A Mirror on IoT and ourselves

DJCD0243 V2

The SelfReflector is an internet connected mirror that is able to calculate your age, play music from when you were a teenager and print out this image on a TapWriter.

For centuries we have looked at ourselves looking back at us through mirrors. We all have our own very special relationship with ourselves through the magic of the ‘looking glass’. It might be a 3am reassuring conversation that all is well. It might be a motivational speech as we clean our teeth. We might give ourselves a telling off after an argument that we wished we hadn’t had. The mirror opens a mental world to our telepathic selves – after all it is only when we look at the person in the mirror can we truly read their thoughts. The mirror provides a space and time for being together with just yourself. Is there anyone that knows you like the mirror knows you?

DJCD0197 V2

In SelfReflector we wanted to explore what this meant to people. We wanted to play with this sense of trust, with the sense of reflection, with the sense that a simple reflective surface opens up so much about who we are and what we think of ourselves. Yet we also wanted to reflect on what happens when technology comes into our lives in very personal ways. As an outcome of a research project exploring the Internet Of Things (IoT) in the context of the UK High Street we wanted to explore the ways in which the High Street supports our sense of self in a myriad of nuanced ways and create propositions of how technology can enrich this. Acknowledging the high street as a place where we find out about ourselves from our teenage years onwards we wanted to create ways in which the IoT goes beyond supporting the purchasing of goods, instead enabling more meaningful experiences in line with the realities of what we do in shops.

At a time when 30% of shops in general and 59% of fashion retails are using CCTV cameras connected to the web to covertly gather personal data on their shoppers, we wanted to offer alternative propositions that respond to the playful, exploratory nature of what humans do on the high street in social and personal ways to learn more about themselves.

SelfReflector is a mirror that takes pictures of people looking at it. It uploads the pictures to a webservice that uses image processing to estimate the viewer’s age, their facial expression and their mood. This data is then used by the mirror to select music from when the viewer was fourteen – an age that has been identified by Prof Daniel Levitian (director of Music and Perception, Cognition and Expertise at Mcgill University) as the “magic age for the development of musical tastes”. The image is then printed on the IoT social network system TapWriters for secure sharing with a small number of trusted friends. Beyond the low-fi printed image, there are no copies of the image stored. If you are in doubt about the ability of music to connect us to ourselves, you only have to read David Bowie’s letter to a 14 year old fan in America.

SelfRelector is currently installed in a boutique glasses shop, SPeX PisTOls, in Dundee. It was designed with the owner, Richard Cook, as part of a research programme investigating the role of IoT on the high street. Richard has curated songs from 1925 based on knowledge of his customers and their musical tastes. The research is ongoing and you can visit Richard, play with the SelfReflecter and think about how you might want the Internet of Things to come into your life in the way you want it to.


Designed by Jon Rogers, Jayne Wallace, Mike Shorter and Pete Thomas.
Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council as part of the Connected High Street project http://www.theconnectedhighstreet.co.uk/

The TapWriters

Image recognition on the High Street


Fourteen is the magical age for music taste development.

David Bowie’s letter to a 14 year old fan

Can we make a social network? For real….

It is 6am and I’ve woken up a little early. The sun does funny things in Scotland. It doesn’t get hot like the most of the rest of the world and while it forgets to get up in the winter, it forgets to go to go down in the summer. So it’s been light for a few hours… And I started to think about this: What is a social network? I’m asking this question because I’m going to build one or rather I’ve started to build one and now I want to tell people about it. Building social networks is something I’ve been doing all my life in the real world – as have you. At some point in the mid to late 1970s in the blistering heat (15C) of a long hot summer my best friend in the whole world, Toby, and I became ‘blood brothers’. I think we struggled a little with pricking our fingers to actually get blood, but we knew that the blood marked the friendship of the highest kind. We formed a network from the exchange in blood. Or at least, we formed a bond over the idea that we could exchange blood. That exchange marked us as special. We were a new form of kin.


