In Pursuit of Data: Following the Data Trails

In Pursuit of Data: Following the Data Trails
Mimi Onuoha, Royal College of Art

We live in a world that is data-soaked, and we are data machines, constantly shedding bits and bytes. Those data shreds are strewn across the web, available on websites, APIs, and publicly-accessible datasets. They live as strings and numbers, context-less and seemingly objective, ripe for analysis and contextualization.

The ubiquity of data-generating services and our fascination with data’s potential, combined with the vastness of the datasets that have come to define our current age, often obscure data’s most important characteristic: the fact that it is produced by humans. We are its creators–we who are real people, more than numbers or dots on maps.

I’m currently a Fulbright-National Geographic fellow working on a project that involves using digital data to create maps of various Londoners’ relationships. I not only collect, analyze, and visualize data, but also have the daunting task of asking real groups of people to give me access to their personal data. From these participants, I gain access to the digital trails of lives that unfold on and offline: geolocation coordinates, browser history data, call and text logs, Facebook content, etc. They are real people, and I work with the intimate data that they generate daily.

As such, I’ve been forced to personally confront a number of thorny concepts that also define our current landscape: what is the divide between public and private? When does observation become surveillance? Who owns data? And the most important question: what does this all mean? The underlying assumption of my project has been that we can learn previously unknown things about ourselves and our relationships by paying close attention to our data trails, but as the project evolves, I’ve been regularly surprised by exactly what the reality entails.

I’ve been writing about my experiences on the National Geographic blog, but for the Connected Life Conference I’ll be presenting on the progress of this project, the research that has informed it, and the curious things I’ve learned along the way. I’ll also show some sneak peeks of my final product: an online interactive visualization (to be launched this summer on National Geographic’s website) that provides a rich and in-depth representation of my data.

Mimi Onuoha

Royal College of Art