A new exhibition project will provide valuable insights into how we interact with and understand our personal health data, says a UNSW research team.

Innovative new social research is challenging our perceptions of digital health data through a public exhibition project. Digital health data, such as data collected from running trackers, heart rate monitors and sleep apps, have revolutionised our understanding of our identity and our embodied self. The project team is developing a series of materials for exhibition that represent and reflect on our relationship with personal health and medical data and how we learn from our bodies through our interactions with the natural environment.

The project, The More-than-Human Health and Wellbeing exhibition, is led by the UNSW node of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society (ADM+S) in the Faculty of Arts, Design & Architecture. Designed for research translation and engagement, the More-than-Human Wellness exhibition explores how people learn about their bodies and health not only through digital devices and data but also through elements of the natural world.

The research will explore the kinds of health information people use and why, the marks life leaves on bodies and what these marks can tell us, how people observe, sense, create and document their health and identities through digital and non-digital modes, and how this affects their perceptions of the connection between the health of the planet and the health of people.

Digital data about their bodies can help individuals to learn more about and improve their health, says project lead SHARP Professor Deborah Lupton, who leads the UNSW Node of the AMD+S.

“If you use say a self-tracking app, that can allow you to learn about your body to help you, [for example], lose weight or quit smoking. But for some people, it's very frustrating and doesn't work in that way,” she says.

The experimental research brings together cross-disciplinary expertise in design, digital fabrication, curation and sociological research to create interactive sculptures – potentially pieces of furniture, decorative design and art-objects – that embody these diverse relationships.

“Creating new whole-body sensory encounters with health data enables us to re-imagine and re-evaluate our health information,” says Professor Lupton, a global leader in health and digital sociology. “Data physicalisations allow for data to be encountered in ways that are radically different from standard screen-based 2D visualisations.

“The research asks what we can imagine about the lives of this data by viewing and touching them, and examines how engaging with the sculptures through our senses alters how we value that data.”

Facilitating these interactions can help us re-connect health data with our bodies as well as with the wider context of the natural world we are a part of, she says. “Often when we think about digital health data, it's a very immaterial idea. It goes up into the cloud, but you can't touch it, we can’t see it,” she says.

“That kind of representation of our bodies really de-materialises it away from the messy realities of the human body. We’re trying to bring that messiness back in, that multi-sensory engagement that people have when they're learning about their bodies, and about health, by making those parallels with the natural world.”

The health data sculptures project is funded by a faculty research partnership grant with in-kind support from ADM+S.

The research team is working with research partner, Health Consumers NSW, through a collaborative workshop series. Participants will respond to image prompts through map-making, images from nature and discussion. 

“The project combines qualitative and arts-based methods to produce unique new insights into what matters to people,” says Dr Ash Watson, a chief investigator on the project and a sociologist of fiction and technology based in UNSW’s node of ADM+S.

“We will examine people’s perceptions’ of their health data, how they make sense of – and with – information, as well as their response to experiences that are often not captured by the data – this could include aspects of their relationships or conflicting emotions and fears.”

Ideas and insights from the workshops will then guide the process of translating personal health data into artworks and a film for display in the exhibition. The research partnership offers an invaluable opportunity for knowledge exchange, says Anthony Brown from Executive Director of Health Consumers NSW. 

“Health Consumers NSW is excited about this collaboration because it encourages people to think differently about health data and meaning-making of health data for consumers. Too often, people design technology and apps without involving health consumers, this collaboration puts consumers at the centre of how they make meaning about health data and technology,” he says.

Reclaimed timber evokes the narrative of the body

The sculpture series will be fabricated using digital technologies, such as 3D printing and CNC carving, using reclaimed timber as material. Reclaimed timber provides a fitting metaphor for human bodily experiences, Prof. Lupton says.

“Reclaimed timber is valuable as it emphasises human encounters, such as marks – nails, paint scars – from previous use, and materiality, natural growth markings, grain structure, and so on,” she says.

Human bodies also reveal the narrative of their unique physical experience through marks, such as caesarean or appendix removal scars, bruises, stretch marks, she says. “This project connects the markings made on reclaimed timber to our team’s writing on personal data as human remains.”

Promoting interaction with the sculptures is also important for the success of the project, says Mr Vaughan Wozniak-O’Connor, a chief investigator on the project and a research fellow at ADM+S. Mr Wozniak-O’Connor’s PhD research, through UNSW’s School of Art & Design, used self-tracking data to create site-specific data installation artworks in timber. 

“In this project, we are exploring both sculptural and furniture forms as new ways for creating interactions between viewers and health information. Furniture and domestic objects provide an unexpected way for viewers to interact with data, through everyday embodied interactions,” the media artist and emerging technology researcher says. “Furniture encourages different interactions from artworks, such as sitting and touching.

“Similarly objects like bowls or flatware [cutlery and serving implements] enable unexpected touch-based interactions with the health data. The use of these objects will add further lived traces to the surfaces of the sculptures."

The team is considering computational processes that embed qualitative data into manufacturing as well as the carving of key phrases into their surfaces. It will draw on the qualitative data compiled through the workshops to shape the design.

“We will source and test different kinds of reclaimed timber to determine its suitability as a material for the installation, and to create evocative encounters with data,” says Dr Kate Dunn, from the UNSW School of Built Environment.

Dr Dunn, who will guide the fabrication process, has extensive experience in data visualisation and the digital fabrication of public sculptures and medical 3D printing applications. Prototype artworks will then be evaluated, refined and finalised in collaboration with Health Consumers NSW. Sculptural artworks will be fabricated at UNSW’s Design Futures Lab, which features cutting edge robotic manufacturing facilities. 

Wellbeing ecologies hand-drawn map by a participants in the ‘Creative Approaches to Health Information Ecologies’ project. Image: Supplied. 

Promoting knowledge exchange through public engagement and academic workshops

The research team will document the co-design, fabrication and curatorial processes as well as examining how interactions with the installation shape people’s understanding of healthcare data. They will deliver public engagement workshops on creative approaches to health education as well as academic seminars on using art- and design-based research methods.

The team is in consultation with community arts spaces to host the resulting installation artworks and public programs. This includes workshops and talks presented in collaboration with the host venue. Potential presentation venues include Gallery Lane Cove + Creative Studios. Gallery Lane Cove presents work by established and emerging artists and encourages the development of innovative contemporary art projects.

Future iterations of the project may also include the Multi-Arts Pavilion mima (MAP mima) in Lake Macquarie. MAP mima is an experimental gallery space for international contemporary installations, theatre and performance operating at the nexus of art, technology and culture.

Associate Professor Lizzie Muller from UNSW’s School of Art & Design will provide critical input into the curation of the project. “Physical models of cerebral concepts can inspire both knowledge and creativity to generate new ways of knowing,” A/Prof. Muller says. “With this research, we’re examining how novel engagements with health and medical data can contribute new kinds of knowledge about our health and our bodies.”

Lead image: Artwork for the More-than-Human Wellbeing exhibition. Image: Vaughan Wozniak-O'Connor.

This article was originally published in 2022.

Written by Kay Harrison