'We Need Us' artwork launches at TED Global

“If data had lives of their own, what would they be doing?”

ODI Art Associate Julie Freeman today launched her new work We Need Us at TED Global in Rio, Brazil.

WeNeedUs A screenshot from one of the We Need Us projects


We Need Us is a ‘living’ dynamic artwork, powered by people, defined by data-driven unpredictability, exploring both ‘life data’ and the life of data. It’s been co-commissioned by the Open Data Institute and digital art platform The Space, and is the latest addition to the ODI’s acclaimed Data as Culture art programme. The artwork focuses on the intersection between scientific discovery, open data and our human responses to the two, and in doing so reflects the ways in which we humans produce, use and react to the growing amount of data that is available to us.

“Unlike traditional data visualisation, which helps people understand and make sense of information held in large datasets, We Need Us investigates the unique properties of the data itself,” explains the artwork’s curator Hannah Redler. “The project is something of a thought experiment, which asks: if data had lives of their own, what would they be doing? Julie’s work enables audiences to ‘experience’ data when it would otherwise be invisible and incomprehensible.”

The artwork uses metadata from citizen science platform Zooniverse, where anyone with a computer can support science projects by classifying data. This includes identifying craters on the moon’s surface from images, classifying tropical cyclone data and analysing images of cancer cells.

Over a million Zooniverse users classify these datasets. We Need Us explores the online activities of this community by manipulating their metadata: their presence, click and selections from around the world.

Every minute, the work counts the number of users online and the classifications they create. It stores this in a new database as sets of values, while also recording the frequency of their activity over an hour, a day and a month. These sets of values create rhythms that are translated into moving shapes, and play different sounds. The live data ensures constant change to the visual and sonic composition. The sounds are processed and manipulated just like the data.

“I wanted to make a work that explores how data can be used that is different to ‘normal’ expectations,” Freeman says. “I chose to use metadata to influence the work instead of choreographing it – I wanted We Need Us to be just outside of my control: to re-animate the data and bring it, through the work, to life.”

ODI CEO Gavin Starks said, “We Need Us reminds us that the relationship between humans, nature, and now digital technology, is entirely symbiotic. Our world today is driven by data. Our politicians, businesses, institutions and citizens use data far more intensively than we could have imagined – our “data” is doubling every two years. We need us to continuously question this data revolution and the conversation needs to be public. We Need Us adds to our Data as Culture programme, whose aim is to catalyse this debate.”

We Need Us is be available at WeNeedUs.org and at The Space. Julie’s personal website is translatingnature.org.