Your Data at a Glance

October 9 2014

Data collection is a hot topic. As a society, we don’t quite seem to have decided how we feel about it—on the one hand, we decry the governments and corporations that appear to pry into our habits and track our every move, but we also post our photos, Tweet our thoughts, and check into our locations with perpetually increasing frequency. It’s an interesting paradox, and one that Natasha Dzurny, a recent alumna of NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, decided to tackle in her Master’s thesis.

She investigated attitudes surrounding personal information, and identified what she described as “a taboo around data collection, especially with products that collect personal data—how much we exercise, where we spend money, who we spend time with.” What struck her about her findings was that few people she spoke with expressed any positive feelings about data collection; most ranged from apathetic to outraged. Natasha set out to create a simple physical interface that could change these perceptions by removing some of the layers of abstraction that surround “big data,” the massive fount of digital information that computers collect and sift through, and turning it into something meaningful and easy to understand.

Natasha started out by putting some serious thought into the design of what she was going to create, and developed a set of guidelines for her project. First and foremost, she wanted it to be an accessible source of information; if the problem was that personal data is too opaque for the average individual to glean any benefit from, the solution must be easy to read and digest. She drew inspiration from wall clocks, and imagined a wall-mounted kinetic display that would allow personal data to be quickly reviewed and understood in the same way that the passage of time can be reviewed and understood visually from the face of a clock. To help keep things clear, she opted for a simple face with a well defined “goal zone” to represent when a person had reached his or her data target. Natasha named her creation “GLANCE” to reflect how simple it should be to understand personal data with just a quick look at the device.

Natasha also wanted to make all sorts of data from different sources available through her device. Physically, she accomplished this by choosing modular hexagons as the shape for her display—multiple GLANCEs displaying different types of data can be mounted together easily. To get at all the different data sources themselves, however, she turned to Temboo:

“Temboo was something that I knew about for a while but was afraid that it was going to be just too hard. Well, it was very easy to get going and I was so proud that I set up most of the code myself! I used the FitBit API and the JavaScript code from the code creator on Temboo’s website. It was empowering.”

At the heart of every GLANCE is an Arduino Yún, which queries different API datasets using Temboo Choreos. Natasha’s first prototype used FitBit data, and she expanded her scope from there to include other services in the Temboo Library like Google Calendar, eBay, and Foursquare. The data that is returned triggers a motor behind the display that moves a marker along a track to indicate progress. Natasha designed two different track types—one a straight line and one an arc of a circle—but both terminate in a painted area representing the “goal zone.” The display casing itself, within which the Arduino is contained, is wood with plastic backing, and is subtly lit by a set of internal LEDs.

Now that she’s built her GLANCE and earned her degree, Natasha is forging onward with her project. She put together a website to showcase the finished product, and included thorough documentation on what it took to build GLANCE from concept to completion. It’s well worth a look for anyone who’s interested in design, the Internet of Things, or the role of data in our daily lives!

“What started as an experiment to acknowledge my fitness progress opened my eyes to the larger conversation around data ownership. I find myself on the optimist side of the spectrum, hoping to enhance our human experience with personal knowledge, not to intrude on privacy. I don’t have all the answers in this conversation, but I do have a desire to create beautiful art objects that are useful as well. I hope this project can benefit both our relationship with data and a desire for beauty in technology.”

Data collection is a hot topic. As a society, we don’t quite seem to have decided how we feel about it—on the one hand, we decry the governments and corporations that appear to pry into our habits and track our every move, but we also post our photos, Tweet our thoughts, and check into our […]