Have you ever wondered what your credit score might taste like?
Numbers reflect interest rates, determine the outcome of presidential elections and dominate global commerce, and in turn they govern our lives. But algorithms are invisible and intangible. How can you make them appear more physical?
An innovative design project dubbed Data Cuisine has turned fuzzy maths into something you can bite into – literally. The process encourages people to examine topical issues by converting data-driven dishes into conversation pieces.
“Food is very sensual and not something that we associate with the cold world of numbers, which is precisely what attracted us,” co-founder Moritz Stefaner says.
Seven teams of two tried various ways to make the data more digestible (Credit: Data Cuisine/Northeastern University)
He met co-creator Susanne Jaschko in 2011, when she approached him with the idea of using food as a vehicle for expressing numbers. “There’s a lot of meaning attached to food, but we never really use food to communicate information. That is to say; this food is about something in the most literal sense,” he said.
The thinking goes; food is inextricably linked to the human experience. Many of us find great pleasure in sharing a good meal with friends and talking about it later. Like Proust with his fondness for madeleine cake, the sensations surrounding good food can elicit powerful memories in people. For example, the saltiness of freshly shucked oysters might transport you back to the French Quarter in New Orleans, or how the aroma of freshly baked goods can evoke memories of pastry shops in Copenhagen.
Data cuisine incorporates flavour, taste and texture to tell the kind of story that pie charts and graphs alone can’t convey
Data cuisine aims to do that and more but with numbers. A narrative can be teased out of spreadsheets and government documents to reveal a hidden truth. In that regard, to speak of data cuisine as a form of storytelling is not so strange at all. According to Stefaner, they created the workshop to investigate food as a “medium of communication”.
Done right, data cuisine incorporates flavour, taste and texture to tell the kind of story that pie charts and graphs alone can’t convey.
Those taking part had to sift through complex data - and somehow use food to get the information across (Credit: Data Cuisine/Northeastern University)
Prior workshop projects have ranged the gamut from colour-coded pasta that served as a stand-in for the number of people who have had sex on the first date to tiny chocolate caskets representing the death rate in the Netherlands.
Converting data into food requires a dash of insight into the cooking process. Seasoned cooks know that recipes are formulas for success. A basic understanding of maths and scientific principles can transform a disparate set of ingredients into something tasty. Knowledge of chemistry makes you a better cook; fruit pies, for example, need a bit of starch to bond with water to get the filling to set.
In the same way that nouvelle cuisine made waves in the 1980s, molecular gastronomy has been one of the big food trends of the early 21st Century. Chefs have borrowed tools meant for the lab to tease apart ingredients and then recombine them with stunning results.
The black rice in this dish represents waste - it shows how low-income groups are more likely to live near hazardous waste sites (Credit; Data Cuisine/Northeastern University)
The founders take a similar multidisciplinary approach to their class except with data. According to the Data Cuisine website, “the workshop is a collaborative research experience, blurring the boundaries between teachers and participants, data and food.”
The 14 participants were divided into seven teams – the challenge being how data sets could be converted into ingredients to create an edible dish
The upshot; they’ve created an ideal setting for those who love food and data to mingle outside labs and classrooms. “As soon as I heard about the workshop, I signed up, and I was very curious as to who else might show up,” says Skye Moret, a journalism fellow for The Groundtruth Project.
This June, she had the opportunity to help create a data-driven menu, at a two-day workshop held in Boston. It was organised by Dietmar Offenhuber, a data visualisation professor at Northeastern University, as part of a design conference on data communication. Their objective was to make a series of edible infographics on such subjects as harbour pollution in Boston and income inequality.
The colour and consistency of the food can also help convey information (Credit: Data Cuisine / Northeastern University)
The 14 participants were divided into seven teams – and challenged to turn data sets into ingredients to create an edible dish. Moret said the data about water quality issues caught her eye.
As a starting point, they downloaded an Excel file, published by local water authorities, which gave more detail on the overall water quality of the harbour area.
After a bit of brainstorming, she and her workshop partner decided on lemon zest suspended in jelly shots as a metaphor for the seasonal pollution levels found in Boston Harbour. One of the challenges they faced was how to convey murky and polluted water within the confines of a small glass – and make something that people might still want to eat.
Lemon zest came to represent the amount of pollution in the water of nearby Boston Harbour (Credit: Data Cuisine/Northeastern University)
They played with the viscosity of jelly and frozen fruit to achieve the desired result. “You have a somewhat visceral reaction to these strange yellow particles that you’re not sure you want to eat in your Jello,” Moret says. But in the end, the concoctions were delicious, as were many of the other dishes presented. “The whole experience was very engaging,” she says.
Instead of dry government reports and thousands of pages detailing the full extent of the city’s water woes, could tomorrow’s policy makers and environmental activists turn to images of jelly shots to illustrate their point?
The thinking is that the insights gleaned from data are far more comprehensible, if it can be seen instead of ingested in text form.
Academics like Offenhuber see its potential as a means to inject the messiness of the real life into data-driven academic fields such as engineering and software design
Data cuisine goes one step further by presenting numbers in a context that people can understand by blurring the lines between science and art. “I see it almost as a performance piece. If art can be defined as expanding the norms of what form is, or the definition of meaning, [data cuisine] does that by bringing data visualisation into the culinary arts,” John Caserta, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, says. “It’s much more satisfying than viewing standard charts.”
Using different ingredients is a physical way of gettign across concepts such as food miles (Credit: Data Cuisine/Northeastern University)
It would be easy to dismiss data cuisine as a quirk. But academics like Offenhuber see its potential as a means to inject the messiness of the real
life into data-driven academic fields such as engineering and software design. Life is not a Venn diagram. “Not everything can be expressed in clean modernist principles.” he says. And perhaps there’s a place for some of our other senses to make sense of them.
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