Data Stories: Engaging citizens with data in a post-truth society

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Sch of of Electronics and Computer Sci


In the post-truth society we live in, experts must find novel ways to bring hard, factual data to citizens. Data must entertain as well as inform, and excite as well as educate. It must be built with sharing through social channels in mind and become part of our everyday activities and interactions with others. Data Stories will look at novel frameworks and technologies for bringing data to people through art, games, and storytelling. It will examine the impact that varying levels of localisation, topicalisation, participation, and shareability have on the engagement of the general public with factual evidence substantiated by different forms of digital content derived and repurposed from a variety of sources. It will deliver the tools and guidance that community and civic groups need to achieve broader participation and support for their initiatives at local and national level, and empower artists, designers, statisticians, analysts, and journalists to communicate with data in inspiring, informative ways.

Our research hypotheses are as follows:
1. People engage more with data that is made relevant to them by localisation (data related to a specific geographic or geopolitical area of interest) and topicalisation (data about a particular entity, theme, or event).
2. People engage more with data and understand it better when said data is provided through interactive and participatory methods that help build a coherent narrative.
3. Data is more likely to be shared, and therefore reach more people, if shareability is built into its presentation.

We will test these hypotheses and propose a data experience framework supported by models, algorithms, tools, and guidelines that help individuals and groups in creating bespoke, participatory content (for example, art, games, and stories, from data). The framework design will be informed by practice-led research in three main areas: (i) finding and enriching data; (ii) generating content; and (iii) sharing and engaging with content. It will draw upon methods from several disciplines: data and content management; machine learning; human data interaction; game design and gamification; crowdsourcing; online communities; social and political sciences; creative writing; and visual arts. The research will be prototypically showcased in four contexts: (i) within the Data as Culture programme at the ODI, working together with artists, designers, and open data activists; (ii) as part of the Datapolis project run by the ODI, which looks at the use of game interfaces to demystify data, with the support of game designers and local communities; (iii) in a fact-checking & journalism showcase together with the BBC, Full Fact, and the Parliament Digital Service; and (iv) via datathons and our own Data Stories challenge, run by WSI and the ODI, alongside initiatives such as Bath:Hacked and ODCamp UK, which will build community-relevant data narratives from open data enriched with other media, using creative writing techniques.

Our proposal is well aligned with the EPSRC call, addressing several themes to varying degrees. The majority of the research is focused on enabling and facilitating content creation. Specifically, we look at providing intelligent tools to make it easier for people to create data experiences. The beneficiaries are artists, storytellers (such as journalists or analysts), game makers, and those in community and civil society groups wishing to use the modes of art, games, and narration to raise broader awareness of their work. The research will include using data to create immersive experiences through art, games and virtual reality environments that are built from structured data alongside other forms of digital content. Ultimately, these novel ways to get to know and interact with data, relevant to one's context and presented creatively and innovatively, will inform and educate the public, leading, to more sustainable digital ecosystems, and to a more inclusive society.

Planned Impact

Less than a month since the EU referendum, our research could not be timelier. The lack of public engagement with facts and the distrust of experts are core challenges in the UK and elsewhere as the world will face fundamental questions over the next decades. As a society, we will be dealing with significant economic, social, and environmental challenges: a lack of international investment, inequality and divisions, and a changing climate. The decisions that we make must be informed by evidence, but our appetite is for entertainment. To avoid being misled, it is essential for the public to question and understand the figures and statistics that they are presented with. This research will target the role of the creative industries in enabling better decision making, capitalising on areas of expertise in which the UK is internationally recognised: data-driven technologies and creativity, two of the fastest growing sectors of the economy.

The UK leads the world in open data; considerable effort and resources have been devoted over the last five years in publishing and promoting open data sets to create growth and stimulate innovation. Data Stories will help the UK remain at the forefront of new developments in this space by exploring an open data theme that focuses specifically on interdisciplinary contexts at the intersection between arts, design, and technology. The proposal complements and expands existing programmes such as ODI's Data as Culture and the European funded Open Data Incubator for Europe (ODINE), which looks at the use of open data in industrial settings. In addition, the work around data search has the potential for substantial impact on the UK's national data infrastructure; this topic is still underexplored and our research outputs will contribute directly to the success of existing investments in this space.

From an end-user and societal point of view, our showcases will prioritise the needs of local and national communities in the ODI Nodes network, with a special focus on triple bottom line impact and the three P's (people, planet, profit). In terms of academic impact, Data Stories will help maintain UK excellence in data-driven technologies, in particular in a cross-disciplinary context that seeks input from arts, design, social sciences, and HCI to define more engaging, immersive data experiences, which in turn will lead to more informed citizens and better decisions in virtually all areas from the economy to the environment. The project will shape the research agenda in this emerging field, leveraging the collaborations with national and international ODI Nodes network, as well as the outstanding position of Southampton's WSI as pioneer of interdisciplinary research in Web and data science. Given the increasing importance of data literacy in society, Data Stories will impact the state of the art by proposing a practice-led design and scalable implementation of data discovery and search mechanisms based around localisation and topicality; and by designing frameworks, templates, and tools to produce novel ways to interact with data, which appeal to experts and non-experts alike.

From an EPSRC point of view, our main focus is on enabling and facilitating content creation, providing intelligent tools to make it easier for people to experience data in a different way and advocating the use of open data, which anyone can access, use, and share. We believe that the ability to understand and engage with data is necessary for inclusion, in particular in the democratic process. Turning it into art, stories, and games should enable more people to engage with it, use it to inform their arguments, and thus empower them. Our proposal hence responds to two of the challenge areas of the RCUK Digital economy theme: Sustainable society, which is based on people being able to make better choices; and Communities and culture, and the responsible use of digital means.


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