Using Open Data for Design Research

I attended a workshop at the Open Data Institute in Shoreditch, an organisation with the important mission “to connect, equip and inspire people around the world to innovate with data.” My day-long workshop focused on finding and preparing data and got me thinking about how we as design researchers can take advantage of all the data sets publicly available to us across sectors, from healthcare to product design. 

Venn diagram with overlap between big, personal and open data

Before diving in to how to make sense of a data set and communicate this to others, we began by looking at the important differences between big data, open data and personal data – and where they overlap. Important to note here is that not all “big data” is ‘open’. Here, open means “anyone can freely access, modify, share and use for any purpose…” (opendefinition.org).   

Infographic of types of data

Two methods: story-first and data-first

When you use data as a source, there are two main methods. One is story first, where data is used to enhance, fact check, or dig deeper on the story. The other is data first – while looking at a data set, something seems surprising, interesting, or worth investigating further for patterns or anomalies. For example, a data set from Illinois in the US back in 2012 showed that 89% of those arrested for jaywalking (illegally crossing the street) are black. Upon further investigation into why this may be the case, reporters went to these neighbourhoods and saw that many streets didn’t have sidewalks or indicated crosswalks – people were essentially being forced to jaywalk, and then were getting arrested. Officers were then going specifically to these locations, knowing that they could find people jaywalking to arrest them. Often, as in this case, a data set on its own doesn’t tell the whole story.

As design researchers, we start with exploring the experiences and perspectives of individuals, often in relatively small numbers. From this (often) qualitative data, we draw insights to feed future design work. In our research and analysis, can we also be drawing on these large quantitative data sets to feed our insights? Would they add something valuable to the picture? 

In our future projects, it will be interesting to see how we can use ‘open data’ to broaden our skills (and our insights) as researchers. It’s also an exciting time to be asking these kinds of questions, as more emphasis, legally and otherwise, is being placed on organisations and governments to make their data easily accessible to all. Take for example data.gov.uk, the European data portal, or the World Bank’s data catalog. These are just three online databases with a huge amount of data for us to filter through and add to our own research and insights. Trial and experimentation will show the value of open data for design research.

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