It’s “International Day of Happiness” today, which I thought was a perfect excuse, and a gentle nudge to get me to finally write this post.

Way back in November last year, I took part in AcrossRCA,  a set of week-long cross-disciplinary projects at the RCA, bringing together students and staff with different expertise, interests and perspectives to collaborate on a wide range of briefs.  I was lucky enough to get a place on the Data Provocation course run by Karin von Ompteda.

The brief was fairly simple, find some open data, and plot it in an interesting way that was thought provoking.  It was less about the message in the data itself, and more about questioning it in terms of its meaning, validity, source and impact.  It was also deemed that the end result should be a physical object that could be exhibited, and not an interactive digital visualisation.

We were given instruction, and encouraged to use the very accessible World Bank Databank and a free trial of SAS JMP to do this (although most of the manipulation ended up being undertaken in Excel!).  My Group consisted of Tetsuro Ikenishi from Service Design, Joanne Harik from Information Experience Design, and Brendan Cawley and Wei-Che Chang from Innovation Design Engineering.

Our interest from the start revolved around happiness indexes, the perceived overall happiness of a country and its representation/measurement.  How do you measure happiness?  It turns out in a number of very complicated ways using a combination of different metrics, for example the Satisfaction With Life Index measures subjective well-being by through directly asking how happy they are (along with other social and economic development factors), the Happy Planet Index focuses on sustainability and the World Happiness Report relies largely on GDP per capita and life expectancy (seemingly attesting that you cannot lead a poor, short happy life).  Almost all of these indexes use a mixture of quantifiable and unquantifiable data, and no matter what the number or ranking alongside other countries that is provided, the overall mood of the country always remains the same.

Quite early on we latched on to chocolate and its relationship with happiness.  Some of the preliminary ideas floated around included indicating the difference between chocolate importers and exporters in terms of happiness.  Another idea was to show how according to different indexes, certain countries could be ranked in completely different orders.

We ended up producing a visual representation of 3 different happiness values attributed to the U.K. in 2014 (OECD Better Life Index, UN World Happiness Report, and the Ipsos Global Happiness Report) and depicted them using different sized pieces of chocolate.

UK Happiness represented by different sized eggs
UK happiness represented by different sized chocolate balls

Participants were asked to choose which piece best represented the overall happiness of the UK.  Their selection was delivered manually by a clothed hand (from a not so happy member of the team hiding under the desk waiting for a cue… usually Tetsuro!)

Inside the chocolate was a small note explaining the Index value that the chosen piece represents and explaining that all three spheres are made from the same quantity of chocolate (as the happiness remains the same regardless of the measure).

This project was a bit of a baptism of fire for me, it was the first time I have been part of an ambitious collaborative art project with the intention of displaying it to peers at the end of a short period.  Luckily the rest of my team were more than capable enough to make up for my lack of experience.

I particularly liked the sign, made almost entirely by Joanne, and composed of a laser cut plywood front and a backbox filled with colour changing LED balls, when all the balls were switched on inside the housing it gave the sign a psychedelic undulating effect.  Also of note was the hard work put in by Cawley, who worked hard to set the chocolate in their moulds, and then successfully managed to transport them on what turned out to be an unseasonably warm day, and in a very well heated building.

The whole undertaking was extremely useful for me in that it covered an aspect relevant to my PhD that I am less comfortable with, that of informative or visualisation art.  It also allowed me to practice things like woodwork that I had not undertaken since before my GCSEs (surprisingly I was not too bad at it either).

Early on, while we were deciding on what exactly we were going to produce, I compiled a lot of data from different sources into a single spreadsheet.  Much of that data went unused (as we only used 3 data points in the end).  So rather than let the data go to waste, I thought I would compile it into an interactive visualisation.


Click the image for an interactive version (which I may re-visit at a later date, as it is not very responsive, and lacks a scale).  For a table of the data used in the visualisation see below or click “Read More”.


Read More