Artists Show How Anyone Can Fight the Man with Open Data

From military drones to government expenses, there's a lot of data out there.

Mar 20 2014, 6:30pm
The Book Stabber does exactly that every time Bristol council spends £500. Image: YoHa/ODI

The UK’s Open Data Institute usually looks, as you’d probably expect, like an office full of people staring at screens. But visit at the moment and you might see a potato gun among the desks or a bunch of drone photos on the wall—all in the name of encouraging public discussion around and engagement with open data.

The ODI was set up by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and interdisciplinary researcher Nigel Shadbolt in London to push for an open data culture, and from Monday it will be hosting the second Data as Culture exhibition, which presents a more artistic take on questions surrounding the practicalities of open data. In doing so, it shows quite how the general public can (and probably really should) use data to inform their own lives and to engage with political issues.

All of the exhibits are based on freely available data, which is made lot more animated and accessible than numbers in a spreadsheet. “I made the decision straight away to move away from anything screen-based,” curator Shiri Shalmy told me as she gave me a tour, winding through office workers tapping away on keyboards. “Everything had to be physical.”

Hence artworks like YoHa’s spud gun. Part of the art duo’s Invisible Airs series, the pneumatic contraption fires a potato every time Bristol Council spends more than £500; it’s a novel way to make sense of the public expenditure database. 

A documentary about the "Invisible Airs" project.

At the same time, a machine named the Open Data Book Stabber stabs a book with a pneumatically driven knife, a kind of particularly violent pun on book-balancing. The third in the choreography, the Public Expenditure Riding Machine, consists of a bike seat that jolts each time the money leaves. “You can sit on it and feel how your money’s being spent,” said Shalmy. 

Quite how often the machines come to life varies—she pointed out that councils buy everything from teabags to housing—but the idea is to make sense of computer logs that might be open, but aren’t necessarily that accessible.

The same artists are responsible for a much less humorous piece, Endless War, based on war diaries of soldiers fighting in Iraq. “They were not supposed to be open data, they were completely secret, but they were made available through Wikileaks,” said Shalmy.

From the series 'Watching the Watchers.' Image: James Bridle/ODI

James Bridle’s work on drone warfare touches a similar theme, though in this case the data are not hidden: his images of military UAVs come from Google Maps. “They’re there for anybody to look at, they’re kind of secret but available,” said Shalmy, who added that with the data out there, we can’t pretend we don’t know what’s going on. “They can do things in secret as long as we pretend it’s a secret.”

We’ve looked at Bridle’s work before, from his Dronestagram photos to his chalk outlines of drones, and he’s been commissioned to do something new for the Data as Culture show: Shalmy has asked him to compare the open data on military drones against that of London’s financial centre. He’ll present what he digs up in summer.

From the series 'Watching the Watchers.' Image: James Bridle/ODI

Using this kind of government data—from local council expenses to military movements—shows quite how much information is available and how it can be used to hold politicians to account. In essence, anyone can do surveillance to some level. While activists including Berners-Lee push for more data to be made accessible, it’s only useful if we actually bother to engage with it, and work like Bridle’s pose the uneasy suggestion that sometimes it’s more comfortable to remain ignorant.

And in addition to reading data, we can collect it. Rather than delving into government files, a knitted banner by artist Sam Meech uses publicly generated data to make a political point. The banner bears the phrase “8 hour labour,” a reference to the eight-hour workday movement that sprang up in Britain’s Industrial Revolution. The idea was that people would have eight hours work, eight hours rest, and eight hours recreation.

A detail from Sam Meechan's Punchcard Economy. Image: Sam Meechan/ODI

But the black-and-white pattern in the banner is made up of much less regular working hours: those logged by self-employed creatives, who can take part by entering their own timesheet data via virtual punchcards. Shalmy pointed out her own schedule in a week when she was setting up the exhibition: a 70-hour block woven into the knit. It’s an example of how individuals can use data to make a political point—the work is reminiscent of trade union banners and seems particularly relevant at a time when controversial zero hours contracts are on the rise.

Also garnering data from the public, artist collective Thickear are asking people to fill in data forms on their arrival, which they’ll file on an old-fashioned spike. I took one of the forms, only to be confronted with nonsensical bureaucratic-type boxes. “The data itself is not informative in any way,” said Shalmy. It’s more about the idea of who we trust to give our data to. How often do we accept privacy policies without even giving ourselves the chance to even blink at the small print?

On a similar note, the online exhibition catalogue, designed by Paolo Cirio, demands user data in order to work. Shalmy explained it uses a type of “supercookie” to collect browsing metadata, which informs what you then see. 

In the true spirit of the fast-growing data economy, if you don’t give your data, you don’t get to take part.