I trained as an electronic engineer. My PhD exploring digital neural network models of motion perception took me deep into technical detail and gave that badge of doctorate in the philosophies about digital electronics. But you know this right? You know tha I radically changed the course of my interests and my professional life when I stepped stage left from the labs of Imperial College and walked into the studios of the Royal College of Art. Why did I do this? I did it because in the studios of the computer related design at the RCA there was a connectivity to people. Playful technologies were used to complete research and exploration stories in the way people could interact with digital tech. They explored stories that predicted the future and quite radically positioned, for me and much of the rest of the world, a completely different way to see the route to discovery. I felt re-tuned to a sense of purpose I hadn’t felt since I was hacking my BigTrak in the 1980s. And there was no looking back.
In July this year the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) asked whether I would like to join them at the 2013 IEEE International Conference On Big Data in Santa Clara in October. A chance for me to return to my roots and to reflect on where the arts and humanities research community fits into the Big Data landscape. A chance for the AHRC to throw somebody new into this melting pot and uncover some insights.
As I registered and was given the ubiquitous conference bag I wondered what insights I could harvest in this space that everyone from global governments to space research agencies to weather scientists to museum curators to big supermarkets and one man and his dog are doing on their way mow this particularly large data meadow.
I think we nee a bit of context here. So let’s start with what is the IEEE? The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (pronounced Eye Triple E) was formed in 1884 from a collective of enlightened engineers to “support professionals in their nascent field and to aid them in their efforts to apply innovation for the betterment of humanity”. The core value and aim for the betterment of humanity rings true. It is not for the betterment of machines, it is for people. This value of humanity makes me feel good. It makes me feel that the IEEE are the right people to be tackling Big Data. Because isn’t it all about people at the end of the day? Does anyone ever wish they had spent more time with machines? This ideal that has travelled through from the peak of Victorian society to the 21st century makes the feel pretty good about the IEEE as a perfect partner for arts and humanities research. And with this in mind I enter the conference room….
Day one – First IEEE workshop on data visualisation.
What is Big Data? Good question – with a pretty clear party line broadcast from the keynote and throughout the 15 or more talks on the days. Big Data is a problem of a number of Vs.
Volume (how much data)
Velocity (how fast is it moving)
Variety (images, text, video, sensor)
Veracity (incomplete, rumours, dirty)
Now don’t get me wrong but these don’t sound like definitions that lead to the betterment of humanity. These sound like problems for machines. I think we can find some more appropriate Vs to throw in there. How about values, validity, visibility and voices? What is it about problems just for machines that takes a powerful headline such as “Big Data” and push it right back into a meeting for computer scientists fine tuning algorithms. There seems no sense of purpose or of any grand challenge to solve? Maybe it’s me, but I wonder if anyone has asked the question why?
And this theme continued. I was disappointed (you might have guessed this) as the focus of every talk was on models for processing more big data at faster speeds. There was very little about the human side of big data. There was, to my surprise at this being the first IEEE workshop on visualistion of big data, nothing visual at all – we got close a couple of times but the speakers quickly moved on as if embarressed that a bit of beauty and clarity might somehow lesson the science. Is this a crisis of confidence? Almost as if the original aims of the IEEE had been lost? That’s not anyone’s fault I think it is a global problem of technologists. That people who are passionate (and the speakers were incredibly passionate) about machines are incredibly focussed on improving machines. Not improving machines for the betterment of humanity. And I know I go on about this, but by making things visual or even going further and making them tangible we bring them into a our human world. When this happens people react. People leap into action and want to know more And the arts world is no stranger to the realities of engaging people in the physical world. When the UK’s largest public sculpture, The Angel of The North by Anthony Gormley was first commissioned it was met with public outrage with people voicing real anger at the prospect of money being spent on something landing in their neighbourhood. It cost around £1m and has lasted the test of 15 years with over 90,000 people seeing it every day. It is a thing now to be adored – a beacon of hope for the people of the north. There were even proposals to make an Angel of The South…. However the accountability of something being physical is something that we as data researchers need to be aware of. We know what happens when data is not made available (MPs expenses scandal in 2009). And we should remember this when we present our stories to our community.
The IEEE community appear s to have lost sight of people and the sensory world that people live in.
Can we bring together the IEEE community with arts researchers exploring big data in a visual way?
The final talk of the day was given by Klaus Mueller who presented a case for visual feedback during the long (24 hour) data processing periods of big datasets. He illustrated the description of his algorithm with reference to a scientist working in the field who required fast visual feedback of where the data she was sampling while flying over the Arctic Circle in a research plane. The visual overview data she obtained quickly enabled her to get a picture for data stories and follow new leads while in the sky. The details are sketchy, but the use of a story is powerful. It tells us what the data was, why speed is important and how visual data is used in the field.
Stories of how people use big data are powerful mechanisms for understanding the role of big data in our society.
There is an opportunity for the AHRC to use its research base to harvest these stories and present to the wider world.
DAY TWO – DATA AND SOCIETY
On the second day we were met with a positive speech from the keynote on the value of the intersection of technology and people. The speaker then dismissed people and focussed on an hour of technologies about how databases (mostly in SQL) can be managed faster, how they can deal with great amounts of data and how their team is doing it. Once again people seem to have been left out of this equation.
Talking over lunch we decided that this conference was exactly the thing we needed to spur us as arts and humanities researchers to define what the grand challenges are for big data and how they will impact on human lives and live up to the very clear mission of the original IEEE collective in 1884 – for the betterment of humanity. This is something I wanted to return to throughout this week. I’m not sure what these challenges are – I just know that there’s something incredibly powerful that we can bring to this space and something that could define the future of interdisciplinary research. (Note to self, turn down the bold-statement producing effects and think more clearly).
Tomorrow’s talks in the workshop on Big Data and The Humanities looks promising. Maybe here I’ll get back in touch with humanity and maybe just maybe we can start to debate the value and meaning of big data to our lives.