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Big data for better lives: The potential of taking a creative approach to connected living

Kati London

It’s no secret that we live in an increasingly connected world. From wearables to traffic lights – even a herd of cows in Japan is now hooked up to the web – the data collected through a broad range of sensors has the potential to change our lives.

Combining human emotions with these autonomous systems provides the power to understand data in a way that creates engaging experiences and helps us all to achieve more – whether that’s a simple tool that saves a few minutes each day, or something more complex that solves issues being faced by an entire city or nation.

But, when you stop to think in more detail about how to leverage this data explosion, you start to realize the complexity – mixing design, data capture and analytics with relationships, emotions and human nature requires a creative approach to generate insights that have impact.

Earlier today at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, I took to the stage to speak about the potential of humanizing data. To help the audience understand how data can be turned into something useful and actionable, I took this opportunity to showcase some examples of where it’s having the most impact.

This started with the Museum of Modern Art’s This is for Everyone: Design Experiments for the Common Good exhibit, celebrating the promise of contemporary design and featuring a project she co-created, Botanicalls. The device enables plants to tweet or make a call a human when they need water – signalling to their owners that they need help. Botanicalls emerged from my collaborative graduate work translating plants’ communications signals: chlorotic leaves & leaf droop, via human social protocols: personalities, emotions, and voices through phone calls, texts, and tweets.

In its current form, this is a tool for domestic plants to ensure their survival through playful means. Expanding this work with additional types of sensors and data has huge potential across many industries. Similar to the connected cow story mentioned above, where engagement is king, this kind of creative application of data could have a big impact on profits.

At Microsoft Research NYC where I’m currently based one project I’ve worked on involved building a lightweight civic engagement platform using open data. HereHere NYC analyzes public information submitted to the NYC 311 non-emergency data system, ranging from heating complaints to concerns about harbouring bees. After analysis, data is parsed by complaint type, location, and then processed through London’s Sentient Data Server. The result is a procedurally generated, local weekly cartoon, featuring characters responding to the critical issues faced in their neighbourhood that week.

HereHere NYC also has tools to compare neighborhoods and see year over year changes.

The Sentient Data Server is the underlying reusable infrastructure that powers HereHere NYC, and enables designers and developers to use character design and social dynamics as a way to take complex real time data feeds and translate them into human-readable output as emotional responses to drive engagement. It gives a human voice to the data – stimulating conversations by elevating concerns to the community.

As we look to the next stage of connected living, the Sentient Data Server is one tool that we at Microsoft excited to see realise its full potential. Current prototypes being powered by the server include self-aware bikes with tails, networked to the Citi bike share program, services that use emotion to protect privacy and let third parties know when and where to contact a user, and reactive architecture designed to stimulate collaboration.

These are just a few examples of how real world data can be applied to improve our lives and empower us all to achieve more. Taking a creative approach to understanding and humanizing the wealth of data we sit on is the most effective route to unlocking the potential of the sensors and autonomous systems in today’s Internet of Things society.

As we look to the future, there’s no question that increasingly connected living will fuel the data available to generate increasingly useful insights for us to get creative with and have an immeasurable impact on our lives.

Kati London is a senior researcher at Microsoft.

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