Me, the AHRC and the IEEE Big Data 2013


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.

Until now.

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.


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.

More tomorrow.




Hacking in front of an audience – Met Office at the V&A

Starlight by Fieldguide

Jon, Tom and Mike from the studio have recently been busy with their Fieldguide project. Along with fourth Fieldguide co-founder Pete Thomas and his Uniform colleague Martin Skelly they created StarLight, an interactive lighting installation using space data. StarLight is a concept first seeded by Jane Wallace and James Thomas from the University of Northumbria.

StarLight is a collaboration between Fieldguide and the Swedish lighting manufacturer Wästberg. In 2009, NASA launched their Kepler space observatory to look at the light from far off stars and interpret their flickering and pulsing in order to discover habitable planets. StarLight uses NASA data to allow people to replay the light that originated from stars light-years away, giving people a sense of connectedness to these stars and encouraging them to dream of far-off worlds. Wästberg works with the most renowned architects and designers, combining aesthetic sensibility with Swedish engineering mentality. Their products have won over 40 awards for excellence and they represent a leading player in the future of lighting design.

The launch for this event is on Thursday the 19th Sept from 6pm onward at the Imperial College reception.

Images to follow…

Space Issue of Fieldguide at





Unlimited Space Agency and Bare Conductive at Greenman

Jon Spooner, Head of Human Spaceflight from the Unlimited Space Agency approached us this year to see if we could do something for Einstein’s Garden at the Greenman festival.

Together we came up with a workshop that allowed the attendants to connect paintings created with the amazing Bare Conductive paint to the International Space Station. This paint conducts electricity and meant that the painting could have a bunch of LEDs glued on that could flash when turned on.

We created a giant space communicating antenna that all the painting were hung on. As the International Space Station flew over the antenna became live and the painting all started to light up!

This would not of been able to happen if it was not for the amazing support from Bare Conductive!


Team UNSA preparing for a new influx of agents.
Mission control. The screen shows the proximity of the International Space Station. The control unit up top has two keys switches to override the system and allow for testing.
UNSA’s Head of Human Space Flight Jon Spooner looks worried just before we power up the antenna
Everything goes live and the LEDs all start flashing!
blog 6
The cable made to connect paper to the antenna.


Unlimited Space Agency using Bare Conductive at Greenman 2013 from michael shorter on Vimeo.


Interactive Newsprint



Interactive Newsprint (INP) has just come to an end (April 2013).  It was an 18month EPSRC funded project that involved academics from UCLan, Dundee and Surrey and the project’s technical partners Novalia.

It was a co-design project, we worked with the people of Preston to explore the future of print and journalism through the media of traditional print and an emerging technology, paper electronics.  Back in November 2011, we began the process off with a series of workshops in Preston.  Demonstrating where the technology currently was and using it is an opportunity to ask and discuss how paper electronics could work within Preston communities and where improvements needed to be made to interactions and technology specification.



Below is an introduction video to Interactive Newsprint, including user feedback, from our lead partner at UCLan:

We had the pleasure of working with some great people from around Preston and a few further afield.  Below are a couple of examples of the projects we worked on:

We first showed the Lancashire Evening Post and Outsiders at London Design Festival with Fieldguide.  The LEP and Fieldguide went on to be announced as a highlight of the Festival by Blueprint magazine.


Artist – Garry Cook and his project ‘Outsiders’


These examples above, are all connected to the internet.  This affords some super-interesting possibilities and functions.  Two of which are updatable audio, and analytics.  Below is a video sketch (may need to be fullscreen and HD) that demonstrates our early thinking around analytics:

Our most recent, and last outing with Interactive Newsprint was to SXSW in Austin in March.  We were invited to demonstrate, Web-connected Paper at the Mozilla, Knight Foundation, Soundcloud, MIT Media Lab Party, which went down really well.  The following day, Paul Egglestone and I were joined on our panel ‘Pitchforks and Printed Electronics’ by Nick White of the Daily Dot and Garrett Goodman of Worldcrunch to discuss the future of print, journalism and paper electronics and how they could affect everything from community journalists through to global news organisations.




Much more information on Interactive Newsprint can be found at

Additionally, in the near future, our research, findings and impact will be written up by the partners in a number of papers.  These will be announced soon.

UNSA – Jon Spooner’s next steps to Space

Playing Paper

Mike is Presenting at the Electric Bookshop Shop Late Lab




Mike Shorter from the Product Design Research Studio will be presenting his thoughts on the future of paper tomorrow night. This event is part of the Edinburgh Science Festival and is being organised by the brilliant Electric Bookshop at Inspace.

There is a great line-up for this event, Mike will be talking with:

Ian Sansom the author of the amazing book  Paper; An Elegy. 

Alyson Fielding, an artist who hacks books, stories and Arduinos.

And finally Yvette Hawkins, a paper atrist who makes wonderful artworks and sculptures out of paper.

Check it out here

With this great diverse collection of speakers there are going to be some great conversations!


Mini Mars Rover

SXSW 2013 – Make Space Data Physical