The screenshots above are from the Giorgia Lupi – Information Designer video of a talk Lupi gave at the School of Visual Arts.
Getting My Feet Wet with Data Tracking
February is almost over. All month long I have been taking a closer look at data tracking questions, processes, approaches, and visualization techniques and strategies. My interest is largely inspired by the Dear Data project, but my interest is nuanced, layered, and filtered through related and/or tangential interests in memory, recordkeeping, journaling, bullet journaling, and planning. In general, I often use personal data tracking as an umbrella term, and there are many related facets and movements out there, from a project like Dear Data to people who track under rubrics of life logging and the quantified self. The process of tracking and the gathering and aggregation of personal data are the underpinning threads for all of these movements, but the Dear Data project brought something different to the table–context.
A Constantly Shifting Process
All month, I have been attuned to data. But, as the month winds down, I know that I didn’t even come close to getting beyond a toe in the water. My fledgling efforts, starts, and half-starts this month have made me admire and respect the Dear Data project even more (if possible) because I now have a much more hands-on, ground-level understanding of what was involved in the tracking each week and then the process of turning the data into such beautiful representations.
My month hasn’t necessarily generated beautifully rendered data sets to share. Some of the things I tracked, I can see were more quantified and are missing the context, and for me, personally, I crave/need/want the context because I am both hoping to better understand certain aspects of my life and day-to-day movements, habits, and reality as well as hoping to construct and find and tease out the personal story that the data holds.
Figuring out how better to track so that tracking is doable and includes contextual markers and notes for later analysis is something I will be exploring as I move ahead in March. I may stick with the same very basic themes/subjects and see what happens when I ask new questions to help find the story in the data. Or, I may shift to exploration and tracking of other themes.
Initially, I planned to do a theme a week (or maybe even more than one). But my meandering attempts to get a better handle on my own approach led me to continue tracking one theme throughout the month, even as I realized I wasn’t leading myself to a story or a data set that holds a story. (Note: I have not tried to visualize this data, so the story may be there. But I feel that I needed to do more nuanced tracking to get a story that has more personal weight and meaning. I want more than just the quantified data.)
As February progressed, I explored tracking several different subjects, even if only for a few days, and with each experiment, I have gotten a better sense of the complexity of the process, the need for finding good tracking systems, and the absolute need to be regular and diligent about tracking.
A CMP Community Project
Last week, a few people in the CMP group at Facebook decided to try a tracking project for a week, simulating the kind of activity the Dear Data designers did. By group vote, the topic that was selected was to track what art materials we used each day in the week. As someone who primarily uses pen and ink, I worried that this topic might be too limiting for me, but I started tracking. I also voiced concern that a topic like this might have self-fulfilling properties–the desire to have more data might lead us to use and consider tools and materials that we hadn’t been using. This was true for me.
With the group project always in my head, I found myself broadening my use of pens. Had I not been tracking materials, I might have ended up with a week of drawings that used only my current pen of choice. But because I was tracking, I did find myself paying more attention to pens, filling pens, making notes in other pens, etc. I even worked on collage at the end of the week, which is a medium that is part of my yearly goals but is a medium that I have not been managing to keep up with week to week.
That the tracking project nudged me to add additional materials (or face the reality of a very lean data set that told a very streamlined story: I draw in ink once a day) is both good and bad. I recognize that I skewed my data slightly because my awareness of the project nudged me to make certain choices, although everything I used is a material I do use with some regularity. (Over a year, my materials might look much different than over a week. A week is a very short timeframe for density of materials to show up.) I realize the skewing happened, although it was minimal. But the tracking project made me so much more attuned to my creative actions throughout the day that I was inspired to create more than normal. I consider that a positive, though unexpected, offshoot of the project.
The Nuts and Bolts of Tracking
With the topic for the group challenge in hand on Monday, I wasn’t sure how to track this data. In theory, I just needed to note which materials I used each day. But I was curious about how my use of materials played out as well. A number of variables come into play. What is the material? What time of day is it. What is the creative project? Where am I?
