"Guinea Pig," a new blog series that will appear periodically in The Missing Link, chronicles the adventures of reporters who participate in studies conducted by Cornell researchers on a variety of topics.
We live in a digital age, one in which access to the Internet has been declared a human right. People exist as screen names and profile pictures. We communicate in “tweets,” “likes” and “reblogs.” And as we surf the web, our personal data becomes widely available. Sometimes that data is put to a convenient use, like whe iTunes’ Genius program recommends songs I might like or when Amazon.com shares the purchases of other users who have similar buying patterns to my own. Other times it’s used in ways that are creepy and invasive, like how Target knew this teenaged girl was pregnant before her father did.
Vera Khovanskaya, a student researcher and designer at Cornell’s Interaction Design Lab, wants us all to think more about our personal data. She designed her forthcoming study, “Xomatics,” to show people a visual representation of their personal data, their Web browsing habits in this case, in a way that makes them think more about it. “It’s an application of critical design to personal informatics,” Khovanskaya told the Sun.
As one of Khovanskaya’s guinea pigs, I agreed to download a Google Chrome extension that would track my Web browsing habits and generate visualizations of that information for two weeks. Fast forward to the end of the period, and Khovanskaya’s program has provided me with an accurate list of my favorite websites and my Facebook stalkees’ names. It knows which day of the week I am online the most and that “based on my ratio of .edu to .com, I must not be a scholar.” It also informs me that in these two weeks, I have been online long enough for the Apollo 11 rocket to have gone to the moon and back 3.02 times.
At the end of the study, I interview with Khovanskaya and, once I’ve gotten my apologetic babbling out of the way, we start to talk about how I would describe the extension. “A visualization of my Web browsing?” I venture. “A pictorial representation of the time I spent online, and where I spent it.”
Like the rest of Khovanskaya’s participants, I focused initially on what the extension had to say about me. But as it turns out, my Web browsing habits, though important, are not the focus of the study. What Khovanskaya is looking for is a subtle shift in the participant’s conversation, when introspection about his or her personal data turns to awareness of the data-mining process itself. “We start to talk about how Chrome works or…what Google knows about you, and suddenly people have these theories that Google knows every mouse movement and click you make…[t]hat Google is doing…things with [your] data,” said Khovanskaya. “But no one really knows.”
“Xomatics” takes a creative first step in the direction of “knowing.” Khovanskaya predicted that personal informatics designs which emphasize the curatorial nature of data visualization -- that someone might be collecting your data -- may serve to heighten personal awareness and knowledge in this increasingly plugged-in world.