Some forty years later at the very moment I’m writing this post, I have on my twitter account around one thousand five hundred and twenty five ‘followers’. That’s seems a lot – particularly as before twitter being followed was either a little creepy, or marked you out as having a particularly special relationship with a god.. my this one and a half thousand followers is nothing like Katy Perry who has seventy million followers. SEVENTY MILLION. That’s, like, nearly ten times the number of people who watched the Doctor Who Christmas special! How does someone do this? For me I have no idea who all but twenty five of my followers are but I imagine they are sitting there waiting with baited breath on my every 140 chars that comes through my fingers onto the screen. …

And that’s just twitter -what about facebook?


Real Madrid footballer Cristiano Ronaldo has overtaken Shakira to become the most followed person on Facebook.


Said the BBC in March 2015, as apparently the footballer Ronaldo has over one hundred million likes. That’s a LOT of likes. I’m not sure I’ve liked that many things in the world in my forty four years of existence – and I like a lot of stuff (marmite, beer from barrels, fish in batter, swimming in the north sea, The Tiger That Came To Tea, France and the colour coding on resisters – beach towels with colour codes from resistors would be AMAZING.. but I digress, sorry).



But what does having that many people follow or like you really mean? For toby and I, long before the web or of having heard of social networks, at a time when a friend was invited to your birthday party and a like was something less than a love, our network of two was sealed in an ancient bond that could never be broken. At least until we went to different universities, got jobs, got married, moved countries and had kids…But I’ve not become a blood brother with anyone since and that’s quite an amazing thing.

That physicality and cultural significance of an (albeit interpretation) ancient ritual made our friendship special. Blood is a precious limited resource and only one person got to be my blood brother.

The web has enabled us to escape the limitations of the physical world. Friending someone or liking something is all very easy. There’s no contract. No precious resource. No end. No friction. It’s all so very easy. But it all feels a little bit hollow. Sometime in the late 1980s I shouted “all back to mine” in the local pub when my parents were on holiday. I was seventeen and it was more than a bit scary having most of the village of Benson (population 4,000) walk the one mile to my parents’ house at midnight. I didn’t know anyone so I mostly hid upstairs and waited for them to leave. It was dawn when they did and I spent the rest of the day clearing up and realised that cigarette burns were hard to cover up… That the house was broken and that I was pretty much doomed. What would happen if Ronaldo did the same? All back to my facebook page for an after hours party? Would there be any mess to clear up? Would anything happen? Would it be any point? Would it create any difference in the real world – the world that Ronaldo and his one hundred million likes occupy?

My point being is that physical social networks are very very different to digital ones. Duh! Of course they are I hear you scream. Yet you say this, but most of what we’re doing with IoT technology is building one thing that can connect to the web. Rather than building networks that are powered by and ARE the web, we’re simply adding dead nodes to an existing system. My call to action is to design entirely new forms of physical networks that are a part of, and not an aside to, the web.

Have you thought of building your own bridge between these worlds. Could we make physical/digital social networks that the Internet of Things (or the web with things as I continue to call it) technology can enable? I don’t think that connecting household appliances to the web is particularly social, exciting or interesting – do you?

So why not build our own physical social network. Which we’ve done. Or at least we’ve started to do. And I’ll share this with you here.

We have built the world’s smallest social network. It’s a network of small till-roll printers that are connected to the web powered by the amazing Electric Imp. We’re calling them Tap Writers. Because you tap at a screen and it comes out on paper – on all of the rolls at the same time. It’s changing a printer from a printing appliance into a social media device – where paper is the media rather than Facebook’s or Twitter’s screen. This limits resources (Katy Perry and Ronaldo would run out of paper pretty quickly if they had this network). We’ve created a social feedback mechanism by having a single button that you tap as a form of ‘receipt’ – a deliberately ambiguous interaction that is neither a ‘like’ or a ‘thumbs up/down’. It’s simply a response that is printed across the small network. We’ve installed seven in small shops, cafes and a yoga centre in Dundee. And we’re watching to see what happens. We want eight in a network and are looking for the next place in Dundee to join.

