Make data more open – make it wearable

The most accessible data are the data you can touch

Photos: Steve McInerny

A single graph can convey a whole lot of information quickly and clearly, but I’ll be the first to admit that they aren’t always the most exciting things to engage with. Traditional data visualisations don’t float everybody’s boat, and that presents a problem for people who believe in open data.

The motivation behind making data open and publically available – like the data used in these recent posts for instance – is that if more people can see how the world around them works, more people can contribute to a discussion about what should change.

It’s a nice democratic idea, but in reality simply making data available to people isn’t enough. If you’re going to engage the public, you need to find a way to make data more accessible, and researcher Miriam Quick and designer Stefanie Posavec have an idea of how to do that: let people touch it.

“We wanted to create pieces that would be accessible to all,” says Quick. “Our aim was to transform abstract data and make it more meaningful by making it physical.”

The designers’ Air Transformed series takes publically available air quality data from the city of Sheffield and presents it in the form of two physical, touchable, wearable pieces – a necklace, and a pair of glasses.

Seeing Air

Glasses from the Air Transformed seriesThrough three sets of Perspex lenses, these glasses tell the story of Sheffield’s air in a single day.

“Larger patterns on the lenses represent higher levels of pollution,” says Quick. The colour is also important – green and blue for particulates of different sizes, and brown for nitrogen dioxide.

Glasses from the Air Transformed series

You’re not expected to count them though up though, just put them on.

“When you try the glasses on, the patterns blur for the wearer and are experienced instead as cloudy vision,” she says. “The higher the pollution levels, the cloudier the vision – wearing the glasses is like trying to see through smog.”

Touching Air

While the glasses communicate information to the wearer visually, the necklace goes one step further: it allows people to feel the air quality, as well as see it.

AirTransformed_22 170 dpiEach necklace illustrates the air quality in Sheffield over a week. 28 laser-cut Perspex segments each represent the average levels of PM10 – larger particulate matter – over a six-hour period. The shape and colour of the segment represents the levels of PM10 in the air.

“By running your fingers over them, you can literally feel how the textures change between smooth and spiky as the pollution levels go up and down,” says Quick. “The spiky ones are really sharp!”

AirTransformed5 170 dpiThe necklace isn’t exactly delicate, but that’s entirely intentional and serves a purpose in itself.

“We made them as heavy as we could to communicate the idea of air pollution as a burden on the body, particularly on the heart and lungs,” she says.

This kind of tactile communication is far more accessible than a graph on a screen, and Quick is keen to point out that this is not at the expense of accuracy: accessible and dumbed down are not the same thing.

“The actual data are etched on every necklace segment and lens of the glasses,” she says. “Everything is precisely calculated because even though you can experience the data in an impressionistic way, we didn’t want to sacrifice any exactness.’

The Air Transformed series was created by Miriam Quick and Stefanie Posavec for the Better With Data Society’s AQ+ project, to encourage public engagement with publically available air quality data. You can find more of their work at http://www.miriamquick.com and http://www.stefanieposavec.co.uk.