An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Can Physical Information Displays Help People Engage with Data?

  • Julie Fox
  • Slice of MIT

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Data helps drive decisions, but often the findings are lost when people are overwhelmed by numbers and graphs. Laura Perovich SM ’14, PhD ’20 is using artistic approaches to make data more accessible.

“Because we’re making all these decisions based on data,” explains Perovich, assistant professor at Northeastern University in the College of Arts, Media, and Design, “it’s important that people can access it and engage with it in a really meaningful way that allows them to be part of the conversation and question it and challenge it and think about other data sets that maybe don’t even exist but are important to the conversation.”

Through her research, she has found that one important way for people to engage with data is by creating data experiences, or data “physicalizations.” From life-size 3D bar charts to data stitched into clothing, Perovich’s work takes many forms depending on the data being represented. Showing people data in a way that’s unexpected, says the Media Lab alumna, “makes people curious, it makes them want to approach it and investigate it. It gives them different kinds of ideas about information.”

When it comes to data, her focus is varied—from civic issues to a range of environmental issues. “It can be indoor air quality data. It can be larger scale, like climate data. It could be water quality data. I’m interested in really any other data set that’s important to people. So that could be data that’s about one person and just important to them or something they want to reflect on for themselves. It could also be data that’s important to a community.”  

By changing the approach to data, her hope is to create greater engagement, bring more people into the conversation, and enhance community involvement and outcomes. “One of my hopes for this space is that it can be used to create a different emotional environment for data or for information. And that can change who’s part of the conversation.”

Watch a recent MITAA video about Laura Perovich SM ’14, PhD ’20 to learn more.

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