So how does it work? Mike’s been playing with the till rolls connecting to Imp using a bit of code from instructables. An amazingly powerful feature of Imp is that it handles Http messaging and it’s super straight forward to have all of the printers connected in a network. So this is great technically. Yet the thing that got me most excited is the scalability that Imp provides. With so few components in the TapWriters and the cost and scalable tools Imp has for mass production, we’re almost ready to go live with a product… a physical social network that connects people through paper…..

It’s quite exciting to have a social network. Next up we want to take it international so we’re heading to Mexico City to install another eight there with a Spanish translation built in.

So watch this space as this early trial has made me decide that we need to further this and we need to look at how we can design for physical, human and real networks – that are limited by resource and therefore force us to make choices about who we want in our network and what and when we say things. They do I think take the Internet of Things into a much more social space that I’m calling the Web With Things.

Want to take part in this experience? Get in touch – we’d love to talk to you about what we’re doing. Over the next twelve months we’re going to further this and build a number of physical social networks to find out if we can do this and what it will be like. We’ll share the results as we go and let’s see where this takes us… I promise if you join us I won’t be asking for any of your blood but I might be asking you to get physical with a few of your friends.


Hack The University




Earlier in the year the Product Research Studio joined up with our wing-commanders in DJCAD Make Space and RS Components to show our university how they could and arguable should operate. To move them from a traditional pre-web thinking institution into the new pull economy where the students lead the co-creation of the teaching and services they want. Ultimately we wanted to ask the question:

Can students collaboratively work with their university to make it work in the way they wanted to work?


This is what the day looked like…



This is a question we put to test with a 36 hour collaborative making event, or hack, in January 2015. With direct involvement from the most senior academic, management and support staff from across the university, we were a little nervous that we were opening a new door into a new way of working – that too be honest, we were not entirely sure what world it might open up on to.

So what worked?


The students
The students were AMAZING. Really, they blew away any prior expectation of how they would respond. We were confident that they would work hard and give quality outputs… but not quite at the scale that they did. They worked through the night (thanks to our wonderful Computing school for hosting!) and deep into new territories. Making ideas, concepts, prototypes and proving that there are an incredible range of options for our university (and others I might add) to think differently about the way universities deliver education and services.

The mentors
The mentors were incredibly committed. With pretty much round-the-clock support – they helped the students reflect-on, shape and deliver highly relevant original ideas that worked. The role of the mentors started three months before the event through building the right set of challenges and providing resources to support those challenges. It was very much a co-created space for students to play within.

A space to make
DJCAD Make space with @alinapier and @robcojackson was the heart of the event. Taking ideas from paper to reality through digital making and open hardware. Oh and not to forget the table tennis… althrough @cyberdees thinks we’ve a long way to go to match up to his MozSpace skills…

A future looking RS Components
A massive thank you to RS components for providing an incredible prize of 3D printer, Arudino, Bare Conductive and Raspberry Pi.  Their support for the event has continued well past the 36 hours and has embedded deep into the learning and skills of our students. Don’t take my word – take a look at what our winning students, James Williams, Rhoda Ellis, Ryand Woods and Will Duncan have been doing with their prize in the 3 months following the event…


A Touch of Fry

A Touch of Fry was our studios response to the Your Fry competition. This competition saw the one and only Stephen Fry make the content for his new book More Fool Me open source (text, artwork and audio). Along with his publishers Penguin Random House, they set a challenge to everyone to interpret this content in any way they wanted.

Title Image


A Touch Of Fry explores what happens when the emerging technology of printed electronics enables the mixing of digital content and paper. By doing so it explores what happens when we connect paper to the web and what this might look, sound or feel like for the publishing industry.


