Using art to showcase the value of open data at MozFest in 2023
Anele Ngcoya, Joanne Parker
April 20, 2023
Data is also often locked away behind closed doors and inaccessible to those who could benefit from it the most. As open data advocates, we see art as a tool for making data more accessible and relatable to people who aren’t data scientists or data experts.

Imagine it’s 2050 and people around the world truly understand the value of open data for their lives, their work, their children, their politics and their future. They no longer accept decisions that are made without data or data that they cannot access. They lobby for transparency around how data is collected, analysed and used in society. They are vocal when governments, corporations and other entities refuse to share data with them. They are equipped to interrogate and contribute to important datasets. In this future, everyone everywhere believes in and champions open data not only as a nice-to-have but as an essential part of life.

The world is slowly becoming data-driven. This slow pace is, in part, because there are extensive efforts going into collecting and storing data and little directed at making the same data accessible and meaningful to the public. Data is also often locked away behind closed doors and inaccessible to those who could benefit from it the most. As open data advocates, we see art as a tool for making data more accessible and relatable to people who aren’t data scientists or data experts.

In order to achieve the vision of 2050 described above, we need to reimagine how we communicate the value of data to communities in ways that are accessible, simple, creative and exciting. In an attention economy, the responsibility is on us to dream up new ways of exploring and sharing the magic of open data with those most affected by it i.e. the public. We have the answer: art! 

Why art? Art has the power to engage, inspire, and move people in ways that data alone cannot. By using various art mediums - sound, visual, space-  to present and share data we can make this information more accessible, understandable, and meaningful to a wider audience.

What is dARTa?

dARTa brings together data geeks and creatives with the goal of bringing important data to life in a way that appeals to the general public. It is an initiative that was conceptualised by Joanne Parker and Paul Jones in 2018 as a fringe activity for the International Symposium for Electronic Arts (ISEA). The first dARTa workshop that was hosted brought together artists, researchers, planners, and other creatives to explore datasets and ideate a creative concept to make the data more accessible. Since then, the dARTa process was undertaken again as part of the Southern African City Studies Conference (2020) and selected as one of SACN’s Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF) demonstrator projects (2021).

Music dARTa in 2018

From the dARTa event we hosted in 2018, we created a piece of music that represented the cases of sexual assault in 3 areas of Durban, a South African city. The audio (which can be found at the end of the dARTa presentation at the Mozilla festival last month) is a representation of the state of sexual assault in the three different areas. Each area in the data has different socio-economic representation (racial and income divide) and each beat in the piece represents the different number of cases that occurred. What we showcased was that as income levels drop, beats per minute (or cases reported) increase.

dARTa brings light in 2021

In 2021 the dARTa team conceptualised a large lighting sculpture which was ideated based on community survey responses. 300 surveys collected across the Glenwood neighbourhood aimed at finding out from the community what their favourite things are, and what their biggest challenges are. 

The team decided to address the issue of safety, while simultaneously focusing on the other challenges of waste/litter and urban management - specifically, the lack of lighting in the area due to inadequate urban management and the impact of this on people’s sense of safety. The sculpture was made using reclaimed fibre-optic pipe waste that was collected from around the Glenwood area, and fitted with LED lights connected to a solar panel.

The sculpture was installed in the KZNSA Gallery at first, then moved into the Park where the community was called to engage in an open dance party hosted under the light. 

dARTa at the Mozilla Festival ‘23

This year, Joanne and Sarah from OCL as well as Paul of Lumec, brought together a group of people to re-imagine art forms that can speak life to the concept and value of open data in society. In the same way that we used music to re-image sexual assault data in 2018, light to address safety concerns from surveys in 2021, this year we are re-imagining advancements towards openness and transparency in civic tech.

It's 2050. What advancements towards openness and transparency do you want to see realised and why? 

This is the question that opened our dARTa session at #MozFest this year. Participants shared a future that includes making data accessible to everyone, improving access to technology and digital skills, ensuring transparency and accountability in government decision-making, and creating decentralised data systems. Additionally, there is a desire for technology to be used to improve people's lives and for individuals to have confidence in the safety and security of their data. “In 2050, I can right click anything digital and in the real world and find out what it knows about me, and see anonymised analytics about the data it’s tracking.”

What art can be made to showcase the value of open data and transparency of information in general?

The main exercise of the session was to brainstorm ideas for art that speaks to openness and the ‘utility of transparency’. Some of the ideas included:

  • Governmental corruption data can be displayed through a work of art that gets darker based on the percentage of corruption is each year (i.e Lebanon case)  
  • To highlight the data around the displacement of people due to flood and sea level rising in Bangladesh. People will be asked to create a home with something like sand and it is washed away every time it is finished. 
  • Audio presentation of voters: registered and actual voters vs no vote. Voices saying “ahhhh” representing each group to understand who registered, who showed up and who didn’t - using the trope of your vote is your voice
  • Using the art of crochet to create items that can represent data (such as little people relating to number of votes or using waste to make bags) 
  • Fashion art with patterns / statistics / colour coding some indicators mapped or plotted creatively to tell a short story or raise an awareness visually about a social concern.
  • Reddit users can contribute pixels to create a large shared canvas - communities can collaborate 
  • A trail of wool as a metaphor for our digital footprint.
  • Skill sharing as an ‘exchange of confidence’. Share the skills of knitting with digital skills between two groups (this could be any skills that one digitally excluded group has in common shared with a group of individuals that are digitally skilled). For example, an intergenerational approach (knitting) or immigrant communities approach where food and dance are cherished.

What’s next?

With the help of Mozilla Festival participants at the dARTa session we hosted last month, the team will once again use art and innovation to brainstorm new, provocative and beautiful ways of showing the value of open data to the public. If you’ like to know when we share the output for dARTa in 2023, follow the dARTa pages on Instagram and Facebook and be among the first to know. You can see the full presentation from the 2023 Mozilla Festival here and the ideas we were able to collect on the Figjam board here (access to view will be granted on request) to get more insight on what we've got in the pipeline and what we hope to get up to at #MozFest2023.

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