Ad hoc encounters with big data: Engaging citizens in conversations around tabletops
First Monday

Ad hoc encounters with big data: Engaging citizens in conversations around tabletops by Morten Fjeld, Pawel Wozniak, Josh Cowls, and Bonnie Nardi



Abstract
The increasing abundance of data creates new opportunities for communities of interest and communities of practice. We believe that interactive tabletops will allow users to explore data in familiar places such as living rooms, cafés, and public spaces. We propose informal, mobile possibilities for future generations of flexible and portable tabletops. In this paper, we build upon current advances in sensing and in organic user interfaces to propose how tabletops in the future could encourage collaboration and engage users in socially relevant data-oriented activities. Our work focuses on the socio-technical challenges of future democratic deliberation. As part of our vision, we suggest switching from fixed to mobile tabletops and provide two examples of hypothetical interface types: TableTiles and Moldable Displays. We consider how tabletops could foster future civic communities, expanding modes of participation originating in the Greek Agora and in European notions of cafés as locales of political deliberation.

Contents

Introduction
Interactive tabletops
Stage one: Mobile tabletops — Bring your own device
Emerging Stage one technologies
Stage two: Beyond personal devices
Prospective Stage two technologies
Collaborative interactions with big data: Challenges for research and design
Conclusion: Towards an infrastructure for civic deliberation

 


 

Introduction

“Big data” is a current catchphrase used by computer professionals to describe immense data sets, and governments and industry are increasingly making use of these. Large amounts of data are generated from everyday activities, such as commuting patterns, food sales, mobile phone usage, and even indoor climate preferences. While these vast data sets accumulate, they tend to be generally inaccessible to most people. More user-friendly computing systems would open up access to big data for a wider range of users, enabling ordinary citizens to rapidly explore big data in ad hoc, casual settings as opposed to the highly technical statistical methods used today. This has significant implications for how people could learn about and participate in civic life and how their conversations could contribute to society’s ongoing evolution.

From an infrastructural perspective, sensor networks have already pervaded everyday environments as businesses and institutions exploit in-house and out-of-house data. Moreover, the growing area of citizen or crowdsourced science in ubiquitous computing (Prestopnik and Crowston, 2012) requires considerable support from a range of interfaces to explore all the data gathered. Lay researchers assemble systems from a variety of devices and even creatively reuse them in order to access this data. Therefore, tools that require less technical expertise are likely to emerge and empower users to perform advanced analytics in their own backyards. Communities, either of interest or of practice (i.e., groups of people who either share information or those active in a given domain; see Fischer and Sugimoto, 2006), must thus be able to control and understand the collection, aggregation, and sampling of data, prompting the need for what Churchill (2012) calls “data-aware design.”

From a human-computer interaction (HCI) perspective, we propose that many of the above challenges can be met with a new generation of tabletop interfaces. We base our proposition on the role that tables already play in our everyday lives, as well as past successful applications of horizontal displays. To be successful in everyday settings, interactive tabletops must evolve from the relatively bulky and expensive pieces of equipment they are today into portable and versatile solutions that can be used in many different settings. We outline new scenarios and device configurations which include mobile devices and Moldable Displays. This enables creative data interactions in ad hoc settings. We expect tabletop technologies used “on the go” to become an important catalyst for citizens’ digital engagement. As we present novel uses of interactive mobile devices, we aim to fuel the discussion of long-term and short-term research agendas for supporting civic deliberation by way of making tabletops accessible to the community. Here, we focus on the socio-technical challenges posed by a data-centric future. We are aware that legal and economic issues related to management of data are also of vital importance. Hence, data governance and facilitating access to data are bound to produce challenges (Weise, et al., 2012) and intellectual property rights will play an important role. Furthermore, the role of designers may change as well (Churchill, 2012).

The remainder of this paper is structured as follows: first, we underline the unique role of tables as everyday artifacts and highlight their potential for creating deliberation spaces. Next, we share our vision of creating ad hoc deliberation environments. We then describe two future interfaces to stimulate discussion on long-term research. Finally, we show how our vision answers many challenges posed by others in a variety of publications.

