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Digital Creativity: a Practical Guide

Working with material and data

A practical guide to getting digitally creative and using digital tools and technologies to explore work, ideas, and research.

Finding material, gathering information and working with data

When getting digitally creative, you often need some material to work with. Maybe you need inspiration for topics or themes, maybe you're focusing on a particular topic and need data relating to that topic, or maybe you want to help people to engage with something new. We'll take a look at gathering suitable material and how to work with data you might have.

Gathering data

Gathering your own data

The University has two survey tools which are available for you to use to collect data and carry out research: Google Forms and Qualtrics. Both tools are digital and can be used to collect a range of information in a spreadsheet for further analysis. From likert scales to open text responses, you can create a survey that suits the requirements of your research. You can even include photos, video or audio to add an extra level of creativity to your data collection.

Using existing sources

Sometimes someone else has already gathered the data for you. There are plenty of sources of data available online which you can access and explore in new ways. You might already be aware of organisations that share datasets online, such as the Office for National Statistics and Public Health England, but did you know that sites like Wikimedia/WikipediaSpotify R&D and IMDb have data available too? For example, DC Labs have used Spotify data to carry out new research looking at Listening in Lockdown.

Further information and support

Take a look at the Data Practical Guide for a more in-depth look at data, resources and analysis. For further information about designing a survey, check out the Forms and Surveys Skills Guide.

Finding material: using archival material

Archives are great places to find material that you can use with projects and for digital creativity work. The Borthwick Institute for the Archives at the University is a fantastic source of material and records that can bring fascinating insights and also allow you to work in new ways with original documents. As well as using archives for research material, you might want to use them to find inspiration for digital creativity projects or to get creative with archival material itself.

Digital Creativity Week at the University of York uses material from the Borthwick Institute for Archives alongside other places like York Minster Library to create digital artefacts. Taking a look at the students' creations from previous weeks shows the potential of using archival material as the basis for digital creativity.

Data collection: Using digital media to elicit conversation

There are digital tools and methods you can use in research to gather data and explore topics in a creative way.

Photo-story methodology or photo elicitation invites the participant to bring and discuss images as part of an interview or workshop. The images may have been specifically taken for the research, or be content already owned. While the imagery can be used as part of data collection, with the right permissions in place, the content can also be used as a way to share and disseminate findings. This is an example of a way you can use digital material to encourage discussion.

Music elicitation works in a similar way. Music is used as a narrative tool and can help participants to communicate, recall and tell challenging stories in a creative and interesting way.

Netnography is a method of exploring and gathering information posted online by participants on social media accounts and blogs. Screenshots of data and observational fieldnotes can be collated and coded. This approach uses digital material as data.

While these approaches are more commonly used within the social sciences, you could adapt them or use them within arts and humanities research too.

Data collection: Peer and participatory arts research

As well as researchers using digital creative tools directly to gather data, it's possible to empower participants to use these tools as well. Within peer research and participatory arts research, participants can be trained to carry out interviews on video, or use photography to gather information about their experiences. The participants might have skills in digital tools that the researchers don't have - this can be used to gather new perspectives and data.

Working with data

There are many ways to work with different kinds of data and you'll probably be using different techniques already. When getting digitally creative with data, there are areas that you may want to focus on:

  • Data cleaning / wrangling - Most data is messy. It is not always properly structured and different data types and kinds of entries can exist in places they shouldn't. To work with a data set creatively you will usually need to get it as "clean" as possible.
  • Data visualisation - You might focus more on data analysis, but communciating your data is crucial. There's a whole world of ways to visualise and depict data and digital creativity opens up even more potential for thinking outside the box (or bar chart).

Working with data: combining traditional and digital techniques

Just because you are going to incorporate digital creative methods into your work, it doesn't mean you have to go 'fully digital'. There is nothing to say you have to abandon the approaches you're more comfortable with or well-practised in. Analogue and digital methods can work together.

Let's take the example of 'So, which band is your boyfriend in?' - an independent documentary that researched the experiences of women and non-binary people in music. The interviews and output were digital - a full-length film, created in Adobe Premiere Pro. But the creative process started very traditionally. Interview audio was transcribed in Word/Google Docs, with timestamps noted. The director then printed the interviews out and used a cut and paste approach to group answers into themes and decide how to structure the film - including what to ignore. A timeline and structure was created on paper. This was used to gather the relevant clips in the software. A mix of digital and paper methods helped the director to gather her ideas and see everything more clearly than if she had just been working on a computer screen.

Paper grouped together on the floor Timeline in Adobe Premiere Pro

From paper to screen

Displaying and working with data: Google Data Studio

Google's Looker Studio is an online tool which can help you to convert data into customisable reports and dashboards. As well as creating more regular graphics with a style to them (like below), you can incorporate interactive tables and charts, so that people can engage with your data and toggle information.

Screenshot of two charts in data studio

Displaying data: infographics

One specific form of visualisation is the infographic, as exemplified very effectively by the work of Information is Beautiful.

Infographics typically use simple graphics and isotypes to convey statistics.

There are various free (or freemium) tools to help you make infographics. For instance, Piktochart and Infogram let you enter tabulated data tables for some great charts graphics, while Canva is more about the graphics than the data.

Alternatively, you could make very effective infographics in something like PowerPoint. There's also plenty of help available in our Posters with a Powerful Point Practical Guide.

Map from Information is Beautiful

Displaying data: sonification

Another way to display and share your data is aurally through sonification. 

Sawe, Chafe and Trevino (2020) describe sonification as the process of turning data into audio. They state that by doing this, changing variables are revealed and the listener is taken through changes in sonic dimensions, such as frequency, pitch, amplitude, and location in the stereo field. In a musical context, data can map to these sonic dimensions, as well as musical dimensions, such as tempo, form, and timbre. 

In their paper they specifically discuss how sonification could be used to overcome barriers in science communication - such as reaching a wide audience and improving understanding.

For another example/lesson on using sonification with historical data, see the Programming Historian site's lesson on The Sound of Data. The lesson explores some of the ways sonification can be useful to exploring data about the past.

Further examples of ways to gather and work with data