By screen printing Bare’s conductive paint and connecting to their newly kickstarted TouchBoard, we have created a capacitive touch surface on the cover of More Fool Me. When you touch parts of the cover you hear different audio clips. The artwork remains the same we’ve just hidden a few audio easter eggs on the cover for people to uncover.

Next up, by adding an IoT platform such as Electric Imp, we will be able to connect the front cover directly to the web. This will allow updateable audio at any time. You could hear live updates of content throughout the day or night of Stephens thoughts, feelings and possible secrets – anything that Stephen wants people to hear.

Beyond audio, connecting the cover of a book to the web poses a much bigger question. It is the question of data. It asks us to think about what will happen when things all around us are connected to the web. It asks us who will have the read, write and execute permissions of data created by things. It asks us what shape the internet will be when we can connect it to anything.


A Touch of Fry was one of the three winning submissions of the YourFry project. We have plans to take this idea further, we will keep you posted with any developments.



Review: Raspberry Pi B+

Pi Love!

P B+ Vs original

I’m not very good at looking after things. I’d like to be better, it’s just that I’m not. The roof on my house needs a few more tiles, my car needs a service, my bike is sitting in our cellar with more than an ample covering of iron oxide on its chain, and my laptop looks like it’s been used to dig my potatoes on the allotment that I do in fact look after pretty well. My neighbour across the street from me, on the other hand, is incredible. Not a tile is out of place, his many cars are spotless (his weekends mostly seem spent in blue overalls caressing what ever needs caressing on the underside of his vehicles) and his children cycle on shiny steeds that look newer than the day they were unboxed several years ago. It’s about love. I don’t particularly love the things around me. They’re functional stuff to do the things they are designed to do. For my neighbour, there is a lot of love in the things that he owns. A ‘Zen and the Art of Maintenance’ philosophy that I don’t have, and he does.

What, you might ask, has all of this to do with a Raspberry Pi, in particular the latest release of the Raspberry Pi B+? It’s simple, and it comes down to a very basic human instinct – the human instinct of love. The Raspberry Pi is the most loved computing device that we know of. A deep love. Not the lust the populace feels towards the latest shiny offering from Apple, but a kind of love that we Brits reserve for red telephone boxes, Routemaster buses and Ordnance Survey maps. We love Raspberry Pi. People who have no idea of the difference between Mac OS and Windows know all about the Raspberry Pi. My dad phoned me on the day it was released to tell me all about it. I didn’t mention that I was one of the many who crashed the RS website at 6am on 29th February 2012. My dad used a computer once in 2007. And the love is still there. When I spoke at Microsoft Research’s Think Digital event for a thousand school kids in December 2013, over a third put their hands up when asked who owned a Raspberry Pi (this might be because it was in Cambridge and it was a ticketed event for students who were considering computing as a further career – but impressive nonetheless).

The love goes beyond our nationwide interested is goes deep into the community that Pi have built.

And Pi listen to this community. They have listened in incredible detail to the grumblings from a dedicated community of people in love with their Pis. This community is Pi’s strength. It points to a sophisticated Twenty-First-century business model that could only exist in a world that has grown up with and through web 2.0. It’s a robust business model that I am absolutely certain will ensure that Pi will grow from strength to strength in the coming years. This is a business model with the power to change a single capacitor on a circuit. A capacitor that has been a notorious problem for the community. A single unit costing a few pence has caused the death of many of the first release of Pi.

When RS asked me to review the latest Raspberry Pi B+ I had to call in a big favour from our resident creative technologist and all round brilliant hacker, Ali Napier. Ali lives in a wonderful tech cave that would, if we lived close enough to Gotham City, have Bruce Wayne knocking on the door asking to borrow a charger for his utility belt. Ali’s tech cave is about to get a bit of a make-over, but we’ll leave that story for another day. Ali took the B+ into his cave and started to play. Now Ali and I are big on physical computing. It’s what we live and breathe. We’re huge fans of Arduino and in particular the Yun, and we’re completely in love with Electric Imp and everything it can do for the Internet of Things. We’ve dabbled with Pis – we’ve set up Minecraft and road-tested Scratch – all the things that are at the heart of the original and current mission. In our home town of Dundee there is a fantastic code club supported by Dundee Contemporary Arts and Brightsolid  But we love it to be able to go beyond the screen and get into the physical world – to make the web physical. With this in mind, let’s get into the details that Ali’s uncovered.



