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Data Letters and Data Kondo

This week, we experimented with two writing activities that worked towards inspiring people to think creatively about their personal data, with a particular focus on their feelings and relationships with their data. These activities were chosen as a way to engage with a more-than-human approach to personal data understandings and practices that Deborah has been developing in publications such as her Data Selves book, seeking to surface aspects such as the affective forces, relational connections and agential capacities that we have with our data assemblages.

In our fieldwork, we plan to use activities like these as two main ways: first, to inspire people to think otherwise about their data; and second, as a way to kick-start conversations about their data that departs from the standard Q and A format of interviewing that is typically used in sociological research.

We held a workshop in which colleagues from the Vitalities Lab, other parts of UNSW Sydney and some visitors from other universities in Sydney, Europe and the USA came to test out the methods and discuss how generative they found them.

The first task was called ‘Data Letters’. We were inspired by an activity we found in the Universal Methods of Design book, involving writing a love letter or break up letter to a designated thing or service. We applied this method to our personal data. Workshop participants were asked to spend ten minutes writing in response to this stimulus:

Write a love letter or break up letter to your personal data. Use the standard letter format. Explain in your letter why you love or want to break up with your data. Sign off with your pseudonym.

The second activity was devised by Deborah. Entitled ‘Data Kondo’, as the title suggests, it was inspired by the approach to de-cluttering made famous by Marie Kondo, a Japanese ‘organising consultant’ who has become well-known in the Global North due to her thriving business based on her best-selling books and a Netflix series. Following a brief explanation of Kondo’s approach, this activity involved responding to these stimuli:

Imagine that you are clearing out and de-cluttering your digital device, as you would your house or apartment, based on Marie Kondo’s principles. You are getting rid of data clutter (your images, videos, music, documents, health or fitness information and any other information about you). Please write your thoughts below in response to the prompts.

  • What personal data would ‘spark joy’ for you and would you want to keep? And why?
  • What personal data would not ‘spark joy’, so that you are happy to get rid of them. Why?
  • Who would you give your discarded data to (if anyone) – or would you just permanently delete them straight off your device? Explain your decision?

After each activity, we had a group discussion about how we found this activity, what we learned from it, and how we might apply it in our research or teaching. Near the end of the workshop, participants were asked to spend a few minutes jotting down some reflections on the activities and we had a final discussion about the process.

A perusal of the writing and reflections generated from the tasks, along with our experiences of engaging with them and listening to the participants discuss their experiences, suggest that these activities worked well to inspire the more-than-human way of thinking about data we were hoping to achieve. Participants’ reflections included the following:

“I particularly liked the first activity as for me, it opened up a broader range of topics to be addressed (What is data? How do I related with it? How complex are the ways by which I relate with it?)”

“I really appreciated how the break up letter format made me respond emotionally rather than rationally to the prompt. For example, I found myself making a distinction between ‘real’ data (embarrassing, potentially useless things on the Internet’) and a second category which would cover my ‘offline’ curated information that is private, useful, and inaccessible to others.”

“I enjoyed the second exercise as well – particularly the idea of what personal data was meaningful or sparked joy for me. I don’t think people reflect often on all the ways data is personal in ways that are intimate, meaningful etc. without necessarily being negative/invasive. The complexity of data came out in these exercises.”

The participants’ reflections and discussion also raised some useful points to consider. Of course, these activities would not work with all types of groups: those who have disabilities making it difficult to write by hand, young children who are still developing literacy, people with low levels of education or people who are not fluent in English. For groups such as these, using visual methods or asking them to respond verbally to the prompts rather than in writing can be a better approach. (See our post on zine making for an approach that combines visual with writing methods.)

We emphasise again that activities such as these ideally should be seen as generative ways to start a conversation with research participants, so that these discussions along with the artefacts that are generated can be considered research materials for analysis or as teaching tools.


Published by Deborah Lupton

I am SHARP Professor and leader of the Vitalities Lab in the Centre for Social Research in Health and Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney

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