Posted: 04 May 2020 6 min. read

The value of data + design to society

We’re focussing on key issues impacting the local business landscape by exploring new ideas and concepts that solves the latest challenges. In this blog, I chat with Chris Speed, Chair of Design Informatics at Edinburgh University.

Things have certainly changed over the past month as almost everyone is impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic. So many things that we once took for granted, from our children’s education to our location of work and how we buy groceries, is rapidly changing. Communications, computing technology and how we gather appropriate data is more critical now than ever before as data driven innovation continues to transform society and the economy.

In the Centre for Design Informatics, Chris and the team design systems for better human data interaction, in diverse settings such as health, culture, mobility and finance. The central concern is the design of flows of data which sustain and enhance human values. 

Q. What does design informatics mean?

It’s a complicated word informatics but really it’s the study of the flow of information. It’s often associated with data science and computer science schools within universities. Edinburgh University has a really strong informatics school. We look at the flow of information or data studied by scientists in AI, machine learning, natural language processing, foundational computing but all the time trying to understand how data changes shape and turns in to information and then becomes relevant, or not, to different people. If I bolt the word design on the front – well as designers we’re curious how that becomes a human centred problem or opportunity. That information then becomes meaningful for different groups of people.

Q. Why do you think in a world now dominated by big data, and particularly pertinent now as we look at numerous diagrams of the spread of COVID-19 across the world. Do you think the design of information has ever been more important?

Given what we’re going through now, all of these connections with anyone outside of our household is through an information channel where data is being kept/ processed – hopefully with good intention. Designers are sometimes behind the curve so getting ahead of that curve is important. Data literacy for designers is vital to ensure they design good, human centric products.

Q. The amount of data presented to all of us, not even in business but in home life now has dramatically changed. Is the role of design to make more sense of that information?  

That nails it really. We’ve gone through a whole period of being connected to the internet where we were just receivers. Yes we could type in and search but now everyone is producing their own outputs. I am part of a digital economy but I’m producing lots of data too. Being a producer of data as well as a consumer to get the services somewhere in the middle is a real turn. It’s a fascinating time, I don’t think we’re millennials anymore we’re definitely post internet and everyone has their own data story.

Q. I think it’s interesting when you apply some of the learning that we’ve had in the past 10/15 years about the importance in the way you present informant and the way you present data to something more analogue. I remember the work we did with some of your students, looking at the changing face of bus timetables. Do you think they have a different lens because the amount of data they’re used to consuming or because they’re bringing fresh eyes to a problem that’s not been looked at for a long time?

Q. I think we all know the limitations on a printed bus timetable. I know that the words and the times are not going to leak from the page - they’re not going to change dynamically like a train timetable. I think as humans we can’t just jump to the constant flow, constant change. Knowing what people from different generations can cope with and what people who expect an ‘uberisation’ of busses need and trying to find middle ground is important.

Q. Do you think we’re already starting to see new patterns evolve as we work from home? Not just in data or design but in the way that we use all of those tools.

I do, I really do. I live outside the centre of Edinburgh and recently I’ve realised just how much of a relatively digitally informed literate bubble I live in. Then suddenly this comes along…and of course I’m now exposed to a whole different bunch of people and routines. I’m now part of a community network supporting the older and more vulnerable people in our village. Before lockdown I handed out flyers with my contact details through doors in my area offering to pick up prescriptions and food. I then go back to our community WhatsApp and we arrange for this to happen. I’ve met so many people I would never have met. What is this new stack? In the village we’ve had to stand up and analogue digital social stack and it gets the job done.

Q. The way in which small businesses have pivoted for survival recently is incredible. The fortitude and strength of character that they have shown as they come to terms and adapt with our new ‘normal’ is to be applauded. I’ve also noticed a lot of, particularly smaller companies, refining on the go and really listening to their customers. What do you think bigger businesses can learn from this?

It is really interesting isn’t it? In terms of society, when I talk about value with my students, it can be conceived as goodness, fairness and worth. On a day to day basis we can look at services we use and products we buy and analyse their value but all of those questions now have been entirely disrupted. Value is now perceived differently than ever before.

Q. What do you think the implications of the last few weeks have been - do you think the world will change going forward? Climate change, the impact of no travel, the impact of us being inside more? Do you subscribe to that?

Every person will have a different registrar of what’s changed – the sound of less cars, less trains, planes. We’re parenting more, we’re not just sending the kids off. I really value schooling now. People’s core values will have changed. People will now be asking themselves; can I do a 4 day week? Can I use more local businesses now? I think it will be based on a balance of what we think we’ve lost and what we think we’ve gained. Hopefully everyone feels they have gained something in this time and if we can identify that gain then we will see behaviour change. 

Listen to my conversation with Chris in our latest podcast.

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