Starting with the outside

The physical improvements that B+ has over the original. Overall it’s just so much tidier. Given we’re into the design of products, it makes so much more sense to have the board mountable with far less board overhang. Put simply – it’s easier to put in a box. It’s overall footprint with an SD card in place is a good 20mm shorter in length and 8 mms narrower – meaning we can make the things we design smaller. This has been achieved by replacing the standard SD card slot with a MicroSD, lowering the profile of the audio connector (with composite video), and making the USB sockets flush with the board’s edge. There are good hardware improvements too; the four USB sockets, 40 GPIO pins (we like the way the pinout of pins 1-26 mirrors the original, which helps with forward compatibility of older code) and the doubling of on-chip RAM to 512Mb. With the mounting holes now in place it’s clear it’s designed to be put into things. Things that can connect to the web. We like that.

We also really liked the ease and speed of setup. Something the original took a bit of a weathering from its online community.

Let’s go into the software in a bit of detail.

Ali flashed up an 8Gb class 4 MicroSD with Raspbian by using the straightforward directions from the Pi site. It was a little slow, but until card reading tech is sped up, it’s what we’re limited to for now. This delay is very much made up for with the reward of perfect first time detection of Microsoft keyboard/mouse, HDMI monitor and internet connectivity. Ali tends to stick at the Linux command line, so we never launched the GUI – he’s always interested in what’s going on under the hood. Once Ali verified the Pi had picke up an IP address, he got straight into Aptitude package manager to install updates, Apache 2 webserver, PHP5 and ALSA audio tools. What we want to be able to do is make things that connect to the web. In other words we need to be able to simply control pins and create sounds. Both of which were incredibly simple to do. Ali deosn’t really ‘do’ Python, which has emerged as the language of choice for the Pi. Instead, as with Arduino Yun, he puts together a bunch of shell scripts and calls them using tools such as PHP or compiled C programs. Being able to manipulate GPIO pins directly from the OS by writing values to files that represent each pin makes for a very happy Ali! We checked out audio quality as well, writing a few sound files to the SD card and playing them using aplay. There were a few audible artefacts straight off, but this was easily cured by maxing the audio output using the amixer utility. In short, in less than an hour, we had all the tools in place to create a pin-or-internet-controlled audio player, which is pretty cool.
Raspberry Pi is an incredibly agile, simple and powerful device that can power the things of the web. Things that can move, play audio and light up our world. All of this for around £25. That’s pretty much perfect.


Me and my friend Ali give the Raspbery B+ a straight A.

Physical Data India 2014

Physical Data India

Physical Data India

It’s great to be back at the world’s most important place for design – The National Institute of Design India . I’ve been here before exploring Physical Apps India and this time I want to disrupt things in another way. I want to start to think about data and the digital economy in India. Consider this:

Search: projects nearby
Search: projects nearby

India is a crowd economy. It’s a crowd society. It’s a crowd culture. But with no Kickstarter I wonder how right now it is becoming a digital economy. I have no doubt that it will very very soon. Evidence of this is India’s growing digital democracy. An incredible story is unfolding in the build up to this year’s general election. The opposition party’s leader Narendra Modi is leveraging his background as a chai wallah to connect to people across India. Every town has thousands of chai whallahs, in every train station, outside every major business, on every crossroad, outside every university campus, in fact everywhere. And so when Modi takes questions over a live webcast to audiences to thousands at chai stalls across the country you know that India is ahead of the rest of the world. When you connect this crowd thinking into India’s inherent Maker culture you are faced with the potential to radically change how the world thinks about digital and how the world thinks about connecting to data. Reading this in the UK, EU or US? Tell me, when was the last time you saw something being made, repaired or adapted? Beyond our cars and our houses, pretty much everything is a consumer driven culture. I’d love to have an iphone repair shop like this one in Ahmedabad.


