Dear Data, I love you now.

US Version (L) UK Version (R)

In one of my explorations into the wonderful world of the Internet I wrote the words “Giorgia Lupi” down on a slip of paper, the origins of which I have since forgotten, and put it in a stack with a bunch of other slips of paper.  A couple of weeks later I came across the slip of paper again and remembered that it had something to do with art, but I couldn’t remember exactly what.  I googled her name and found it connected with the book Dear Data.  Knowing my dangerous habit of buying books and not reading them, I figured it would show up in my life sometime later and I recycled the paper.  Low and behold, the book was on the reading list for this class, so there was not only an excuse for me to buy the book, but the impetus to read it.  

Premise:  Two young women, one, an Italian living in Brooklyn, the other, an American living in London, who were not friends when their project started, sent an illustrated, data-based postcard to each other every week for a year.  Each week they selected, recorded, and then visually represented some aspect of their lives as creatively drawn data. Their project is documented both in this book and online.

Layout:  The large-format book is laid out with Giorgia’s postcards on the left and Stefanie’s on the right.  You can see the visual representation of the data on the front of the card and the back is a key that explains how to read the data.  Underneath the photos of the postcards is a short, one-sentence, third-person commentary about the data or the experience.

The opening of the book, all of three pages, provides a summary of its insights.  Among them are:

  • Noticing behavior influences behavior.
  • Data is a snapshot that captures a moment in time.
  • Data describes patterns.
  • Everything in life can be mapped, measured, and counted.
  • We create data just by living – we leave a data trail (formally and informally).
  • Documentation is different than “Quantified-self.”

Observations:  Data is friendly, especially when couched in colorful drawings.  There are an infinite number of ways to represent data, but how one does it is important.  While in some cases the data might be beautiful to look at, if presented too complexly it’s difficult to gain any meaning from it, or it can be difficult to identify which parts of the data are important.  Conversely, having a lot of information allows the data to serve a variety of purposes.  We can use the same data to examine a number of different aspects of a situation, but too much information can complicate the message and make it labor intensive to decipher. Too much data is overwhelming.  

Data can tell you something, but mostly it confirms.  It creates questions in both the person collecting, and the person viewing.   As one might imagine, the women collected data on different aspects of each of the shared subjects throughout the year.  Very rarely did they collect the same thing, and it was never presented in exactly the same way.  I wanted to know what they had learned, why they had selected the aspects they did, and after discovering this information and, knowing their own selves intimately, I wanted to know how they used or analyzed or applied or understood this new information about themselves.  They did not share this with the readers.

There are a few ways to look at how this book can relate to our class content, in both a literal and symbolic sense.  Libraries, in the past, have been primarily transactional places with each person playing a specific role in the transaction – Librarian as helper and patron as receiver of the help.  Data has always been otherized, and also has a role:  Data as the provider of information, person as receiver of information. Dear Data shows us that we can participate actively in the creation of our own data instead of being a passive creator of it for someone else’s benefit.  We can learn more about ourselves when we organize our own data in a way that is understandable and meaningful to us, and in a way that reflects the parts of the data that we see as important or relevant.  Likewise, if patrons have the option to use and construct their knowledge in libraries in the way that makes sense to them, they can become more aware of themselves as learners, and consumers of information.  We all see things differently and it can be useful to look at an old situation with new eyes.

By focusing our attention on what is important, we can better understand it and the role that it plays in our lives.   This project has certainly made data seem less scary, and more accessible.  If we look at it as just one way that someone has decided to represent a snapshot in time, we can then begin to open up to see the data in a useful way.  In the way that ownership makes data accessible, is the same way that allowing “ownership” of the libraries by the patrons makes them more accessible.

As Librarians, we can appreciate the detail – order, organizing, cataloging, collecting involved with the creation of this project.  As humans, we can appreciate how these two women went about creating their own data, owned it, and came away with not only an experience but a greater understanding of themselves.

Lupi, G., & Posavec, S. (2016). Dear data. UK: Particular Books.

6 thoughts on “Dear Data, I love you now.

  1. Hi Megan,

    This sounds like an amazing book! I love how very differently the two authors’ interpretations of the data manifested.

    In one of my other classes, we’ve had some discussion about data visualization and how libraries can help users access tools in order to interpret data into more usable/understandable formats. There seem to be so many useful applications not only for users, but for those working within the library world, as well.

    Thanks for sharing your impressions of this book!

    • Hi Dana,

      You should look more into Giorgia’s work, as data visualization is a big focus of hers: http://giorgialupi.com/

      I’d have to say most of the data I’ve been asked to interpret has been tables and tables of numbers and percentages. While useful, their presentation never enticed me seek data out, and I never once thought of presenting it in the ways they did.

      -Megan

  2. Megan, I looked closely at this book for my review. I love the idea of it, and your review makes it sound even more appealing! What great insights you and the books share about data. I really appreciated your notes of how we in the information field see ourselves in transactional spaces and data’s role in those spaces. And, your post made me think about not only can we participate in our own data creation but our perceptions and understanding of data are influenced by context (as the context changes, so does our understanding; and, how we are understood by others). I love the idea of people reading this book and seeing in the data a myriad of different meanings.
    Do they talk at all about privacy or what it meant to them to “share” this info? I am guessing not, given that you said they included only 3 pages of text and didn’t answer your abiding questions either. A disappointment do you think? Or an opportunity?

    • Hi Mary,

      When they talked about privacy it was more about other people that were included in the data, such as Stefanie’s husband. She always checked with him before posting information or she edited/blacked out information when it was too intimate.

      They never really got too “deep” in what they learned individually from the experience. I see that it helped them identify and guide their careers, which I think is wonderful. Through this book, they both turned something they loved into an opportunity for career growth.

      I hope for them that they now or in the future can use the information/data in a useful personal way if, of course, that is what they want to do. I don’t really need to know; I was mostly just curious as I looked through the data. More like, “Hmm, I wonder if…”

      -Megan

  3. Hi Megan,
    Wow, what an interesting take on data! (Funny, I also chose a book from the list that was on my own personal list for reading. This fact made this assignment so much more enjoyable.)
    I identified with your points about context and ownership of data:
    “In the way that ownership makes data accessible, is the same way that allowing “ownership” of the libraries by the patrons makes them more accessible.”
    This is often how I see works of art; in the eye of the beholder. It is refreshing to see this perspective applied to information and data. As more data is created and interpreted online and in a myriad of ways, librarians need to keep our eyes open to how data can be accessed and shared. Thanks for sharing this intriguing perspective.
    -Kristi

    • Hi Kristi,

      I feel the same way about art too: Literature, fine art, music. I’ve always felt that it’s all there for the individual’s interpretation, and to help us identify how we feel, or to notice our responses to what we experience.

      I wonder how a psychologist would view this data. I’m sure there’s a lot there that I didn’t even consider!

      -Megan

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