Mars – making space data physical enables me to get closer than most humans can yet get to those opportunities. My work at NASA in open innovation and mass collaboration is dedicated to exactly this: enabling everyone on planet Earth to contribute directly and substantially to the exploration mission.”
I then asked her what she thought were the possibilities that this approach presents?
“This approach inspires everyone with the wonder of exploration by making the data engaging and allowing it to inform a new context. (Who doesn’t want to drive Curiosity or touch the sun?) This approach democratizes exploration for all citizens – making what we are learning in space accessible to everyone on planet Earth. This approach encourages new approaches and opportunities to the challenges we face in improving life on our planet and taking our species off-planet. This approach extends the usefulness of space data. While the data often had one initial research purpose, we are “recycling” it for other applications and uses, especially in new contexts”
And why getting our hands ‘in’ data is an amazing thing.
“In the time it took you to read this sentence, NASA gathered approximately 1.73 gigabytes of data from our nearly 100 currently active missions! We do this every hour, every day, every year – and the collection rate is growing exponentially. Handling, storing, and managing this data is a massive challenge. Our data is one of our most valuable assets, and its strategic importance in our research and science is huge. We are committed to making our data as accessible as possible, both for the benefit of our work and for the betterment of humankind through the innovation and creativity of the over seven billion other people on this planet who don’t work at NASA. What would become possible if everyone could not just access but remix and reuse the images, maps, metrics and lessons learned from this amazing trove of observation?”
Get Physical: Making Space Data Real On Earth
With Ali Lewellyn (Open NASA), David McGloin (University of Dundee), Jayne Wallace (University of Northumbria) and myself (Jon Rogers)
11am Monday March 12th in Omni Downtown, Lone Star
Hope to see you there!
Thank you to: New Media Scotland, Open NASA, RCUK, University of Dundee, and Northumbria University