So I ask you. How can we physically connect to our data that builds on the crowd based culture and deep routed sense of making across India?

The product design students I’ve been working with are exploring a semester-long project of designing for visually impaired. By working with the Blind People’s Association Ahmedabad they are exploring an ‘inclusive’ (skip to my thought at the end of this post about what I think about ‘inclusive design’ – discuss!) design approach to visual impairment. What I think is exciting is that given that we’re all visually impaired when it comes to data, is there not an opportunity to learn from people who spend their lives where ‘seeing’ is a multi-sense activity. I live by the sea (I know I talk about this a lot, but just in case you didn’t know that) and when a boat passes my kids (actually it’s me) want to know what boat is that, what’s it doing. I can try binoculars but if I’m lucky I can find the name of the boat… see that it’s an ‘army boat’ or a ‘oil ship’… but that’s it. I need to go online and find out more. The Marine AIS tracker gives me the eyes I need to see the data. The web and the data it enables access to opens up a new window on the world. Which gives a challenge – how can we explore data that comes off the screen an into our world in a meaningful way? I think we might be able to learn a thing or two about talking to people who know how to navigate the world beyond just sight.


Footnote on Inclusive Design. OK, so I have a problem with the term ‘inclusive’. It sounds massively hierarchical and top down. It says, I’m here to help you. Which is often said with the very best of intentions. But there’s an assumption. The assumption is that you have a problem and I’m the expert here to solve it. We never treat people we really want to talk to this way. You wouldn’t write a invitation t a party saying “I’d like to include you in my party”. You’d never say “I’d like to include you at Christmas this year”… If we’re co-designing with people we should look to find common problems that we can co-design responses to together. Which is why I LOVED the brief that students had been given on working with the Blind People’s Association. We’re ALL blind to data and maybe we as designers could learn from people who had spend their lives in a world where ‘seeing’ is a multi-sense activity…

Big Humanities workshop on Big Data



As the IEEE conference on Big Data moved into a new phase, an incredible collection of humanities and technology partners gathered to share stories of what big data means to them.

Ada Lovelace described herself as a poetical scientist and an Analyst. I would call her a storyteller and codifier. She was able to both tell stories and encode them in a repeatable note format… A father the poet and her mother the mathematician, she from an early age learnt to flit between writing and analysing…. She learnt how to communicate and write while applying logic an analysis. I’m a bit of a fan. My time travelling self would no doubt have fallen for the most important person in the history of computer science (I suspect it might have been love in just one direction – so let’s move on shall we, but before we do.. it’s worth noting (and this is steeling from a conversation from the met office disrupter Mike Saunby) that working with Babbage not only led to computer science it also led Joseph Whitworth devising standards (without standards you wouldn’t be able to replace a light bulb, tune a TV, listen to a record, drive a car, or take a medicine)…. But I digress. So what am I trying to say? I It’s this: that interdisciplinary across the humanities is not just a desirable thing, it is the life force of discovery that flows through human existence. And history continues to show us that when it happens then sparks (literally and metaphorically) will fly. Note: October the 15th is Ada Lovelace Day.

Getting back to the conference. It’s been a hard start, I won’t deny it (most least because the four people that might, just might read this blog have been incredibly patient with my rants about the lack of people… ). Today is another day all-together. Today I feel human. I feel connected. Today is different. I apologise for yesterday. No actually I don’t. I want to shout at being subjected to a difficult two days of struggling with poorly presented academic knowledge. Today is incredible.

