Blog Post

Data and Authority (and a bit of Scotland)

The lovely city of Edinburgh

In my last few posts, I tackled issues around authority, power, and objectivity in the worlds of data and mapping. My project for this fellowship involves mapping and representing the stories told by a group of Londoner’s digital data, so it makes sense that I would need to grapple with these issues. But even I didn't think that I would have this much to say about them. As it turns out, the closer I inch to the end of this fellowship, the more I uncover things worth thinking, writing, and talking about.

With that in mind, I’m using this post as a chance to jump into two of the things that have been on my mind. They’re still related to my last couple of posts in that they tackle the communication of data as information, but they should be my last jump into these sorts of abstract topics. Having said that, I’m hoping that they’ll be relevant or useful for someone else out there, as well.

1. Most data is boring.

Data, minus story.

To anyone who has been involved in the messy process of gathering, cleaning, mining, or analyzing data, pointing out how the majority of data collected for any project is boring is about as controversial as saying that the sky is blue.

But I think this whole idea is true for more than just the niche world of data-based art/journalism. By way of example, I'm reminded of the idea of ritual in anthropology (I majored in anthropology, which is one of those subjects that no parent is ever excited to hear their child wants to study, so I relish any chance I get to prove the usefulness of the degree).

Anyway, rituals are quite important concepts in the field of anthropology. Defined as events or customs performed according to some set of sequence or rules, ritual often (though not always) manifest as events that are intentionally separate from everyday life, and it's partly this uniqueness that lends them their significance. What it also implies is that rituals hold import because most of life isn't special in the same way. Life isn't perpetually lived in the flashes of excitement and adventure that we often see depicted in movies. The majority of our lives play out in the space of the mundane, normal, and everyday. With this in mind, it's no surprise that though there are moments of clear interest and import, loads of data depict things that are often quite routine.

But storytelling isn't the same as life, and though my project is concerned with representing people's data, I'm really trying to tell the story that data tells. And when was the last time you enjoyed reading, watching, or experiencing something that was boring? We look to storytelling to curate the mundane and highlight the most interesting, emotional and exciting bits.

So this process of using the data I’ve gathered this year to create an engaging storytelling experience means that I'm faced with the task of double curation: I've got to not only find the compelling parts of the data I'm gathering, but also present that as something worth experiencing. And that is the crux of one of the largest challenges that I’m currently facing now that I’m nearing the final month and a half or so of my project.

2. Context confers authenticity/authority.

The Kelvingrove gallery, as seen from the outside.

Glasgow's Kelvingrove Park

And now, a completely different direction: what I’m about to discuss is actually more closely tied to a post I did a few weeks ago, when I was examining the power that maps hold. But let me rewind a bit:

Last week I took a quick trip to Scotland to accompany a friend to a wedding. Though I was out of London, it wasn’t really a holiday. If anything, what I saw most were Glasgow and Edinburgh's coffee shop scenes (I spent a disturbing amount of time hunched over my laptop, working and writing in whatever seat was most strategically positioned close by a power outlet).

I did manage to pull myself away from the screen long enough to view some of Scotland's more interesting parts, and one of the places I visited was Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery. The collection is a bit haphazardly organized, so every room has the feel of a grab bag affair where you don’t really know what you’re going to get.

For example, in one of the rooms I found an exhibition on Scottish wildlife that featured a number of taxidermic animals. I was just about to wander somewhere else when my eye landed on a creature that looked odd enough for me to double back around and take a closer look. Titled “The Haggis,” the description for the animal read the following:

The supposed haggis animal.

“Some believe the haggis is a small creature with shorter legs on one side of its body so that it can run around hills more easily. To most people, haggis is a delicious Scottish food, best served with jeeps ’n’ tattoos—turnips and potatoes.”

The description hints at the light-natured nature of the display, and anyone who knows a thing about Scotland will recognize that haggis is a food that doesn’t come from a haggis creature (it actually is made from a sheep's heart, lungs, and liver, so maybe believing in the animal is less galling for some). In fact, the idea that there’s a creature called a haggis who runs around the Scottish hillside is humorous folklore, a funny myth maintained solely for the sake of laughs.

But the tone of the haggis description is just deadpan enough to fool the gullible, and the museum presents a model of the supposed haggis creature right next to similarly-sized otters, which are, in fact, real animals. So for the unaware or misinformed, it wouldn’t have been too unbelievable to see the "haggis" and believe that it really existed, just because of its setting. Museums never have to provide any explanation or references for the placards they provide, so what’s to distinguish fact from fiction?

Lesson learned: context can confer authority. The museum, like the maps I talked about back in the beginning of April, carry their own contained power and authority just by the nature of their positions and what they represent. Perhaps that implies a bit of responsibility for the creators of such things—or perhaps, in a more nefarious interpretation, it points to more power for those of us who can benefit from such things. I'd hope for the former.

Those are the two final notes I wanted to make before shifting the focus of these blogposts to more practical aspects of the past eight months of research and work. I’m excited about the next coming months, and also excited about the potential to be engaged in more discussions with people about these things. If you’re interested in further exploring any of the things I’ve talked about (and even things I haven’t!) reach out to me through Twitter.

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