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Dear Data: You're a useful tool but 'some stones should be left unturned'

Data is the new gold. We're either creating it, collecting it, or making money with it. But can it help us get to know other people? After an intensive year trying, the authors of "Dear Data" tell DW it can.

The idea was relatively simple. Take two data visualization designers. One in London and one in New York. Pick a topic each week. Gather data. Visualise that data on a postcard. And send the postcards across the Atlantic. Stefanie Posavec and Giorgia Lupi did just that for a whole year. Fifty-two weeks. One hundred and four postcards. And what's become "Dear Data."

DW spoke to the two designers and authors Posavec and Lupi on the phone to London and New York.

DW: Your book "Dear Data" is the result of a year-long experiment to get to know each other through personal data. Data is en vogue. When we talk about data these days, it tends to be from a digital perspective. We talk about big data and computer-generated data visualisations. But you took an analog approach - this slower approach to life, as you put it. You drew your data visualizations by hand. Why?

Stefanie Posavec: When we started the project we had only meet each other twice, and the key reason we collaborated was because we work with data in a relatively unique way. We don't code, which is different from a lot of people who do data visualizations. We prefer to start the process in an analog, hand-drawn way. And that was what we wanted to explore within the project.

Giorgia Lupi: And the other reason is we wanted to question and challenge the impersonal [nature] of a merely technological approach to data. The more data visualization becomes ubiquitous and the more people have access to tools to visualize data, the more we need to find ways to get more personal. Even when you then talk about big data and technology, and you put technology back in the process, we think there is a value to this experimentation because of that.

In the introduction, you write that by noticing your behavior you influence your behavior. And I wonder whether over the course of the year you started to influence each other's styles. At the start, your styles are very different, and then they get more and more colorful. Take Week 35 - Getting Dressed. Your approach to the question was similar but also the way you visualized the data. Whereas other weeks were completely different from start to finish.

Posavec: I definitely think we influenced each other. At the beginning we were really tentative, we were only working with pencil and black ink, and then we added a little color and became more colorful. So aesthetically we were influenced by each other. But also in regard to data collection, Giorgia is incredibly more detailed than I am, and that always freaked me out. She would do something that I would never think of, and then I would try to see if I could approach something in a similar way, or add a level of richness and detail to the cards, which I always thought Giorgia had and found really hard to achieve.

How do you feel about that Giorgia?

Lupi: I also feel we influenced each other. There were times, like in the first three weeks, as Stephanie said we were very tentative, we just used black and white, and then all of a sudden, we didn't even know why, in Week 4, we both used color. That's the interesting thing about doing something in parallel. And receiving the cards and spending a lot of time reading the cards from the other person… we definitely influenced each other's designs.

You also say that instead of using data to become more efficient, you want data to be seen as a way to becoming more humane. But I wonder whether that is at all possible. Aren't there things better left unexplained, unquantified, unanalyzed, uncomputed, and basically, left a mystery?

Lupi: It depends on how you define humane. From my perspective, it's a provocation for sure, and it's something we wanted to put out there. Some weeks we tackled tricky topics, like dark matters or obsessions, questioning our negative thoughts, trying to understand whether it's fear or anxiety… you would never really stop doing that. And there were other weeks where you would look forward to noticing something beautiful and taking your time to do that... we think that was a way to connect with ourselves and the other person at a deep level. So data can be a tool to connect with ourselves and other people at a deeper level, if we really embrace it.

Posavec: To be honest I agree with you to some degree. I don't think that just because we have data on something we should know all of it. There are a lot of people who visualize data from break-ups, or the decline of a break-up… you know, you probably don't want to quantify that. Some stones are better left unturned. I think data gathering is a really useful tool. But it's all about context and choosing the right dataset. Some datasets I think are more useful… and some data gathering actually gets in the way. When we were gathering data for a week of laughter, it was actually a real challenge, because we were trying to catch a laugh, but then every time we tried to track a laugh, it pulled us out of that moment.

There is a commercial side to data. Big data. But sticking with the personal - you've produced a beautiful book. And you've gone through what I'm sure was a very intense personal experiment. But the idea of our collecting data on a daily basis, minute-by-minute, doesn't it raise this risk of our becoming compulsive about a lot of things?

Posavec: Well obviously it was a really intensive project. But what we found was that the act of data gathering helped us notice a lot of the world around us, because it forced us to look up and see things that we didn't see normally.

Lupi: I think the compulsive part… so far that's maybe more about passive data gathering. We have so many apps that can track data about our movements, our health… all the things that apps can track passively. But we think this project was a way to prove there is value in spending more time contextualizing your data, and asking yourself the question you really want to answer, and not just the question that's answered by tracking your miles as you walk across the city.

Stefanie Posavec and Giorgia Lupi's book, "Dear Data," is published by Penguin Random House in Europe and Princeton Architectural Press in North America.

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