Tangible data 21.11.14

  • Physical Charts

  • Physical Charts

  • Recounted Project

Physical versions of pie and bar charts and a tapestry that represents human voices are attempts by designers to make data more accessible

With everyday life saturated by screen-based information, some designers are striving to present information in more tangible ways. As part of the V&A's recent Digital Design Weekend, several projects avoided computerisation, opting instead for low-tech ways of representing data.

Among these was Physical Charts, a project by Microsoft Research Cambridge for the Tenison Road community project that set out to encourage civic engagement with locally generated data, such as surveys on traffic and air quality. The result is a mechanical pie chart made from slices of sheet plastic attached to a central motor and bar chart constructed from motorised measuring tapes, both of which animate to display real-time data. They are now on display in a shop window in Cambridge.

The intention, says project designer David Sweeney, was to create something easily legible, but with a sense of magic and theatre. "We wanted to find a way to communicate data back to the people generating it, but in a digestible way, so they were connected to it," he says. "We realised that if we translated it back into apps, we would automatically alienate quite a few people, because not everybody has a smart phone or even a computer. And by just putting data on screens, it's adding to the visual noise – we're so overloaded with screen-based media. So we decided on physical visualisations."

Pie and bar charts were chosen because of their universally understood design. Any motors and wires are meticulously hidden, so the installation appears clean and uncomplicated. As the bars of the bar chart move up and down, visitors stop to look underneath the table, wondering where they disappear to, which adds a fun, interactive quality. (In fact, they just wrap up inside the casing).

Ironically, both machines required unique components to be specially designed and 3D-printed to allow the mechanism to function while appearing minimal and low tech. "On the front, it's crafty and fun and feels warm, tangible and real, but underneath it's really high-tech. It's funny, because these new technologies afford you the opportunity to hide the complexity and focus entirely on the communication," Sweeney says.

Elsewhere, the Recounted Project by Knyttan and Common Works also uses innovative technology to adapt the traditional practice of knitting. Human voices are recorded and their sound waves visually depicted on a knitted tapestry, transforming intangible data into a familiar and tactile object.

"As a data visualisation medium, a screen has this ability to show anything," Knyttan's Ben Alun-Jones says. The Recounted Project, he says, makes the output more rewarding and valuable. "Your voice is captured and hung on the walls of the V&A, which is much more meaningful that anything on a screen. It's permanent."

Pick up a copy of our December issue, for more about data – what it means, how it's represented and how it might be used



Jenny Brewer

quotes story

We realised that if we translated it back into apps, we would automatically alienate quite a few people, because not everybody has a smart phone or even a computer

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