25 March 2011

Introduction

The UK Census day is this weekend - Sunday, 27 March. With it, the government will collect a huge amount of raw data that will inform its policies and activities: "help tomorrow take shape" is the slogan.

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Media artists have long had a fascination with raw data. 'Data visualization' is almost a whole category of media art - artists who take datastreams and show them in different ways, in hopes of helping us understand or be awed by this data more than we might when they are just numbers in a database. For example, the artwork Flight Patterns by Aaron Koblin visualizes the flight paths of planes across North America, and was featured at FutureSonic's climate change exhibition in 2010.

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But beyond the data, the databases themselves are interesting (really!). While many of us think of them as simple, boring Excel documents that hold numbers, databases are the backbone of modern life. Every time you search Google you are searching a database, while Facebook and Twitter are all database driven as well. Even offline, you use databases all the time - ATMs or barcode scanners in the grocery shop are both common interfaces to databases, for example.

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The UK Census database is one the most authoritative databases we can think of - it is legally required for all residents to participate in, extensive in its scope, and informs the highest levels of government policy. It is undoubtedly important, and happening only once a decade, FACT wanted to mark the occasion by commissioning a piece of writing on the topic of the census by an artist whose work with databases is both fascinating and pioneering.

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Graham Harwood's essay Steam-Powered Census draws on his background as a politically and socially-engaged artist, working with diverse communities to create artwork using technology. His recent work (he's currently developing a project with Liverpool's Primary Care Trust, for example) has been to examine how databases are constructed, and in talks and discussions around his work, he makes a compelling case for the link between databases and documentaries. In the earliest days of the documentary film format, people generally believed that because they were depicting 'real life' and truthful things, that one could see with ones own eyes, that they were in themselves the truth - a mere presentation of facts. But as the genre developed, it became more apparent that documentaries were a construction - that they could manipulate truth to present a particular argument or point of view. How databases are made - which data is collected, from whom, what the data fields are named even, can all present a construction of truth that isn't necessarily universal. That is to say, databases are not the dry, completely factual things we think they are - and the UK census database being so crucial, it is important to understand the elements of subjectivity in the database.

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Graham's essay takes a bit of concentration to get through, but is an interesting read from an interesting artist presenting his point of view. Take this snippit:

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"The government's radical pension reforms of last year were based on the current life expectancy figures of 77.4 years for men and 81.6 years for women. This statistic sent thousands of analysts scurrying off during lunch hour. Flurries of emails later revealed that people in Kensington and Chelsea's life expectancy for females is 85.8 years, almost 9.5 years more than Glasgow's 76.4: therefore the question was, who was living longer and who would pay?"

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Food for thought....

Read the full essay by downloading the PDF to the right of this page (click on the title to be linked through to the full blog article).