In brief, Data Epics is a collection of short stories written by fiction writers based on people’s smart devices’ datasets.
Data Epics is a project that invites owners of smart devices to encounter their data differently. From voice assistants to smart plugs and cameras, our lives in and around the home produce a wealth of data. This data remains largely untapped––that is, for its producers. But what if data had a story? What relationship would we develop with data then and, by extension, with the daily gestures and habits that create it? These questions drove the project of Data Epics.
Data was collected from seven households in the area of Seattle, WA, over a period of almost a year. Each data collection cycle lasted one month, at the end of which our team cleaned and transformed the data into visualizations. The visualizations and monthly data sets were then sent to seven different writers (one per household) with a prompt. The writers had three weeks to write a short story about the data. The stories were then printed, handbound into books and sent back to the house dwellers. You can read all of these stories on this website!
The households who participated in the project shared with us data from a range of devices. The devices included: voice assistants, smart thermostats, smart lightbulb, a garage door opener, a smart bed, a connected exercise bike, smart plugs, ambient sensors, a smart camera, and a connected music player.
We used a variety of strategies to collect each dataset. In some cases, the data collection was straightforward, such as downloading files from the smart device company’s online platform. In others, the process was more complicated, such as asking the participant to initiate a data request to the company, which took many weeks. In other cases, we had to develop hardware and software solutions to collect data from devices. You can read more about each specific datasets on each story’s page.
When we received the data from the households, it often contained additional metadata we didn’t need. In order to make the data easy to ‘read’ for writers, we cleaned the data and created visualizations. Similarly to how we collected the data, our transformation strategies ranged widely. They included automated data transformation with Python scripts, manual cleaning in Sublime Text or Excel, and integrated software tools such as Tableau Prep. All the data visualizations were produced in Tableau.
This is a good question! Often, data is seen as neutral and objective. Yet, we find that data, and especially how we read it, is more subjective, born out of a thousand human decisions, goals, constraints and opinions, explicit or otherwise. With Data Epics, we wanted to emphasize the interpretative side of data and highlight the processes of translation that happen whenever we try to make sense of data. Another motivation for this project is that users usually don’t get to encounter, let alone actively interpret, their data. As we found out through this project, accessing the data of commercial smart devices is sometimes tricky. When it is easily accessible, the data is not necessarily easy to read. By turning data into fiction, we sought to make it more legible and also to expand the data imaginaries of home smart devices. The sense of neutrality and objectivity of data dissipated into the stories told about it––where data is from, where it goes, and what it does in between.
All the participants signed a consent form at the beginning of the study which explained clearly who would have access to the data, how we would share it and how it would remain anonymous. Once the participants consented to the project, this enabled us to collect their data and transform it. The data was only shared between the participants, the members of Studio Tilt involved in this project and a fiction writer. We made sure the data sets were anonymized before sharing them with the writers.
This project is funded under a National Science Foundation grant (NSF #1947696). This grant, titled “Exploring IoT Data Transparency in the Home through Creative Data Representations” proposes to use creative ways to represent home data as a way to help people understand their own data better. The grant covers the Data Epics project, which uses fiction as a creative medium, and the Inner Ear project, which uses 3D printed ceramics to represent home data.
They were recruited from a local network of fiction writers based in Seattle, WA. To select the writers, we organized a workshop where writers were presented with three prompts related to data. We selected 7 writers based on the writing samples they produced during this workshop. The writers are Alma García, J. King-Yost, Lahim Lamar, Alex Madison, Garrett Saleen, Elizabeth Tachick, and Joshua Marie Wilkinson.
We can't share the names of the people who offered their data for this project. But we can say that they lived in a variety of homes, from single family homes to condos and apartments. Most were located in Seattle, Washington, but some of them moved during the project. Some were living alone, some with their partners, kids, and pets, and some with roommates. The households owned between one and many smart devices (over forty in some cases). Some had lived with smart devices for a long time, while others were new to this experience. All of them were curious about the intersection of smart devices, data and fiction.
We are Studio Tilt, a design research studio directed by Audrey Desjardins at the School of Art + Art History + Design at University of Washington. The work we do in the studio questions and considers familiar encounters between humans and things. We use design as a practice for investigating and imagining alternatives to the ways humans currently live with everyday objects and technologies. The designers and researchers who participated in this project are: Gabrielle Benabdallah—Human Computer Interaction, Heidi Biggs—Interaction Design, Elva Chen—Interaction Design, Auden Finch—Comparative History of Ideas, Jackson Jiang—Interaction Design, Hannah Liao—Interaction Design, Riley Mehl—Visual Communication Design, Aivy Phan—Interaction Design, Yuna Shin—Interaction Design, Chandler Simon—Interaction Design, Stephanie Tang Waldrop—Visual Communication Design, and Janey Yee—Interaction Design.