 

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Interactive tabletops

Tables are part of our everyday lives. We use them at home, at work, to play, to eat, and to collaborate. Over the past few decades, researchers have designed interactive tabletops with computers integrated into them — an effective way of making the computers invisible (Muller-Tomfelde and Fjeld, 2012). Today, approximately 20 years since their inception (Muller-Tomfelde and Fjeld, 2012), technologies and products using horizontal displays have reached a certain level of productivity. It is therefore possible to identify several systems that have supported interactive data exploration and engaged users to collaborate around data. Several examples show that the socio-constructivist design influences (Dillenbourg and Evans, 2011) of tabletops can be used to engage, educate, and inspire users. For example, G-nome Surfer, an interactive tabletop application that was successfully employed in teaching genomics, illustrates how college students can explore data more effectively with tabletops (http://cs.wellesley.edu/~hcilab/gnomesurfer.html). Tabletops have also been identified as an effective tool to foster collaboration when working with data sets (Voida, et al., 2009; McGrath, et al., 2012).

As tabletop technology has evolved, more precise tracking methods have become available, leading to further development. Yet even though advanced tabletops, such as Microsoft’s SUR40 (the most widely used off-the-shelf interactive table today), are now on the market, an interactive table is still expensive and difficult to obtain. Thus, spontaneous or personal usage remains rare. These shortcomings could be overcome by recent developments in organic light emitting displays (OLEDs), which combine outstanding display and production characteristics with multi-touch interaction technologies. We think that OLED, plus a future material such as graphene, will be the thin and flexible means to enable affordable, portable, and bendable displays. These developments will lead to the wider adoption of mobile tabletops. The key evolutionary step needed for adoption of tabletops in everyday environments is that their interfaces must evolve from being fixed devices available only in some locations to mobile technology enabling interaction on demand on any flat surface. We believe this process may come about in two stages.

 

Examples of future usage settings for mobile tabletops
 
Figure 1: Examples of future usage settings for mobile tabletops.

 

 

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Stage one: Mobile tabletops — Bring your own device

In the first stage, we believe that the coming generations of smartphones and tablets will enable the first ad hoc tabletops, (i.e., portable tabletop systems that can be deployed on any table surface at any time). Our goal is to prepare interaction techniques and scenarios for a future generation of mobile devices equipped with ultrasonic sensing, enabling mutual spatial awareness and cross-device gestures (Raj, et al., 2012). Even today, many individuals carry both tablet-sized and phone-sized devices with them. Compared to devices such as watches, desktops, tabletops, and laptops, the multitouch tablet and phone stand out because they balance portability and function. As a result, they enjoy huge market success. Users now carry their devices in a variety of contexts, finding new ways to extract content from the surrounding infrastructure and take it home. In other words, they are engaged in their environment. This phenomenon was first described by Ballagas, et al. (2004) as the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) trend. We propose to respond to that trend by exploring how multiple tablets and smartphones can combine to work as tabletops (Figure 1). Exploring a design space of distributed input and output solutions relying on phone-tablet combinations working together is already possible with fixed sensing techniques. Dynamic coupling among tabletops was examined in Connectables (Muller-Tomfelde and Fjeld, 2012), where manipulating physical objects affected the digital world. In Conductor (Hamilton and Wigdor, 2014) — an interface system for managing multiple mobile devices — Hamilton and Wigdor have shown that multiple screens on a surface can create an effective problem-solving tool. So we argue for extending that concept to portable handheld devices.

While phones and tablets have complementary properties in terms of input, output, and interaction style, users generally treat them as isolated units. Thus, their embedded sensors are not fully utilized. Extensive research projects have been carried out within this area; the projects can be grouped under two themes: a) exploring the combination of small, personal devices with larger, shared devices in office or public settings; and b) investigating the working combination of two or more equivalent mobile devices (Piazza, et al., 2013; Woźniak, et al., 2014). Research is needed to study how to effectively combine their complementary nature into an integrated environment. There have been efforts to show the potential of systems that mix and match multiple devices, but these often focus on pairing similar mobile devices (such as for social gaming) or on complementary multi-device systems that combine mobile devices with stationary devices (Lorenz, et al., 2009). We believe device coupling creates a system that is unique and is worthy of a separate and systematic investigation.

Coupling multiple devices is a specific but important multi-machine scenario in which the devices play complementary roles. The resulting device gains newly available attributes, such as the relative position and orientation among the devices; furthermore, each device could have interchangeable roles, switching appropriately to the application domain.

 

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Emerging Stage one technologies

Pico projectors

Portable projectors may provide the versatility and portability required for mobile tabletops, providing highly localized imagery on demand and augmenting everyday objects. They will also help explore the utilization of occlusion as an interaction resource (Dachselt, et al., 2012).