In a wonderful interplay between acronyms and metaphors I have been delighted with the truly interdisciplinary work of technologists and humanities collaborating on meaningful human big data. Expressing doubt and confidence in equal measure. A dash of humour has been thrown in, but underneath has been a rolling and rising discourse about that has got not just under the meaning of digital humanities but has started to get under my skin. I want to know more.

What’s happened? What has happened is that Dr Tobias Blanke and Dr Mark Hedges King’s College London have put together a remarkable workshop on Big Humanities workshop

I want the reader to understand that the humanities presented was further from my academic knowledge than the computer science has been. Yet in this set of talks the computer science is so much more vivid and exciting. The canvas of humanities enables me to understand. I don’t know about Victorian poetry texts. Yet I could immerse myself in the understanding of a subject elegantly presented as a visual narrative…

The science appears richer, more understandable, further advanced and more meaningful when presented at the heart of humanities.

Technologists have not held back on owning their subject – OCR is thrown in next to NLP and Cluster Analysis. (And we don’t want this to stop – researchers need to use their languages if they are to give passionate academic talks). But maybe we need a guide? Some simple How, Why, What, Wows of big data computational techniques – why is Hadoop better for real-time analysis. What is OCR – how does it differentiate from pattern recognition. Etc. This isn’t a barrier – it’s an opportunity.

There have been a wealth of presentations – and you’ll have to go to the workshop organisers for academic knowledge on this. But some thoughts, insights and connections that I have had today go a bit like this.

“[A]t a time when the web is simultaneously transforming the way in which people collaborate and communicate, and merging the spaces which the academic and non-academic communities inhabit, it has never been more important to consider the role which public communities – connected or otherwise – have come to play.” (Dunn & Hedges, 2012”) ->here

Making Data Matter

Data mining the 1918 flu pandemic

Viral Networks in 19th Century Newspapers





In the closing comments a panel of speakers came together to start to discuss themes, thoughts and what-nexts for humanities.

I liked Andrew Prescott’s reflection as scholar, “As historians we don’t know who the user is. Is a curator a user?”. My thought on this is that we don’t need a new form of ‘user centred histories’, instead we should rethink how we collaborate. To embrace the idea of historians a participants in a co-design process. Has anyone done this? Are their persona’s documenting typical (or a-typical) historians? Are their design guidelines or ‘branding’ documents for working with history? Is this something we could look at? Would this make a working across disciplines an easier thing? Or am I just being another voice in a mix of ideas that is just finding its feet.

Another clear big difference in this workshop to the technology focussed workshops and talks was the variety of data. And while Variety is a core theme of IEEE Big Data, the definition of variety is actually pretty narrow in terms of the talks I saw. All of the talks mentioned variety and then went on to show something that handled numerical data in a structured database. In humanities it seems the problem is more complex, potentially much harder (for machines) and crosses time and materiality to connect with everywhere humans have made their mark. In these talks it included 19th century newspapers, interviews, travelogues, transcripts, photographs, films, guidebooks, poems, private letters, journals and novels. This richness of data makes the problem of data exponentially grow into new dimensions. There was a lot of talk about language and translation – which should be a reasonably trivial problem once it goes through google translate? Right? Yes, but does google translate have a setting for 17th century vernacular? Does it have a setting for how a small community in the Lake District describe their world? And how often does language change? How many time zones do we need to encode to capture textual data? The problem was big data and now, I really don’t know what kind of data it is. But isn’t that the deal – it is at this very point of dealing with data, when your head spins and your hard drive melts that you know you’re dealing with something that’s possible bigger than big data?

At times the excitement in the room morphed into nervousness. Is this to big? And just like our friends in IEEE who worry about the end of Moore’s law, the humanities were asking ss this the end of theory? No said Barry Smith, “We must be prepared for failure. As Beckett said: fail and fail better”. He then went on the remind us that “it’s not the first time we’ve had big data. It’s happened before and we must understand the future from the past”.

As someone pointed out in the audience: there is going to be a huge argument in the humanities…

And as Christie Walker from the AHRC closed things off with: “It’s going to be great fun to stand back and see what happens”. That indeed it is.


