What is the Role of Big Data in Art and Design Research?

Saba Golchehr began her PhD in the School of Architecture at the RCA on the theme of data mining in February 2014. Her research is part of a programme funded by the European Commission called TRADERS: ‘Training art and design researchers in participation for public space’. Within this project, Saba is one of six researchers, all performing two forms of research: doctoral research and project research. Each researcher has a different theme and approach, but they all share the same case-study site, which is composed of two towns in the Belgian province of Limburg, Hasselt and Genk. These towns are part of a project, Unie Hasselt-Genk, which aims to unify the two towns through cultural interventions.

Saba’s research addresses the role of Big Data in art and design research. Big Data can be defined as a tool for handling, managing and even glorifying complexity. Champions of Big Data assert that it has changed not only how we learn things, but also how we do research. In Big Data research there exists a large – and desirable – element of unpredictability. One does not know beforehand what will be discovered in the data sets. This means the formulation of a hypothesis is suppressed for as long as possible and, as a result, does not dictate the direction of the data collection and analysis.

The notion that a researcher can influence his or her investigation is a central theme of this research. Saba intends to explore to what extent a hypothesis can be suppressed at the start of a research project. She questions whether research using Big Data is really an entirely new method, or, whether it is merely a tool that is already part of conventional empirical research.

Her motivation for this project stems from an interest in constructing a scientific – i.e. testable – basis for an art and design research project. In her research, she aims to explore to what extent quantified information can be used to understand the complex processes that affect the use of public space and, also, whether it is possible to construct a hypothesis based on this data.