Tangible tabletops

As recognition techniques for all objects will soon be cost-efficient, future tabletops are bound to exploit the possibilities of using any physical object that might normally occupy the tables. Inspired by projects such as GaussBricks, user-customizable magnetic bricks that enable users to manipulate content on a tablet (Liang, et al., 2014), designs will explore custom-made interactive objects. Tangible tabletops have a history of being used as devices to support collaborative co-located planning e.g., in PICO (Patten and Ishii, 2007), which supported engineers placing cellular phone towers with physically constrained tangibles (http://tangible.media.mit.edu/project/pico/).

Gesture-based input

The proliferation of mobile gesture sensing (ultrasonic and camera-based) will enhance data exploration with multi-level 3D gestural interfaces (Raj, et al., 2012). We envision cross-device (and cross-object) gesturing as a new enhancement for collaboration and for managing content around everyday horizontal surfaces. Recently, Rädle, et al. (2014) presented HuddleLamp, a vision-based interface that enables both gesturing among multiple iPhones and iPads and manipulating images on multiple screens at the same time.

Portable embedded sensing

We will increasingly encounter devices with extensive sensing capabilities in our everyday lives. Advanced context-sensing capacities will enable objects to sense things such as location (Wiese, et al., 2013), the postures of the users around them, the number of people in the room, and the type of grasp applied to the object. Future tables will be aware of the environment around them and must offer new interactive capabilities.

Organic user interfaces

Computationally enhanced objects that change their form and shape (Holman and Vertegaal, 2008) are bound to revolutionize the way we arrange artifacts on a tabletop. Bendable displays and flexible electronic paper will enable designers to create embodied data interactions, thus making extensive use of the natural tendency to organize information in piles and groups. Actuated displays (Alexander, et al., 2012) may also prove useful for tabletop settings.

 

Modular TableTiles
 
Figure 2: Modular TableTiles: i) marking out desired tile sub-section from the tabletop, ii) picking up and interacting with tile content, and iii) laying back the tile with edited content “into” the tabletop.

 

 

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Stage two: Beyond personal devices

In the second stage, we chart future inquiries that may be required to create a generation of tabletops succeeding the multi-device mobile tabletops described above. In the pervasive computing scenario of the future, we assume that a wide variety of devices will be readily available in public and personal spaces. To make it possible for users to take full advantage of those devices on a horizontal surface, new interaction techniques will have to be developed. We propose two futuristic visions: TableTiles and Moldable Displays (see Figures 2 and 3).

In order to be a viable solution for civic deliberation and be relevant for communities, these future tabletop technologies need to offer a number of functions. We present three fundamental functions: i) Easy data access is required with appropriate means of accessing metadata. This will assure that the users are aware of the reliability of the sources and will be able to relate the data to their life experiences. ii) Interaction techniques — such as pan, scroll, and zoom — should be tailored for casual settings, so that tabletops are easy to integrate in discussions. iii) Accommodation of conflicting views and support of collaborative analysis will be needed to enable multi-user interaction scenarios. Besides these basic functions, future tabletop technologies must be closely related to the latest developments in information visualization methods, since the growing amounts of data will require more overview and synthesis. Easy manipulation of multimedia and social network content are also likely to become key features. Next, we present a vision of future tabletop systems that fulfill these requirements.

 

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Prospective Stage two technologies

TableTiles

Based on bendable and paper-like displays, TableTiles relate to our natural inclination of working with displays the size of a sheet of paper. This is in line with Mark Weiser’s remark that a natural way of working with documents is organizing or reorganizing them on a physical desk (Weiser, 1991). TableTiles (Figure 2) would thus enable users to extract and re-integrate content and work seamlessly in both private and shared views. Trends towards such solutions can be seen in research and in products such as the ASUS PadFone 2, combining phone and tablet into one single modular device.

Moldable Displays

Tangible tabletops are still limited by their two input dimensions: size and shape. For instance, in the collaborative planning of a city or a landscape, it may be useful to interact with spatially moldable sensed materials on the table (Figure 3). Integrating interactive materials (Shirky, 2010) and tangible tabletops is thus the next big challenge for tangible interaction. This goal is feasible, as indicated by research in self-folding materials. For instance, Nokia Research recently promised a graphene Electrostatic Tactile (ET) system that is a “fully programmable electrostatic tactile feedback system capable of delivering a range of tactile textures to a mobile display. The ET system can be overlaid unobtrusively on top of a display screen to deliver localized control of friction, which can be synchronized with images or icons on the display. Since there are no moving parts in the tactile stimulation (skin is directly stimulated), the ET system is extremely efficient in terms of energy consumption” (Radivojevic, et al., 2012). We believe that such ET solutions can be important components in future mobile tabletop solutions, where displays can take on any form (Holman and Vertegaal, 2008).