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




You know from reading this blog that we have been running and attending collaborative making events, or hacks, for quite some time now. We’ve put someone into space, we’ve been at Unbox Festival in India, we’ve   run open news hacks with Mozilla and we’ve told you all about how much we love making data physical at SXSW.  We’ve hacked with conductive ink, with trousers and under canvas..  All have been amazing, have led to incredible new things and introduced us to amazing new people. But all our events have been behind closed doors.  The public have remained where they are – in public – while we’ve been locked in a room or atrium.  So when Irini Papadimitriou and Michael Saunby wanted to hold a public hack-jam we jumped at the chance.

The hack has been well documented through Michael Saunby at the Met Office  and our new friends at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion

We were hacking with our friends  Justin Marshall and Ollie Hatfield, who worked on the winning design that harvested  museums as  accidental  data sources for climate change. In their work they built an idea that in the V&A there are images on fabrics, objects and in prints that may have flora and fauna that is specific to that climate on them. They posed the question of how this might looked very different if there was a 4C rise in temperature.


Hacking in public is hard

It’s really hard. You are just about to reach the end of debugging a particularly nasty servo motor problem and are just about to test what has taken up the best part of the last hour when “What’s that do?” asks a 7 year. ‘That’ being a 3D printer in the middle of a two hour print job for a completely revolutionary new approach to dress fastenings. The 7 year old is joined by 29 nine of his friends and you have to stop and explain everything about a 3D printer (yes of course you mention That Gun because if you don’t they will).  And just when their parents have  moved them onto the next group and you’re about to crack the final line of the bug… “What does that do” says a bright eyed 9 year old girl with her slightly harassed looking dad…

You have to know your story

You’re going to get asked what you are doing. A lot. You need to work on that story. The public are interested and want to find out more but they don’t want to hear about your 1500 lines of code and the trouble you’re having with stack overflow.  They’re on a fun day out and you’re there to entertain. So think of great things to tell people. Connecting this to popular news stories relating to your tech and ideas worked well for us (the 3D printed gun story is always a winner).

Come prepared with interesting demos.

Bring some working examples. Our amazing hacker friend James Thomas is wearing his mini starlight broach to explain how star data can be modelled on lights.   When he tells people he’s wearing a datafeed from a far off star they stop and listen to what he has to say.



Have someone greeting and steering the public

You really need a front-of-house person. They need to be able to tell the bigger story of the event – what you’re doign and why. They need to be able to do this in less than 15 seconds and know who to take them to in the hack to continue the story. Find out what the person/people who are visiting is interested in and connect them to the amazing hackers in the room.

Hacking in public is accountable

We were hacking for climate change. We had a lot of people talking about climate change. The fantastic thing was that we were sharing the room with the world’s leading scientists. When someone from the public attempted to deny climate change – we were able to point them to the scientists with hard data up their sleeve. Don’t mess with the Met Office – they KNOW their data. But there’s a bigger picture here. It’s a picture of being able to justify what you’re doing. To talk about your idea, take critism and adapt what you’re doing based on the conversations you are having with the people visiting. If you can respond to 15,000 people asking you why and how – and you adapt to what they’re saying – you’re going to have a pretty robust idea that stands up to future development. You’ve done the market research and public impact during the development. I’m not sure that there are many development processes that can say they do that.

So what happens next? We’d like to explore this new way of hacking. Maybe it’s not new – maybe you have done this and want to shout – ‘hey, we did that first’ – or ‘we did that before you were born’… please do, we would love to hear your stories. Our feeling is that this is something really quite new and that it could change how hack-events are run in the future. So…. have your flu shot, get trained in public liaisons,  get a safety cage for your soldering iron and be prepared to find, play, make and talk. Maybe we’ll see you in the public gallery of the Houses of Parliament collaboratively finding new ways to be more accountable and more democratic. You up for that?

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 findplaymake.com