CATATLYST: Jessica Foley & Oliver Dawkins
HOST: Maynooth Library & Love Data Week
SEED: How do I Love Thee, Let me Count/Map the Ways…
DATE: 14th February 2019 2-4pm
The first Engineering Fictions session of 2019 took place on Valentines Day at Maynooth University Library, as part of Love Data Week 2019. Hosting sessions on Valentines day is becoming something of a tradition, harking back to the Poem.py session with the wonderful Dr. Pip Thornton in 2017 where we composed the most and least expensive love poems by thinking like the Google AdWords tool, and to the MADCOM workshop as part of the ESWN 2018 in Madrid last year, where we composed tender unrequited lyrics to Internet of Things technologies.
Oliver Dawkins and myself brought a number of different threads into relation: the use of data in society, particularly through interfaces like dashboards; the practice of mapping open datasets using open source software called QGIS; and some ruminations on the poetics of dashboards, data and maps, drawing in particular on the work of the Building City Dashboards team and the cartographic practice of Tim Robinson. The writing constraints were inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43, a proto-data-sonnet if ever there was one!
The session was open to all on campus, and we were lucky to also have members from the Open Data Unit of the Department for Public Protection and Reform and the Building City Dashboards team amongst our numbers on the day.
Oliver gave an overview of the Building City Dashboards project and how Open Data are integrated into the dashboard for public use, from insights on housing supply, demand and planning over time to live information on traffic flows and the availability of services like Dublin Bikes. I followed up with some lateral thoughts on the etymology of dashboards and our expectations of such kinds of data-based technology. I also pointed out that the word dashboard is a linguistic skeuomorph and that the origins of the word emerge out of a physical need for protection, namely the need to protect carriage drivers and passengers from getting covered in mud and shit as they travel. The idea of a dashboard as a protective device has largely been lost, but I wonder what it would mean to rethink dashboards in this way? What does a digital dashboard protect from? Who is being protected and from what? (These are questions I’ll explore further in my research with the Building City Dashboards team).
To open up some thoughts around the word data, I next drew on the work of digital humanities scholar Johanna Drucker . In her work, she highlights the assumptions behind our words, that assumption that data means given, and yet in the reality of a digital world data is often what is taken, and often without consent or awareness.
To think about mapping and the ways in which data-sets are rapidly being brought into the practice of cartography, I looked at Tim Robinson’s work mapping the landscapes and heritage of the west of Ireland. I think digital cartographers and data users have much to learn from Robinsons approach, particularly in relation to the politics of data and whose story of a place and its history gets to be told in the visual-numerical world of digital media. Again, there are more questions than answers here, and pedagogically linking Robinsons work with the work of projects like Building City Dashboards will be a part of my ongoing research through Engineering Fictions.
Oliver then showed us how open data sets can be accessed and brought into mapping software like QGIS to make annotated maps that can show anything from population density to electoral district boundaries lines. (You can find out more on Oliver’s GitHub page: https://github.com/virtualarchitectures/Love_Data_Week_2019/)
Following these openings, we gathered to compose some data-sonnets (a first I’m sure!). There were bowls of words, cut up, from three main sources:
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43;
- transcriptions from an interview with Tim Robinson on his map making practice;
- and the lyrics to a Massive Attack song called Protection (dashboards=protection?)
We kept to a very (very) loose form of the Sonnet, 14 lines of 10 syllables each, if we could manage it. (For more accurate information on the Sonnet form please visit this page). Some interesting results emerged and a conversation opened up around data-sets, mapping and how we actually think (or do not think) about the use of these in our lives, as individuals and as state-bodies.