SciArt summer school on “Big Data”

dsc_1188.jpgThe week before last, I was at the JRC SciArt Resonances III summer school, the 3rd edition of an event designed to bring together artists & scientists to reflect on a predefined EU policy topic. By the end of the summer school, artists & scientists are encouraged to come up with collaborative SciArt projects that fit the given topic – some of which are then selected to be displayed at the next Resonances Festival. The previous years’ themes were Food & Fairness, and this year’s theme was Big Data.

The first 2 days of the summer school were centred on discussions on big data, while in the last 3 days artists & scientists were given time to chat and come up with SciArt project ideas.

I had a fabulous time at this summer school and would go as far as saying that it changed the way I see and think about everything that’s around me! I’d like to share with you a few highlights and personal reflections on what was discussed during those 5 intense and amazing days.

Big data in an anthropocentric world

We heard a set of presentations from JRC scientists, who talked about how they use big data for their daily work – e.g. in economics, DNA analysis and research on migration, global human settlements, energy and transportation, etc. I was impressed by this vast range of topics, in which big data seems to be a key element!

The big data (scientific) world which we live in is a fast paced one, where artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly being used to replace some of our (low cost) decisions. Some AI techniques, like machine learning, are dependent on big data – they require a lot of good quality data to be trained on in order to work properly. Should big data perhaps be called rich data instead? And is big data changing the way we have done science for decades, replacing the hypothesis-driven research for more exploratory analyses, in the search for correlation and causation?

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Data shadow

We also had captivating discussions on big data and our place, as humans, within this data-rich world. To some extent, we now live in a virtual world, in the sense that we leave a data trace behind us in most occasions – it’s our data shadow. I learnt that this new lifestyle is best described by the term onlife, replacing the now obsolete term online. To reflect on this, an artist raised the question: “Are we a pool of data or a pool of genes?”

But this new lifestyle could have consequences on us, humans, as we don’t necessarily know what our data is used for. Does this make us the puppets rather than the puppeteers? A striking example given at the summer school was The Face of Litter campaign, launched a couple of years ago in Hong Kong. They used DNA analysis on trash collected around the city, to give a face to anonymous Hong Kong litterbugs, and posted representations of their faces (based on the DNA collected) on billboards across the city.

To wrap up, does the ever growing quantity of data we accumulate make us lose touch with reality, overshadowing it? Whatever we do, we ought to remember that data (no matter how much of it we have) is only an abstraction of reality – it doesn’t tell us the full story and is just one out of many realities!

Communication & citizen engagement

We also talked about communication and successful vs less successful methods to engage citizens in science & policy-making. It turns out that the traditional method of “educating” people in the hope that they make the right decisions is overrated. There is a palette of methods which can be used instead and are much more effective! One of these more successful methods is based on a captivating story, which I would like to share with you.

It’s January 2011 in Cairo, and a few people want to spread the word about a protest planned in Tahrir Square, in the context of the Egyptian uprising. They tell taxi drivers about the planned protest, in the hope that they will repeat the information to their next passengers. But this doesn’t seem to work… They then decide to go in taxis 2 by 2 and “secretly” talk amongst themselves about the planned protest. This works, as taxi drivers couldn’t stop themselves from talking about the secret they’d overheard! The question is: who is your taxi driver?

Another successful method is to empower people to understand and drive change, by giving them the tools to do so – e.g. games for people to engage, discuss, and not “knowledge for the shelf”!

I also really like this quote by Marshall B. Rosenberg, which perfectly captures the double-sided nature of communication: “Words are windows (or they’re walls)”. This is why art is so powerful, it doesn’t need words!

Science & art

Science & art, or SciArt, is not new. It’s been around for centuries. Take for example Leonardo Da Vinci!

Being a scientist and amateur artist myself, I thought that science & art were 2 different ways of questioning our environment – until I went to this SciArt summer school. After having spent 1 full week around artists, I would like to change this statement to: “Science & art are 2 very different ways of questioning our environment”. While science seeks to answer questions, usually with one specific answer, art seeks to let people reflect on things, by always asking more questions! In art, the process matters more than the actual answer, while in science the outcome is rewarded.

Giorgio, an artist I met at the summer school, brilliantly explained how art and artists work!

“What do you see?” he asked, showing me one side of a coin.

“Tails”, I replied.

He then asked: “Can you manage to see both sides of the coin, both heads and tails, at the same time?”

“No.”

“But what if you put that coin in front of a mirror, can you see both sides at the same time?” he asked.

“Yes!”

And it all made sense! Artists are trying to create a mirror that allows us, viewers, to reflect on the, at first hidden side of things.

Both science and art tell us a story, but do they tell us a different one? Do they maybe show us a different side of the coin?

At the summer school, J Henry Fair, a photographer, presented some of his beautiful photos, which mix both science & art. Part of Industrial Scars, these abstract, beautiful yet frightening photos capture details in the landscape, as evidence of man-made impacts on Earth. After taking photos, usually from a small plane, J Henry Fair does a bit of research to tell us the full story hidden behind those landscapes.

And if you’re not sure why artists & scientists should work together yet, I found this sentence from Martin Hablesreiter (an artist at the summer school) quite convincing! “Artists can say whatever they want but might not be taken seriously, while scientists are usually taken seriously but might not be able to say whatever they want. This is why we need to collaborate!”

~~~~~~~~

As part of my PhD, I will produce one piece of art to go alongside my scientific papers. This summer school gave me lots of ideas on what I want this piece of art to be about! But in the meantime, here is a painting I made a few days before the summer school, which to me looks like the Earth as seen from above. I’m calling it “Big Data”.

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