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This piece is part of By Design, a Globe and Mail/OCAD University summer series highlighting design thinking, issues and innovation. Previously: Innovation agenda, Urban agriculture, Social or precarious economy

Patricio Davila is associate professor, director of the Zero Lab and a member of the Visual Analytics Laboratory at OCADU. Sara Diamond is president of OCADU and director of the Visual Analytics Laboratory. Steve Szigeti is a researcher and manager of the Visual Analytics Laboratory.

We need the skills of designers and artists, and widespread data literacy, to ensure that Canada succeeds in the Big Data era.

We can describe data as one of the remarkable new materials of the 21st century – as important to our future as water. Data are measurements of other things: physical phenomena (such as weather patterns) or virtual phenomena (such as telecommunications packets). Every time we search for an online movie, view a video on our mobile device, tweet a comment about a news article, upload a photo to Instagram or are directed to a new location in Pokemon Go, we are producing and responding to data.

Discoverability, the ability to find what we want through harnessing our data traces, has redefined distribution. Similarly, it is through data analytics that personalized advertisements appear adjacent to or are embedded in our online experiences.

Data will be a critical part of our future. The blockchain transformation in peer-secured financial and contractual transactions relies on sophisticated analytics to produce, exchange and archive a digital database. CRISPR genome editing samples and modifies genetic data to modify human bodies. Increasingly connected devices and systems – vehicles, smart homes, health analytics, mobile devices, remote environmental controls of buildings, wearable fitness technology and embedded experiences – produce data and are driven by data management.

The ability to understand and use data-based systems is required and will be even more so in democratic life, whether urban planning, transportation, economic development, health-care improvement, security, education or social and cultural interventions. Our ability to produce, monitor and manage our personal data, sometimes described as "the quantified self," will increasingly intersect with our health and insurance data. There are implications for privacy that require that we understand the connections of our small data and Big Data.

Through design thinking and foresight, we can use qualitative and ethnographic knowledge to bring human factors and needs into dialogue with the artificial intelligence and machine learning that drives data analytics. We can better identify trends and anticipate events and behaviours. We need to make informed choices about which decisions can and should be automated through the intelligent systems that are able to analyze and act on data faster than human intervention.

Here's the challenge: For humans, data are meaningless without curation, interpretation and representation. All the examples described above require elegant, meaningful and navigable sensory interfaces. Adjacent to the visual are emerging creative, applied and inclusive design practices in data "representation," whether it's data sculpture (such as 3-D printing, moulding and representation in all physical media of data), tangible computing (wearables or systems that manage data through tactile interfaces) or data sonification (yes, data can make beautiful music).

Infographics is the practice of displaying data, while data visualization or visual analytics refers to tools or systems that are interactive and allow users to upload their own data sets. In a world increasingly driven by data analysis, designers, digital media artists and animators provide essential tools for users. These interpretive skills stand side by side with general literacy, numeracy, statistical analytics, computational skills and cognitive science.

OCAD University faculty, researchers and students are among those exploring data visualization's potential to provide meaningful interfaces among data, databases, machines and humans.

  • Meeting the challenges of urban congestion, traffic, transit and systems planning is a fundamental requirement for our future economic and social well-being. The iCity project led by Eric Miller at the University of Toronto (in partnership with OCAD University, University of Waterloo and many stakeholders and industry partners, such as IBM, ESRI and Cellant) is providing sophisticated data-analysis and visualization tools for transportation planning. These allow system managers and city planners to better see transportation networks, problems and outages. Other visualizations allow citizens to view proposals for development that could worsen or improve congestion. Actual data sets and simulations are being used to explore scenarios.
  • A related project, StudentMove TO, was initiated by four university presidents in the Greater Toronto Area who commissioned OCAD University researchers to develop an overview of student transit and transportation habits and needs to help cities, planners, transportation planners and the universities themselves understand how students get to school. The resulting visualizations will help make better planning decisions about bike lanes, walking routes, transit and mobility between transit zones and modes.
  • Working with the digital version of The Globe and Mail, OCAD University used data about article publication time and authorship to create visualizations expressing the sentiment or emotions expressed by different news sections.
  • The Care and Condition Monitor is a tablet and smartphone tool developed by Anne Stevens, Hudson Pridham, Steve Szigeti, Bhuvaneswari Arunachalan and Sara Diamond of the Visual Analytics Lab that supports patients, health-care workers and families to set and realize treatment goals and outcomes together, showing changes in patient wellbeing over time.
  • Growing awareness of the human impact on environmental conditions has given us a new name for the current geological era: the Anthropocene. A large immersive visual interactive simulation called Chthuluscene allowed many users to simultaneously interact with and multiply images with their smartphones. OCAD University’s Zero Lab created this experience with Public Visualization Studio for the 2015 instalment of Scotiabank Nuit Blanche in Toronto.

Canada has developed significant scientific skills in data analytics within its universities and knowledge industries. However, we need to remember that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines are not enough. We need to ensure that we graduate individuals with interpretive and communication skills into the world of Big Data. Children are already learning basic statistics, data analysis, basic infographics and data-visualization skills in the early years of education and in high schools in some parts of Canada and around the world. Young people use available data analysis tools regularly within social media, but they do not necessarily know what's driving the content recommendations and experiences that are pushed to them. Public education must provide data literacy, data analytics and representation knowledge.

Art and design universities and programs have leading roles to play. We are beginning to ensure that students in our fields acquire data-literacy skills – numeracy, statistics, analysis and relevant design – as a baseline. As well, specialized schools and programs have built curriculums that provide students with the tools for contextual, historical and critical engagement with data, as a material and as a phenomenon. We have moved from an era of concern about digital access and literacy to what should be a concern about data access and literacy.

We propose the integration of basic data training, management, numeracy, analysis and representational skills as part of the first-year curriculum throughout the college and university system, to then be integrated throughout students' learning journey. With this knowledge, Canadians will be equipped to succeed in their fields and to contribute as local and global citizens.

The authors thank NSERC, SSHRC, Mitacs, the Ontario Research Fund – Excellence, the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Centres for Excellence for supporting their research.