 

Self-Shaping Moldable Displays
 
Figure 3: Self-Shaping Moldable Displays: i) typical interaction with city-planning application offering tangibles in a tabletop scenario, ii) molding the physical environment and thereby creating “reclaimed land”, and iii) placing house and bridge in a newly created city environment.

 

 

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Collaborative interactions with big data: Challenges for research and design

Understanding how ad hoc data interaction can support communities

The key question we pose is: can future tabletops cater to new needs of communities in the age of pervasive computing and data collection? Will communities be able to create tools and applications that will convince people to hold civic conversations of this nature? Users often interact with data and information on the go, meaning that new input–output solutions are required to adapt tabletops to this usage (Ballagas, et al., 2004).

We illustrate how tabletops could offer specific answers to the two future challenges of supporting societal interactions, i.e., raising democratic awareness and engagement (Schuler, 2013) and of enabling deep storytelling (Kim, et al., 2013).

Schuler outlines a number of challenges to more egalitarian involvement of citizens with their government. Firstly, he argues for enabling ubiquitous citizen deliberation, which is currently limited due to lack of proper training, access, corporate influence, and/or repression. We propose augmenting everyday tables with technology so that groups gathered around horizontal surfaces can cooperate both face-to-face and remotely. Secondly, Schuler endeavors to find a new role for computer science in supporting active citizenship by refocusing towards in-the-wild studies, away from the lab. There are an increasing number of in situ studies in tangible-interaction and tabletop research, and that trend is likely to continue (Hinrichs and Carpendale, 2011). Such in situ research may prove a boon for the understanding of deliberative democracy. Leading scholars in this field have stated the need to learn how public deliberation plays out in real-world settings (Page and Shapiro, 1999) and the need for greater integration between the normative theories of deliberative democracy and empirical work in this area (Thompson, 2008). Thirdly, stimulating democratic awareness and engagement requires deliberation at the citizen level.

Instead of convincing citizens to leave pubs, bars, and cafés to attend meetings in dedicated discussion spaces, mobile tabletops could create arenas for interactive, improvised deliberation. These can take place around the table already being used, with personal devices playing an active role in the discussion. Jason Barabas (2004) has outlined the normative benefits of deliberation, that is, “an enlightened and open-minded search for consensus amid diverse participants”. He contrasts deliberation with discussion: discussion is less normatively beneficial to democratic engagement, but it is far more commonplace. If they are designed effectively, the ad hoc arenas for discussion that we describe here could inculcate the advantageous characteristics of Barabas’ conception of deliberation — encouraging open-mindedness and diversity, for example — while maintaining the casual conditions and context within which more common yet far less constructive discussion typically occurs.

Mobile tabletops have other characteristics which can aid productive and meaningful deliberation. Users can be provided with instantly available, relevant data to fuel the discussion, however spontaneous. Again, the literature supports this notion: McLeod, et al. (1999) argue that the infusion of relevant information can be crucial to the success of public deliberation. As such, we believe tabletops could help build a more broadly-based civic intelligence. The constructivist nature of tables and their unique cultural connotations would invite users to contribute to discussion and debate. Mobile and ad hoc tabletops could also enable deep storytelling (Kim, et al., 2013; Ball-Rockeach, et al., 2001), that is, provide ways to systematically develop effective digital stories. As Kim, et al. postulate, annotating real community-relevant massive data sets will be a future challenge. We envision that tables may be one of the locations where such annotation of massive data sets can unfold. Much like in Arias’ work (Arias, et al., 2000), which was the first to suggest using interactive technology to facilitate urban planning, people would be able to discuss and navigate data related to their local communities, draw conclusions, and tell their stories. This is an answer to the needs postulated by Weise, et al. (2012). In a future data-centered world, says Weise, interfaces will need to work as a means of mediation among individuals and organizations (public and private) to establish proper data governance and assure that human values are reflected in data collection and processing. Similar attempts helping citizens relate to the data around them have been undertaken in real-world communities, where the computerized noticeboard, rather than the table as we propose here, is the physical locus of civic engagement (Churchill and Nelson, 2009; Taylor, et al., 2014). We acknowledge that such data must be made accessible to enable this kind of discourse and reflection, but many governments around the world are starting to grant more and more access to certain data streams (Open Knowledge Foundation, 2014). As this access is increasingly granted, we envision discussions at a coffee table becoming a method of crowdsourcing data, which could in turn fuel more advanced discussion and further analyses.

