Frequently asked questions

We Need Us launched on 6th October 2014 on - an online platform for digital art. It was re-commissioned by NEoN (North East of North) in 2018 for the NEoN Digital Art Festival in Dundee, with support from the Open Data Institute.

What is an online animated artwork?

An animation created by an artist, in this case Julie Freeman, that has been created specifically to be experienced and displayed online (on the Web). We all spend large amounts of our time in a global online space which we access via screens: our computers, tablets, or mobile phones. Freeman's 'We Need Us' is public art for these 'spaces'.

What’s the big idea behind ‘We Need Us’?

‘We Need Us’ is like a thought experiment set up to reveal currently unknown ‘living’ qualities of data and metadata, if indeed these can be found. The work is research-led. It is unknown whether the artists' process will result in a definitive answer. Although we don't know exactly what we will find out about data through the work, we hope that the animated forms and sounds will act as enticing 'hooks' to help us consider the questions the artist is asking. It’s a way to ‘experience’ data.

Why did Julie make it look the way it does?

Digital data are essentially invisible. Julie chose initial shapes and forms for her animation that would both ‘carry’, and be altered by, the constant flow of metadata feeding the work. She created rules for each formal ‘object’ in the work such as: there must only be quadrilaterals – angular, four-sided shapes, like the pixels that are behind all our screens; and only flat colours can be used. These are influenced, visually and sonically, by the data streams feeding the work from the Zooniverse website. In considering the forms she would construct Julie was highly influenced by the Russian early 20th century art movement, Suprematism, and in particular masters of the movement Malevich and Popova.

What about the sound?

Most of the sounds in ‘We Need Us’ are environmental recordings, processed and manipulated, just like the data. Like the visual aspect of the work, the sounds and the algorithmic rules that guide them are constructed by the artist, and the data influences the final composition.

Why are artists interested in data?

Many contemporary artists are interested in the political ramifications of data, particularly in the light of Edward Snowden's revelations, and the ongoing debates relating to the balance between national security and information privacy. Julie is interested in posing questions about data in a world where we are increasingly exposed by our 'data shadows'.

Is ‘We Need Us’ a data visualisation project?

No. Julie uses the visual and sonic means of animation and constructed sounds, to give form to the data that will allow her to analyse patterns that have nothing to do with the original information the data correspond to.

Why is it interesting to explore metadata through 'We Need Us'?

Julie is looking at the frequency and activity of metadata generated by users of Zooniverse because it is a fantastic example of open data, and it provides enough variance for her to be able to identify patterns of behaviour and form. It is also interesting because of the personal ramifications of metadata.

How does 'We Need Us’ relate to advances in contemporary science?

Scientists use data to suggest possible truths and provide evidence about the way the world works. Researchers from Southampton, Oxford, and Edinburgh Universities working at the Social Machines project study the same Zooniverse data that powers ‘We Need Us’. They are examining how online collaborations are empowering communities to solve problems, without having to rely on remote experts or governments.

How has Julie created the work technically?

She takes the metadata from Zooniverse and counts the number of users and classifications happening every minute. She stores this in a new database as sets of values, while also recording the frequency of activity over an hour, a day and a month. These sets of values create rhythms that are translated into moving shapes, and play different banks of sounds. The live data ensures constant change and impermanence to the visual compositions and sounds Julie has created.

So what is ‘We Need Us’ again?

‘‘We Need Us’ is an online artwork made with live data, animation, and sound. Artist Julie Freeman is particularly excited by life data - which are real-time data from living things - and how we can use them to translate nature, generating new perspectives. She is interested both in how life data might be represented and in what ‘life’ raw data, as a material for art, might have on its own terms. For ‘We Need Us’ Freeman has created hand crafted algorithms, or bespoke computer code, to manipulate data taken from activity within the Zooniverse website. Zooniverse enables anyone who logs into it to classify large scientific datasets about subjects such as astronomy and biology. With over a million users working together to analyse data, it is the world’s largest citizen science project. Julie’s code for ‘We Need Us’ captures, collects and exposes the real-time activity of Zooniverse users clicking and swiping online around the globe. In this way she is able to explore the real-time metadata (that is - data about data -) from Zooniverse. to perform for her in a way that starts to describe data in a very different way than simply as an analysing tool.

‘We Need Us’ asks questions about the purpose and nature of data, beyond their informational functions. Julie is interested in considering the specific qualities of open data and metadata once any ‘useful’ information that can be analysed and put to conclusive use has been discounted. The work appears as a mesmerising and thought-provoking animated environment with a multichannel soundtrack. The sounds and motion of the animated forms are generated by the Zooniverse data traffic. Julie’s ‘hand-crafted algorithms’ use the rhythms of the data which she argues start to describe the physical parameters and ‘sense of life’ of the data which would otherwise be invisible and incomprehensible.

What is open data?

Open data is data that is licensed for use by anyone for any purpose, for free. See the Open Data Institute’s Open Data FAQ for more information about open data.

What is big data?

Big data is a vague phrase that is sometimes used to define large sets of data, or vast data flows (e.g. Twitter) that allow correlations to be found that may not be able to be identified using other types of modelling or analytics.

What's a data shadow?

Your data shadow is reference to the traces of information that you leave behind when using internet-connected digital devices and services. The pieces of data created when an individual sends an email, updates and social media profile, swipes a credit card, uses an ATM and so on. The data shadow concept has become a serious concern, as it is difficult to control who has access, what conclusions are drawn and what decisions are taken based on those conclusions.

What is meta data?

Metadata is data that describes data, examples include the date and time you make a call, a library’s book index, the locations and names of all the weather stations that provide data for forecasting. Data shadows are made from metadata.

What is Zooniverse?

Zooniverse is the largest citizen science project in the world. Its website enables anyone to classify large scientific datasets about subjects such as astronomy and biology. It has over a million users working together to analyse data. Zooniverse is one of the many social machines we decide to be part of everyday: socio-technical systems in which the human and technological elements play the role of participant components and contributors in the achievement of an objective, from capturing knowledge (Wikipedia) to networking (Twitter) or digitizing books and improving maps (reCAPTCHA).