FutureEverything is an incredible festival of technology, music and arts that happens once a year in Manchester. Part of the festival includes a conference and it is by far my favourite conference of the year.

If I were to write about all the amazing things that happened at FutureEverything, it would fill many blog posts, so I’ve picked just one in the hopes that it illustrates just a tiny fraction of my awe and wonder at this event.

Jer Thorp’s keynote spoke to me. It opened the conference and happened to be about a subject close to my heart: data visualisation. I have, for a long time, been virtually obsessed with the relationship between data and visuals; the idea that an arresting visual representation of data can enlighten, change someone’s mind, or draw attention to a situation. Numbers on a website might interest some, but present those numbers in an interesting way, in a beautiful way, or in a different context, and you can shed an entirely new light on them, whilst reaching a totally new audience.

In 2011 Jer made a visualisation of the Kepler exoplanet candidates. At that point there were 1236.

In 2012 he released his code so that others could update the visualisation (there had been another 1091 exoplanet candidates discovered in the interim).

This openness is at the heart of a lot, if not all, of Jer’s work. His OpenPaths program, which tracks significant changes in location via a mobile device, allows users to own their own tracking data. We can look to the OpenPaths website for his reasoning.

Why did we create OpenPaths? We inhabit a world where data are being collected about us on a massive scale. These data are being stored, analyzed and monetized primarily by corporations; there is limited agency for the people whom the data actually represent. We believe that people who generate data through their own day-to-day activities should have a right to keep a copy of that data. When people have access to their personal data in a useful format all kinds of new things become possible. We can become better consumers: for example, we can know whether a monthly rail pass makes sense for us, or which data-plan would be most economical for our smartphone usage. More importantly, when our personal data is readily accessible and under our control we can become active collaborators in the quest for solutions to important social problems in areas such as public health, genetics or urban planning.

Ignoring the potential can of grammatical worms he opens by using plural verbs when referring to data, we can see that open data is of the utmost importance to him. To hear him speak on the matter was completely compelling, and though there were speakers who disagreed with his stance on data, he definitely convinced me.

I’ve had OpenPaths installed on my phone for a couple of days now, and it’s really pretty interesting to watch the animations. There are no surprises in there, I know where I’ve been the past three days, but as your data builds, you can create a map of your journeys, and perhaps it might spur me on to venture outside my physical comfort zone once in a while.

You can watch his TED Talk, Making Data Human here: 


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