D A T A   D O N O R

If you have a mobile phone, you could have up to 100 names and numbers stored in its memory. If every one of your contacts had the same number again, then at one remove you'd be part of a network of up to 10,000 individuals. Add two more steps, and you're up to a hundred million, more than most national populations. OK, most people haven't used all hundred, and there must be a fair degree of overlap (how many of your friends' friends are your friends?); but it's still a vast mesh of multiply interconnected individuals. What has been intriguing me is that with all of these names and numbers standardised electronic data, we could use the mobile phone as a device for enabling the mapping of this vast social space in all of its complexity. Only catch: there's no current way to access all the information. That's where Data Donor, a research project with a difference, comes in.

Data Donor is two things in one: a research project, which aims to map the topology of a social world that seems highly characteristic of our wired-up, mobile times; and the physical venue through which the project interfaces with the public. Data Donor is socially interactive, using an amalgam of café, workshop and laboratory as an open-access venue for data-gathering, for the demonstration of emerging research findings, and for individual contemplation of the various issues the project might raise.
As a place to visit, Data Donor physically embodies the idea that imaginative research can be conjoined with cultural interaction.
What you find when you visit is this:
The three spaces — café, workshop and research lab — are open to one another via a central hub. Nothing costs, so if you sit down at one of the café tables you can linger as long as you like over a drink or a nibble. Set your mobile phone down beside you, though, and you find that the table identifies this source of research data and, via a small interface set into the tabletop, invites you to automatically transfer any or all of the set of names and numbers you have stored in the handset's memory. You can hold back any you prefer not to pass on — any ethical decisions are yours, and of course you can call friends to check...

The workshop area, like the café, is staffed by a team of friendly helpers, ready to discuss any aspect of the project. Here, though, an important part of their role is to assemble small giveaway sculptures made of plastic cable-ties, each effectively unique. These are given out in symbolic exchange for the data you've donated. By their physical form and the way they're made, their intention is to echo something of the connectivity that informs the entire project.
In the research-lab, the helpers are there both to busy themselves with the updating of the various visual displays of the patterns that are beginning to emerge from the analysis of data submitted, and to discuss these findings with curious visitors.
So an important aspect of the way the whole Data Donor project is formulated is to recognise that it too constitutes a communicational and social organism, a microcosm of what it itself is studying. Part of its message is that we are all connected.
There is no need for Data Donor to restrict itself to one physical site, by the way. Ideally, it would exist as a series of geographically dispersed Data Donor 'stations.'

Mapping social spaces How do you map something as fluid, elusive and full of complexity as a large social network? A conventional network 'road map' showing all the connections between all of the individuals that constitute it would in all likelihood be so dense as to be self-defeating. But in fact a number of potentially-useful models can be derived from the burgeoning study of complex virtual spaces such as that of the internet (see for example the cybergeography site.) An electronic map can be linked to a continuing influx of data, and so remain 'live'; it can also accommodate zoomable scaling and multiple viewpoints. Data Donor would expect to adapt such approaches, while in a more playful way also present close-ups of the real-time data landscape such as the 'X knows Y' display simulated above.

The 'Small World' context The underlying concept of the Data Donor project owes much to a pioneering set of experiments carried out in the 1960's by Stanley Milgram, who showed that adults across the U.S. are linked by an unexpectedly small set of social links - the so-called '6 degrees of separation.' Such research addresses not only the typical number of direct acquaintanceship links, but also the more complex analysis of the topology of entire social networks — the patterns that describe the connectivity of individuals within a group. Researchers, for example at Ohio State University, are now extending this type of research into the world of e-mail connectivity. Somewhat surprisingly, no-one else seems to be looking into the topology of mobile-phone social networks.