Workings on ethical data use at The Invisible Hand, photograph by Martin Chorley
Workings on ethical data use at The Invisible Hand, photograph by Martin Chorley

The Invisible Hand: On Profiling and Personalisation


09 June 2015

Last week Storyteller and Technologist Natalie attended the last day of The Invisible Hand: Personalisation and Profiling, held by Blast Theory.

How do we, as arts organisations, use data responsibly? How do we make sure that we don’t just see humans as just faceless data sources, and value the input and trust they give us. The Invisible Hand Day Two asked us to pick up where the previous day had left off, where issues concerning data profiling and personalisation were raised and discussed.

The day started with presentations by Digital Associate Katherine Jewkes and Artistic Director John E McGrath from the National Theatre of Wales, who spoke on their site-specific, interactive projects such as a recent adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolan/us. Coriolan/us used social media and interactive technologies in order to allow the audience members to become part of the story, and choose their own ways of experiencing it through personalised profiles. This allowed people to keep in control of the way they were represented in the project, and also allowed for them to have agency in the production.

We were also shown the work of Proboscis, who created a series of artefacts and personal totems – ‘life-charms’ – based on quantitative data from life-tracking apps. These objects are the translated data of an individual’s life, which only means something to the beholder, as they are deliberately engineered so that they can’t be read, including the technology that produced them. This secures that data, while returning it back to a state that is personal, human, and full of meaning, as it reminds the owner of a specific, fixed, period of time, an embodied memory.

In the final session of the day we were asked to imagine a hypothetical art project that used data, and to make guidelines and frameworks that would use all of the information and discussion we’d shared throughout the day. Our group decided to work on a set of guidelines for organisations working with public data, where we should be responsible, how we should enable participants to feel in control, and how to make that relationship clear.

It wasn’t an easy conversation, with several differing opinions to what priorities should be, and how to make sure that participants and audience members know exactly where and how their data is used. One of the main problems we encountered was communication and literacy – how to make sure consent is fully informed, by making the consent that occurs open and easy to understand. In order to fully understand a standard set of terms and conditions, recent studies have shown that a person is required to be educated to a university level. This automatically cuts out a large portion of our audience, and further obfuscates important information under legal jargon.

We spoke on the issues in art and theatre that borders the exploitative, how do we make sure participants in an exhibition experience the work as intended without causing distress or anger? With certain work, such as Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev’s PRISM: The Beacon Frame, much of the impact comes in the surprise, so how do we give people the tools to examine, translate, or make them feel alright about what has just happened? Several solutions were proposed by the different groups, each one picking up valuable points about the visibility and transparency of data and data use, as often it’s not clear where our data goes once we’ve handed it over. The day was fantastic, and makes me look forward to pulling apart these issues as part of our partnership with the ODI, where we’ve just become one of their international nodes.


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