People Watching with “Social Observer” Natalia Buckley

Arduino Technology
Natalia Buckley
Natalia Buckley
Photo by Roberta Mataityte

Natalia Buckley is a hacker, designer, and creative technologist. She’s originally from Poland and now lives in Brighton on England’s south coast, a city famed for its appetite for experimentation.

I met her at Lighthouse, Brighton’s “digital culture agency” to talk about her recent projects and why she makes the things she makes.

Natalia studied design at Goldsmiths College in London where she was able to experiment with design practices from clay to CAD/CAM. Natalia was exposed to a broad range a fabrication techniques and design disciplines and also developed an awareness of design as a kind of research.

“If you ask people what they think, they don’t necessarily tell you the truth–or they’re not necessarily aware of the truth,” she says. “They’ll tell you one thing but sometimes they do another. But when you make an object, then you put it in a real life situation and let people use it, not only do you learn about the object itself, but you also learn a lot about people: how they interact with one another, how they interact with the object itself. You can ask probing questions about people’s beliefs, even beliefs that they don’t know they have.”

She’s recently completed a residency as part of the Happenstance project, a program of residencies by technologists at arts organizations across the UK. Along with James Bridle, Natalia was a resident here at Lighthouse, working in the building alongside the arts administrators and curators immersed in the ebb and flow of life at a busy cultural organization.

One of the projects Natalia and James were working on was called Offbot (as in office-robot), a “mostly friendly” tool for collecting people’s thoughts, insights, and activity as they’re working on a project.

Photo by Natalia Buckley
Photo by Natalia Buckley

While there are plenty of tools available for project management and team communication (the likes of Yammer and Basecamp), Offbot is aiming at something different.

“Offbot is a tool for teams to keep a journal together,” she says. “Offbot contacts you once a day and asks you what you’ve been up to. It’s not a task management tool. It’s more a tool to reflect on your own work, and how your team works together. And because it contacts you out of the blue – it emails you at random times of the day – most of the time, people reply with the first thing that comes into their minds.”

There is a very carefully designed interaction between Offbot and its human colleagues. Offbot asks them what they’re up to in a friendly way. They don’t have to respond and it’s not their boss. All added together, these small, personal interactions result in an archive of project activity that’s very different to a more traditional project review.

It collects thoughts in the moment. “You get the kinds of replies that are more meaningful or harder to recall when you’re talking about a project after it has happened; those fleeting moments of activity that are really interesting” says Natalia.

Offbot was originally designed to give teams a way to look back on projects, but as early prototypes were rolled out in the Lighthouse office, new uses emerged.

“People would send in their daily note, but then realize ‘Hey, this is an interesting idea, I might write a blog post about it’, or people who’d been away would come back an catch up on what the team had been doing while they were gone.”

Another project Natalia hacked on while at Lighthouse was called Audience.

Photo by Natalia Buckley

Arts organizations collect huge amounts of feedback from their audiences, through feedback forms, online surveys, at opening events, and in comments books. But all these methods have limitations. They invite responses, which tends to sway people to either flatter or criticize and respondants are a self-selecting group.

Feedback also tends to be typed up and filed away ready for use in the next funding bid or project write-up. The tools do little to connect the people who put on the shows with the people who visit.

Audience goes direct to the source, scouring social networks for mentions of shows and artists exhibiting at Lighthouse. It collects and archives the spontaneous comments, shared between friends, that have an honesty you won’t find in a comments book. But Audience is more than social media monitoring software. It’s based around an internet-connected thermal receipt printer which prints the comments out in the office for the production team to see first hand.

“It’s really exciting,” she says. “Suddenly someone else’s thoughts about your work arrive in the office – you feel really connected to it. ”

A lot of work in an arts organization is administration. The people behind the scenes are not close to the audience. This project provided a way of connecting the people in the organisation back to the audience.

“Suddenly your work matters to real people. I think that’s really sweet.” she says.

Both Offbot and Audience are quite simple projects, at least physically. Their impact lies more in their behavior, and how humans interact with them. There’s a subtlety of interface that’s maybe not surprising to see when you consider Natalia’s design background.

“People would talk to Offbot as if it were a person ‘Hi, heya, how are you?’ or sometimes, ‘I haven’t emailed you for a while, I’m really sorry, I’m going to try and do it more often.’ When there was a bug and Offbot was sending multiple emails one day, people were like ‘Hey Offbot, why are you so needy?!'”

Since the Happenstance residency finished, Natalia has been working with Caper on a project for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, called Alarum, a term used in Shakespeare’s plays to indicate a sudden noise, alarm, or call to arms. Alarum is an exploration of the theatre building itself.

“The building has a life of its own, but you don’t actually get to see it. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how much goes on there? And there are so many areas that are out of bounds to you and me, all the backstage areas, the offices, the green room; all these areas where so much happens, and you see not a little bit of it apart from the resulting performance.”

Natalia placed infra-red sound and motion sensors in four spots around the theater in the places where activity happens, but not the main activity – the performance. The sensors collect data and, using network-connected Arduinos, feed that data to Cosm, a platform for sharing data from the ‘internet of things.’

Alarum sensor

Alarum sensor
Photos by Natalia Buckley

“They’re really crude devices, and the sensitivity wasn’t great, but it didn’t really matter because in this case, what we’re trying to look at is the grand overview of things, rather than the exact level of noise or movement.”

Then she built a data visualization app (online here) that interprets the data to show what is happening right now in those four places. It doesn’t show the literal sensor data, but instead tries to give a sense of what kind of activity is taking place, for example a sudden burst of energy, stillness, or a continuous hum of activity.

It even uses Shakespeare’s stage directions to help you understand what is happening. When I looked at the Stage Door display, it was tagged with the direction, “O, quietness, lady!”

Alarum interface

“The longer I look at the data, the more I see possible improvements that could be made, either to visualization, or to help people to understand the data,” says Natalia.

This is a common thread throughout her work. These objects aren’t finished products, they ask as many questions as they provide answers. They’re ideas that Natalia seeds out in the world to observe and gather data on what they find. Then this insight can be folded into the next project, and the cycle continues.

“I’m just making speculative things, that don’t necessarily fully exist in the real world, but help us learn something,” she says. “I’m a social observer. The sole reason I make things is to learn something about other people. Because I find other people fascinating. My work in technology is basically about people. People constantly interact with technology and I can make technology to watch them do stuff!”

You can find out more about Natalia on her website or blog. Or follow her on Twitter.

Andrew Sleigh lives and works in Brighton, and is a co-founder of Brighton Mini Maker Faire. His favourite tool in the workshop is the sewing machine. You can follow him on Twitter, too.

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