by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London
How are you two doing together? You and your data, we mean. It’d be nice to have an update. Do you understand one another in that special OMG-we’ve-talked-all-night-and-now-the-sun’s-up kind of way? Is it more like you just kind of hang out together without really bothering to think about each other? Or maybe you’re just a bit baffled by the whole data scene. If your heart doesn’t beat with fervent love for the wild binary information all around you, that’s OK. In fact that’s pretty normal. It just so happens, though, that there’s a guy who wants to improve your data relationships. He’s called Andy Broomfield and he’s just graduated as a designer from the Royal College of Art.
Andy’s worried that as we rely more and more on gadgets like mobiles and satnavs, a lot of us stop thinking about where the data comes from. “Increasingly we’re becoming dependent on the data,” says Andy. “We are just blindly fed it.” He tells the story of some councils that had to put up ‘Ignore Your Satnav’ signs after lorry drivers followed electronic directions down narrow lanes rather than believe their own eyes. He reckons that hapless users wouldn’t get quite so “data-lost” if we had a way to really connect with the pure information out there, being broadcast from satellites every second of the day. So he designed some gadgets of his own to help get our data relationships back on the rails.
Time to yourself
The first device lets you keep a personal time zone, and was inspired by a group of data-lovers who are sweet on measuring time. Time zones divide the globe into long tall ribbons based on longitude. Since GPS satellites can give each of us extremely accurate longitude readings all the time (the cs4fn offices are apparently at .042 degrees west), why not go even further and cut the ribbons up even more? That’s what Andy’s Longitude Time Piece does, to the point where you can uncover what Andy calls “your own local time zone”, right down to the second. Then you’d know that wherever you go, your timing would always be perfect.
Flooded with facts
Andy’s second invention is another GPS-flavoured one. Even though a lot of us can get lost really easily (even with maps and satellites to help), others love getting down and dirty with geographic data. This gadget’s good for both groups. People with a great sense of data direction can use the Geo Flood Browser to get info on the nearest river, wherever they are.
They can also share the love with others who get a bit data-lost, by leaving electronic tags around to let them know if the area gets flooded a lot. Then people nearby can use the tags using their own gadget to find out whether they ought to be stocking up on boats and snorkels before the next flood hits.
Spot a satellite
Finally Andy’s designed a gadget for your data relationships in space. Satellite spotters are kind of like backyard astronomers, except they love catching glimpses of the satellites that orbit the Earth. With Andy’s device anyone can tune into a satellite that’s above them and listen to it. You can either hear a voice tell you about the satellite, or you can actually listen into the bleeps of information coming from the satellite itself. That way, Andy says, you get “a connection to the pure data, the data that we’re dependent upon in the world.” It’s strange to think that this data is around us all the time – it’s just our phones and TVs that normally listen in, rather than us. If information is the lifeblood of our high-tech lives, the Satellite Scanner lets you listen to its heart.
Each of Andy’s devices uses information from the satellites whizzing, Cupid-like, around the Earth. The unusual thing is what they do with it – they’re not about being really useful so much as they are about actually experiencing the data that’s out there in the real world. That’s how he’s aiming to improve our data relationships. It’s like the way you can know someone for ages, but never see what they’re really about until you look from a different angle. Except this time it’s with satellites. Weird, eh? But good. A little like love.
This article was originally published on the CS4FN website and can also be found on pages (p4-5) of Issue 8 of the CS4FN magazine “Computer science in space” which you can download below, along with all of our other free material.
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This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.