Upon the Plurality and Subjectivity of Meaning in Data: in Conversation with Andrea Galli

Upon the Plurality and Subjectivity of Meaning in Data: in Conversation with Andrea Galli

With a strong background in design (Politecnico di Torino) and innovation management (Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna), Andrea Galli is the Director of Strategy and Development at Accurat and teaches Computational Design as Adjunct Professor at Politecnico di Milano. Formerly project leader at Carlo Ratti Associati, over the last ten years he has been testing the impact of a data-driven approach to projects bridging between the urban environment and the digital one.

Q: Your working philosophy at Accurat pivots on the concept of ‘data humanism’. Could you speak a little bit more about what that means to you and how you think it affects the work you produce at the company?

AG: The concept of data humanism was gradually shaped in the last 10 years through the work we conducted on more than 400 projects. In particular, on each of them we always tried to inject personality into data viz to engage users, and specificity to remind them of the real-world issues they’re solving for. 

Approaching data from a human perspective today in Accurat means to empathize with them by not just looking at numbers, but focusing on actions and interactions implied by those numbers. Therefore, to understand what data can tell us we believe we need to ask them the right questions, but at the same time we are aware that what humans define as the “right” question is always very personal and subjective.

For this reason, our continuous research around data visualization relies on a wide range of diversified expertises and points of view that require a multidisciplinary environment, not only to excel but also to be successfully orchestrated. That’s why, in Accurat today we are information designers, ux and ui designers, data scientists, front-end developers, architects, sociologists, musicians, biologists and many others. 

I ultimately consider the result of such an alchemy what on a daily basis allows us to foster a humanistic philosophy by developing data-driven solutions.

Q: During the SYS Talks: The data shall not be standardized you presented earlier this year, you touched upon the plurality and subjectivity of meaning in data, stating that ‘data is not an oracle telling us the truth’. Could you tell us about the process of constructing data stories tailored to the clients’ needs and the role of narrative building in the process and outcomes?

AG: I’d like to start answering by giving you a general idea of data growth in recent years. In 2018 the total amount of data created, captured, copied and consumed in the world was 33 zettabytes, this grew to 59ZB in 2020 and is about to be tripled by 2025 (in case you are wondering how much 1ZB is). So we can definitely say that, unlike a few years ago, information availability is not an issue anymore. But more information also means more noise and complexity. At the same time, more data experts are flooding into the market. We are talking about 7.6 million professionals in 2019 all over Europe, that will reach 11.3 million by 2025.

Scientists and analysts can certainly offer a relevant contribution to make big quantities of data more digestible by using various techniques. However, in our experience, this is often not enough to provide meaningful results for the end-users in search of intuitive and usable solutions.

This is the reason why we always try to work closely with our clients and their data experts to understand the context in which data are generated and interrogated. We can thus feed an iterative creative process made of cycles that are so composed: hypothesis formulations – solutions test – feedback collection. The results are digital/physical – or even hybrid – experiences that, by following a consistent overarching narrative, are totally oriented to the resolution of very practical issues through the scientifically founded combination of visual design and digital technologies.

Q:In your opinion, how can data visualization (irrespective of the medium) strengthen urban planning processes and impact project outcomes?

AG: Being an architectural and urban designer by background, over the last ten years, I’ve been continuously pushed to explore the impact of a data-driven approach to large scale projects. In my opinion, today data represents a strong common thread among various disciplines that before were considered as very far one from the other, and this represents a precious opportunity to explore new approaches to a practise in a dramatic need of innovation, such as urban design.

Data visualization at urban scale is directly linked to the way we, as designers, interpret places: their meaning, their heritage, their potential. It offers  an  extraordinary opportunity to improve our understanding of people’s behavioural dynamics, interactions and of evolution of the natural and man-made environment. For example, a growing application of data visualization to the urban planning process is represented by the real time comparison of multiple scenarios that can be then corrected and validated by human decision-makers to meet stakeholders’ interests and needs.

But, if the analysis of data acts so powerfully at cognitive level, it’s important to be aware of the fact that in a data-driven approach to urban design, the selection and the representation of data is intrinsically a subjective (human) creative process, a real design operation directly influencing the future of the cities we live in. 

Therefore, if they really want to improve the quality of projects outcomes, I strongly believe that more than ever designers must be conscious of their editorial role, and provide an expert, competent, but primarily transparent angle on data.