I didn’t do a great job capturing all variables. But even with the tracking I did, I saw that my systems for tracking changed over the days. I kept trying to find the best way to capture and track the data so that I would be able to make sense of it at the end of the week.
One of the things that always stands out for me with Dear Data is that they tracked first and visualized second. This is an important two-step process. Gather data and then analyze it. So they kept a log of the data all week… and then created the visualization (art) reflecting the data. It is tempting to try and create the art as you go along, to track in a way that is beautiful, but the process is different when you track first, solely to track. This is the field scientist’s approach–gather data and then analyze it.
This is the approach I have taken, but even so, I found myself struggling to find the best way “to” track this specific data. (Everyone who did this week-long tracking will have approached it differently. There is no wrong or right approach. We each have different questions, different pockets of creative time, different tool sets, and different expectations.)
With Data in Hand
At the end of this week, I have started thinking about how to create a visualization of this data I have captured. I have a few ideas. I am trying to think outside of my box, and I have several approaches that I have considered, but I have settled on a visual approach that I think I will try. Even so, I worry, a bit, that my data set isn’t as robust as I would like, and I again find myself amazed at the sheer amount of data the Dear Data designers tracked each week. Their project, I think, was deceptively immense. It sounds very straightforward to talk about tracking a certain habit or theme for a week and turning the data into a piece of art.
In the actual doing, this is a far more complicated, nuanced, and time-consuming process than many people realize.
I am going to work on visualization of my data, this creative data for the week, but I am also going to continue and track this same data again for another week, with the goal of improving my tracking processes and creating a second visualization next week. I hope to continue to find new ways to track — to make use of tracking and to keep small enough records in a way that I can manage, stick with, and make sense of.
This week will put me into March, and I am even more fascinated now by this personal exploration than I was when I recorded Episode 220 at the start of this month.
The quest to know and understand ourselves is at the heart of the creative process for me.
I have posted many, many links to Dear Data articles, interviews, and related projects, tools, and concepts in relation to the data-focused podcasts I have already done. You can find some of those links here and here and here. (Podcast listeners, queue up Episode 176 and Episode 220.) [Links to many of these resources are repeated below for convenience.
This morning, thinking about the project, I watched this video with Giorgia Lupi. Discussion of the Dear Data project (versus more formal big data visualization) begins at about 30 minutes. At 33:45, I was gratified to see the tracking image. (This kind of notation and tracking process is not something that has been shown as often in the context of this project, the focus being, instead, on the end result.) Between 34:19 and 35:03, there is a segment that highlights the importance of context. At 35:03, “It is only by adding personal context that you get closer to real meaning.” (See screenshot above.)
The screenshot above is from the Giorgia Lupi – Information Designer video of a talk Lupi gave at the School of Visual Arts.
- Dear Data (fantastic book)
- Dear Data (project site)
- Big Bang Data: Dear Data (summary video)
- CMP Episode 176: Personal Big Data
- CMP Episode 220: Dabbling in Documentation
- Giorgia Lupi on Design Matters (one of the best interviews with Giorgia that I’ve heard)
- Facing Our Weirdest Selves (on the Note to Self podcast)
- Graphing your to-do list: An art project reveals the personal side of big data (Washington Post Know More)
- Data drawing pen pals (Flowing Data)
- DEAR DATA PROJECT: ARTWORK BY GIORGIA LUPI & STEFANIE POSAVEC (Forth Magazine)
- A Data Viz Diary (Print)
- Dear Data: Two Designers Visualize the Mundane Details of Daily Life in Magical Illustrated Postcards Mailed Across the Atlantic (Brain Pickings)
- Giorgia Lupi – Information Designer video of a talk Lupi gave at the School of Visual Arts
- Giorgia Lupi: Data is about people (“I’ll talk about serendipity and human touch in data….. I’ll talk about hand-crafted data and even imperfect data. And finally, I’ll talk about analog and definitely small data.” Dear Data discussion starts at 7:15.)
(Keep in mind the Dear Data artists [Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec] are both data visualization specialists by trade. They entered their year-long project with a pre-existing and much deeper understanding of data sets and visualization strategies than many of us who are experimenting with data for the first time. Be inspired by them, but be kind to yourself!)