Whose data is it anyway?

Big Data

Big Data is all the rage. High-velocity, high-volume information and statistics generating ‘infographics’ (which no-one seemed to notice before), data-rich annual reports and evaluations – and, of course, becoming the subject of funding calls.

The ubiquity of sensors – in our pockets, on our desks and around our offices, streets and homes – means that there is a mass of data and information being generated every nano-second. Some of it might even be useful – providing a barely-manageable mass of information to support fundraising, marketing, and most other aspects of commercial development.

Artists driving innovation

It is also a fantastic source of creative development; and a space in which artists have the potential to drive innovation like never before.

Arts practice in this space is not new. From mobile apps to wearable devices, place-based installations to connected and playable cities, from CGI avatars to the internet of things.  Artists have been working in these spaces to varying degrees over recent years.

Usman Haque, who was considered an innovator in the internet of things space five years ago, started out creating public art installations – like ‘Linguine’ in Bradford, which creates light and water effects from the movement of people interacting with sensors located in big public spaces.

Clare Reddington and colleagues at Watershed in Bristol have pioneered the ‘Playable City’ concept, with talking post-boxes and bus-stops, connecting people, data and things.

little printer

At the other end of the scale, Little Printer, the cute little device which physicalizes tweets and other data sent remotely (set up by a company sadly going out of business), is an example of re-modelling data into ordinary domestic settings.

Often initially side-lined as crazy geeks, artists working with data, sensors, familiar and unfamiliar devices, have developed some of the most interesting and ground-breaking innovations in the technology space.


Commercially-speaking, the most recent phenomenon to have captured our attention in this area is the iWatch – Apple’s latest device, which will transmit data, to us and from us, in a typically-elegant way.


But what’s most surprising about the iWatch is how unexciting it is as a new piece of tech, compared to earlier Apple innovations. Some will remember when Steve Jobs first introduced the iPhone or iTunes – and revolutionised our experience of listening to music and, in time, playing games and interacting online. The iWatch launch hardly came with the same fan-fare, and there have been no noticeable claims that it will revolutionise our experience of data in the same way as the iPhone has.

The critical difference is the space in which the iWatch will function. Unlike the curation, collection, storage and transmission of music or books or other such content and data– the data which the iWatch will access belongs to us.

And it’s artists – not techies – who are experimenting in that space; it is artists who are undertaking the most challenging work in that human, body, space.

Data is me

To define this as an issue of ‘privacy’ or ‘ownership’ of  ‘proprietary’ data is to mis-understand the challenges that companies such as Apple face. The next big opportunity in the manipulation, management and distribution of data is not about who owns the data, but where the data resides. The challenge is not overcoming the barrier of ‘this is my data’ – but the more fundamental: ‘the data is me’.


It’s no co-incidence that artists, rather than technologists, are developing the most innovative and exciting ideas and projects associated with this new data space. Creating something of value out of that which is most human has always been what artists are good at. As data becomes more ‘open’ and ubiquitous, perhaps it will be artists who will discover – and re-define – what the true value of ‘my’ data actually is.




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