A scenario for a future deliberation environment

Figure 4 shows a hypothetical casual deliberation environment around a café space, created by augmenting a central coffee table. The people are discussing a future tunnel and its impact on the city environment. Portable volumetric displays and pervasive power walls form the backbone of the system. We envision that when one group starts deliberating a socially relevant issue in a public space with enough visual support, others would be persuaded to join and create the much needed low-level discourse. The system could then gather data from the discussions and make it accessible in the public domain, allowing decision-makers to take into account the opinions of those participating in the coffee table discussion. The process of accessing, analyzing and understanding data will become a seamless experience, through which democratic data governance will be exercised. Users will be aware of data ownership and the reliability of the sources (Churchill, 2012). Furthermore, the system would be aesthetically pleasing and fun to use, making the discussion a stimulating intellectual exercise to casually engage in and allowing citizens to commit some free time to a common cause. Clay Shirky (2010) calls this “taking advantage of the cognitive surplus”. Social science research shows that users are likely to commit to active participation once clear goals are established and the means for participation is available (Ellis, 1956) and engaging (Whyte, 1988).

 

A hypothetical future civic deliberation space
 
Figure 4: A hypothetical future civic deliberation space.

 

The use of the café space as our hypothetical environment carries symbolic significance, connecting our forward-thinking view of public debate to one of the historical antecedents of public opinion: the coffee houses of Europe from the seventeenth century onwards (Cowan, 2005; Halavais, 2013). Yet there is also an important distinction to be drawn here. The link among citizens expressing their views in the early modern coffee house and leaders exercising political power was weak because ordinary people generally lacked both the political and technological empowerment to turn their opinions into decisive action. The situation is different today: in modern democracies, representatives are answerable to the citizens who elect them. Thus, the technological infrastructure we propose here dovetails with the political infrastructure of a modern democracy, potentially forging stronger and more direct connections between the views of citizens and the decisions of those who represent the citizens. This connected communicative capacity suggests that, though it is clearly redolent of the coffee house tradition, the more appropriate historical analogy to what we describe here is the Agora of the city-state of ancient Greece. Debate at the Agora occurred in the open, and individuals could voice their opinion to the polity as a whole (Peters, 1995).

 

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Conclusion: Towards an infrastructure for civic deliberation

In this article we have outlined our vision of future tabletops that can support active citizenship and help to build civic communities. We have proposed a development plan for future tabletop technologies which aims to turn everyday tables into tangible interfaces. We see a great need for both technical and interaction innovations before such aims can be reached. We have illustrated how some of the intrinsic properties of tabletop interfaces make them a useful tool for civic deliberations and have illustrated how they can help raise democratic understanding through data-fueled storytelling. We realize that our vision may seem futuristic and possibly utopian to some readers. Our main message to the community is that we must strive to enhance the places we meet in our everyday lives for the good of our local and global communities. We want to support democratic communities where citizens can eagerly participate in meaningful and empowered encounters, discussions, and debates. In this way, society can truly benefit from the opportunities offered by the coming age of big data. End of article

 

About the authors

Morten Fjeld is Founder of the t2i interaction lab and professor at the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden.
E-mail: morten [at] t2i [dot] se

Paweł Woźniak is a doctoral student at the t2i interaction lab at Chalmers University of Technology. He hold a M.Sc. diploma from Łódź University of Technology.
E-mail: pawelw [at] chalmers [dot] se

Josh Cowls is a Research Assistant at the Oxford Internet Institute at University of Oxford.
E-mail: josh [dot] cowls [at] oii [dot] ox [dot] ac [dot] uk

Bonnie Nardi is Professor at the Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine.
E-mail: nardi [at] ics [dot] uci [dot] edu

 

Acknowledgements

Figures 1 and 3 by Asim Evren Yantaç; figures 2 and 4 by Alessandro Suraci. We thank Barrie Sutcliffe, Philippa Beckman, and Barbara Struckey for their help in improving the quality of this text. The research leading to these results has received funding from the People Programme (Marie Curie Actions) of the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme FP7/2007-2013/ under REA grant agreement no. 290227 (DIVA).

 

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Editorial history

Received 7 December 2014; revised 26 January 2015; accepted 27 January 2015.


Copyright © 2015, First Monday.
Copyright © 2015, Morten Fjeld, Paweł Woźniak, Josh Cowls, and Bonnie Nardi.

Ad hoc encounters with big data: Engaging citizens in conversations around tabletops
by Morten Fjeld, Paweł Woźniak, Josh Cowls, and Bonnie Nardi.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 2 - 2 February 2015
http://www.firstmonday.dk/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/5611/4205
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v20i2.5611





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