Leeds Creative Labs

Collaborations for Academics & Creative Innovators

Author: Mark Taylor-Batty

Mapping data

There was a necessary gap between our first and second meetings as I recovered from an operation (ouch), but this gave Christine and me time to process the enthusiasm of ideas that we’d generated at our first meeting, and to collect and collate some images and information that would contribute to a series of mock-up images of our imaginary app. We met one morning this week to consider these, but also to think further about how the range of data the app might offer could be presented in interesting and useful ways.

The images that Christine had produced were great to see. They captured the ambition for any interface to be simple, uncluttered and for user choices to be obvious. There might be a rich array of data available, but it was important to allow users to find what they wanted through short, simple steps. The four areas of the app we’d agreed upon at our 2 July meeting were: capture, timeline, what’s on and notes. A simple search field would also be available. The first three are the routes to data, and the ‘notes’ function would be a space to store search results, links and make notes. ‘Capture’ would be the means by which the app might offer contextual material by recognising a section of Pinter text, and we realised we’d need to think further about how that might look and work: some homework for the next meeting. We wondered also how the ‘what’s on’ feature might present the data that it might offer: location or date based information about current and forthcoming Pinter productions. Again, we needed to go away and chew on that.

Christine brought with her a fabulous book, one which I need to get for my own coffee table: Information is Beautiful by David McCandless, which has an associated ‘ultra-site‘. This was really useful in inspiring thoughts about how data might be presented visually in interesting, useful and creative ways. It reminded me of a project I saw online a couple of years ago (Charting the Beatles) that presented Beatles’ song collaborations, music and work in visual ways that, in one glance, told a story but which afforded greater detail upon closer scrutiny. We opened this up on my iPad and examined the various ways that data was expressed visually.

Charting the Beatles

Screen grab from http://www.mikemake.com/Charting-the-Beatles © Mike Deal


This led me to think about how the data in my projected database had the potential – through the careful and thoughtful application of metadata – to allow a variety of ways of mapping Pinter’s work across time, across theme, through filtering activities, location, commercial success and so on. We previously discussed data mapping and management such as mohiomap which facilitates visual representation of files, notes and tags:

Mohiomap example

Mohiomap of my research folder in Evernote

Having Christine’s app mock-ups in front of me, and chewing the fat together about data visualisation, I began to think about different ways in which a complex range of data, drawn from a ‘big data’ database (or, at least ‘quite big data’) could present users with simple ways of finding their way through that data. This was useful in that it began to indicate to me how each data object within the proposed database would need to be well tagged with metadata, and that all the metadata categories needed to be well planned in advance of any data capture. With all this in mind, and thinking back to my mock-up of a timeline of Pinter history, I began to envisage how a user might slide through a timeline and how, for example, each of Pinter’s plays might appear as a circle once first produced, and that circle might grow with time as more productions of it appear in the database over the time-scale. Clicking on it might reveal production history to the date selected, which in turn would present an opportunity to select and follow other routes of interest (actor biogs, costume design, production details, reviews, links to pertinent academic papers and so on). The means to present ‘filters’ to the main flow of information-over-time could be considered. In other words, the second meeting stimulated a lot more thought.

Pinter Histories app – chatting and sketching

Christine and I met up for the first time on 2 July. We arranged to meet in the Leeds Museum café and sat down with coffee and sunshine to begin our collaboration.  The plan on that first day was to go through the concept I brought to the table and the various ways in which it might be realised. I was keen to get involved with the Creative Exchange programme in the first place to see if the kinds of ideas I had in my head were in any way realistic or manageable. I’m currently preparing a large application to the AHRC for a long project that would have at its centre the construction of a database of production history of Harold Pinter’s work in the UK. Thinking ahead to the next stage, I began to wonder how all that data and all associated metadata could be manipulated, presented, configured in different ways for different audiences. One output I imagined was an app that might, amongst other things, recognise Pinter’s dramatic texts and offer contextual materials and digital objects, pulled from the database and other sources. Meeting with Christine was an opportunity to talk through this and other potential features of the imagined app, to think about its architecture and functionality, and to get a pragmatic and realistic grasp on what is possible.

my sketch

Think through drawing – initial ideas

As well as just talking, we captured thoughts on paper, and Christine began to sketch a series of images in response to the ideas as we tried to clarify what such an app might look like. It was useful to ‘think visually’ as we progressed, and to keep in mind how to construct a simple interface to access a potentially large amount of data.

One refreshing aspect of the conversation was Christine’s ability to focus on the imagined users’ experience, and to ask sometimes challenging questions about what people would want from the app. I learned to appreciate that design needs to start, in effect, from user demand and desire, rather than from a set of stuff we might just offer a set of users digitally. It was useful also to concentrate on the different types of user I had in mind – scholar, student, theatre audience, theatre practitioner – and think about how different routes through the data would be charted by different user interests or needs. How do we accommodate all those routes within a simple interface. What is the ‘front page’, as it were, of the app?

In just a few hours, an ill-defined concept came into shape in my head, as Christine asked questions and sketched out possibilities. I photographed all the sketches and uploaded them to my Evernote account, to access and share later. Over the following week, we would think about how we could flesh out the ideas captured in the sketches, and set an ambition to mock up some app screens as a next step.

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