Can internet users reclaim their data?
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In the 2013 book Who Owns the Future?, virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier poses a question: can internet users reclaim their data? Instead of giving it away to enrich tech companies, Lanier called for users to sell their data, disrupting the Google and Facebook data mining revenue model.
Austin-based artist Laurie Frick's new app FRICKbits, which transform your user data into art, partially fulfills the idea of allowing users to reclaim their own data. Like Lanier, Frick wants to give people the ability to use their own data for their own purposes, and she created a tool for that exact purpose.
The app is already proving to be popular: On the third day of its Kickstarter campaign, FRICKbits already exceeded its $7,500 fundraising goal.
FRICKbits' data art shares some aesthetics with Arthur Buxton's Colourstory app, which visualizes personal experiences and events as color wheels users can then print and sell as fine art. There's also Julie Freeman's We Need Us project that explores big user data in an real-time animated form.
While both are interesting projects, neither pull in a ton of users, which is something to consider with FRICKbits' launch. You have to wonder how effective user data empowerment can be at such small scales. Will it take thousands of these apps to create a sea of change in how users see their own data, or will it require something more massive and popular? Frick, for her part, is of the mind that every little bit helps.
Originally trained as an engineer, Frick found the data artist calling after measuring sleep with self-tracking data. This was after she'd risen through the ranks of tech companies, then quit to attend graduate school for art, eventually fusing the two fields into her work.
Three pieces of data art made with the FRICKbits iOS app. Image: Laurie Frick
"The intense curiosity for self-tracking started four years ago with measuring how people spend time during the day and during the night," Frick told me, adding that sleep data is like a fingerprint, "everyone is different but uniquely identifiable."
It was only after Frick had built a studio full of hand-crafted patterns from weight, sleep, daily time, internet use, mood, walking, and location data that she realized humans unconsciously create very "eloquent rhythms."
"It just hit me," she said, "self-tracking data is like a pattern portrait of you."
And Frick thinks we recognize those portraits, finding something human in the data patterns, though we don't know why it feels familiar.
Originally, her team tried to build FRICKbits on PhoneGap, a free and open-source platform for building apps. But, a call from Austin-based digital design shop thirteen23, resulted in a nifty little trade: thirteen23 would build the app in exchange for Frick designing a full lobby installation for their new office based on the company's chat metadata.
FRICKbits, which runs natively on iOS, features an algorithm and pattern based on Frick's own hand-drawn ink and watercolor pattern portraits. She said it's a vector-based system that "mimics squiggly lines and the feel of something hand-crafted."
Frick also found inspiration for the app's data art in Danica Phelps' Income's Outcome, a series of red and green drawings that correspond with the previous day’s spending or income data.
FRICKbits' patterns get better over time the more it accumulates data, so it was important that users keep their phones on. At first, FRICKbits uses "occasional" location data so as not to kill the phone battery.
"I like the idea of using the [Apple] M7 chip and gathering your speed during the day," Frick said. "Anything that is very indicative of you, but totally unconscious; maybe credit card spending or how often you touch the screen of your phone would be fun data sources."
Frick describes current smartphone and mobile data mining as a "one-handed handshake." All of this data is tracked and analyzed, but it's hidden or simply not shared. As a data activist, she thinks we'll make some progress in data privacy if we don't just hide, but demand more of our information.
"I bet people would be astonished with how much is known about them, and the patterns that are extrapolated, along with predictions made about their behavior," she said. "People look at me and ask 'what would I possibly do with my data?'"
For Frick, the answer is simple: turn it into art, and allow a shift in equilibrium to occur that gives users a chance to fight back and have a say about data mining. "It's not like eating vegetables because art makes data sticky," she said, hoping that users will gain some self-awareness in the process.
So far, users have told Frick they plan to print their patterns, and might set them as wallpaper. Others have said they will save the data art as a "guilty-pleasure," a digital artifact for revisiting past Internet habits. She wouldn't, however, comment on whether users plan to sell the data art.
In the end, Frick hopes many small startups and apps benefit from people giving private access to slivers of their personal data. This won't change Google and Facebook's incentive to data mine, but if smaller companies give data back to users in a transparent way, users might find clever ways to extract meaning from their own lives.