Data Voice - Sam Howey-Nunn

We are Free Ice Cream, a design studio, and I also talk here about our new initiative, Understory, which we're about to launch (at the end of March) in partnership with social enterprise Onion Collective.

Data and me

At Free Ice Cream we design playful interfaces that connect people and give them the agency to explore complexity- whether that’s social change, city infrastructure, or data.

We have a particular interest in data that describe a system and that cannot be usefully interrogated in a static format.   By using game design principles we offer people the chance to interact with these complex systems in immediate, intuitive and playful ways.  We call this work Playable Data.

Playable Data enables ‘systems thinking’ whilst giving people agency within the system. We map the data into a dynamic map, within which people can pull metaphorical levers and push buttons, see the results, and intuitively understand the system.

Agency is fundamental.  People get to make choices within the system and those choices matter.

We hold two key positions when it comes to our work with data.  Firstly, that technology and game design can be used to open up information that would otherwise be privileged to broader sections of society.  Secondly, that technology is not a solution. It does not provide us with a set of answers, but rather with the tools for reflection, and for asking better questions of the systems we live within.

Introducing Understory

Understory supports people in a place-based community to understand themselves as a system of relationships and connections with shared purpose - and looks at how that web of connections helps a place thrive and be resilient.

In the designing of the service we have extended this principle of opening up access to complex data by looking at how data collection and analysis can be as open and as democratic as possible.  With Understory the community collectively owns the mapping and the analysis: the community is mapped in real time with hundreds of people simultaneously, and the community decides who else needs to be invited into the map, ensuring that the data is non-hierarchical and not driven by any one organisational agenda.  When it comes to exploring the map, the community uses visual and interactive interfaces to conversationally and collaboratively explore the system.

By making the maps playable, we are also giving communities the tools with which to collectively explore and discuss future scenarios and challenges, such as economic downturn, or the climate crisis. We are bringing tools to the community centre that have traditionally only been available to governments and policymakers.