How do people think about data?

When people interact with an online service, they form theories about how it is working. As part of the services campaign in Horizon, we are investigating the ways in which people commonly understand the use of personal data in products and services that are mediated by algorithms. We are doing this by examining the mental models people form about how different types of data are used within systems.

Mental models are a form of reasoning where people create internal representations of reality. They help us to interact with systems and understand how they function. Mental models represent a bridging point between our lived experience and the service as part of a wider system (consider the relationship between how warm you are at home, the physical form of a central heating system, and your interaction with a thermostat). This is useful for our study because the concepts of algorithmically-mediated services and algorithmically-generated content are highly complex and we tend to rely on metaphors to talk about what is happening. A further challenge in this area is that people are not necessarily used to articulating in detail how they think these things work and thus simply asking people directly is likely to result in a lot of shrugging and sighing! One technique that we will use instead then is to ask people to engage in a series of simple compare and contrast exercises. This process anchors what is for some a highly abstract topic and helps people identify the sorts of categorisations, concepts and understandings that they have been using if only implicitly and to generate words that can describe them. This is based on similar techniques originally adopted in psychological therapies (especially Person Construct Theory), to tease out people’s perceptions of things in their lives that they might not previously have spent much time consciously considering, but that have big effect upon decisions they make, and their feelings towards certain people and activities.

Our first study will involve ‘odd-one-out’ style sorting tasks using different types of personal data and services. First participants will individually develop a set of constructs, or keywords, to describe different types of data. Then they will work in groups to create hypothetical services based on groups of data types. In this task they will be given four data types written on cards. They will ‘throw one away’ and then suggest a data-driven service they could create using the other three cards. For example, being presented with Age, Employer, Browser History and Location, could lead to them throwing away Employer and creating a service that suggests new hobbies and days out in your local area.

We will run this workshop at least twice to gain a wide range of responses from different groups of people. Another type of workshop will be run with the groups running the other Services Campaign projects, using the data collected in the first workshop. This is in the planning stages, as is an online study asking people to rate different types of data based on the constructs from the first part of the workshops. Watch this space!

Liz Dowthwaite, Research Assistant, Horizon Digital Economy Research

Chronicling the Lives of Objects

An image of the first page of the Peterborough Chronicle

A chronicle (Latin: chronica, from Greek χρονικά, from χρόνος, chronos, “time”) is a historical account of facts and events ranged in chronological order, as in a time line (Wikipedia). Chronicle is also the name of the platform being developed by Horizon to support its Services Campaign projects. These projects are categorised by the necessity of keeping an electronic record of facts and events relating to a thing. Take for example the Memory Machine project, the thing in this instance is the physical artefact (the Memory Machine), and the electronic record is the content being added to it. So far so boring, the platform could be little more than a database.

Where the Chronicle platform gets interesting however, is as a tool to support the concepts of ownership, sharing, and gifting. Take again the example of the Memory Machine; the physical artefact itself is owned by an individual. It’s intended use though is for third parties to have the capability to share content that that party has some ownership of. The physical heirloom may also (ideally) gain an heirloom status in which it is gifted and regifted. These actions begin to create new layers of complexities that mean our simple database begins to look a lot more complicated.

The Chronicle platform is being designed and built to support these interactions but also to ask its own questions such as:

  • What does it mean to delete something from the record? should it even be possible or should a record remain indelible?
  • If a record is indelible, what are the implications for privacy and ownership rights?
  • How are changes of ownership handled?

You can follow the progress of the development of Chronicle at and on Bitbucket at

Featured image by Peterborough.Chronicle.firstpage.jpg: en:User:Geogrederivative work: Hchc2009 (Peterborough.Chronicle.firstpage.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dominic Price, Research Fellow, Horizon Digital Economy Research


Active Lifestyle for Everyone (ALFE)

We are pleased to announce the  adoption of ALFE (Active Lifestyle for Everyone). ALFE becomes the 4th project to join the Horizon services campaign.

Sedentary behaviour in the population is an increasing problem that urgently requires addressing. It is estimated that an inactive person will have a lifespan on average 15 years shorter than an active person, and that the inactive person will spend approximately 25% of their lifespan suffering with a chronic illness. Such reductions in overall health and quality of life, unsurprisingly, have a significant impact upon public services, including the NHS and social care networks.

ALFE is a pilot study to gather evidence to support the design and implementation of an assistant service to engage with consumers in order to increase levels of physical activity in population considered ‘hard to reach’ through existing methods.

Project Lead: James Pinchin, Transitional Assistant Professor, Horizon Digital Economy Research


How the Horizon Services Campaign took shape

The increasingly popularity of ‘as a service’ is the driving force behind our Services Campaign.

The ‘as a service’ notion applies within many contexts of our everyday lives – mobility, healthcare, finance and consumer goods. Today in using many of these services we enter into ‘deals’ and in return for these ‘free’ services, we exchange our personal data.

The Service Campaign targets business innovation in online services whether digitally native ones that manage human data, or ones in which digital services increasingly control physical infrastructure to address the many ethical, legal, privacy and security challenges involved in the sharing of personal data.

An initial meeting was held to scope activity and the ideas captured in the diagram below. This served as an overview of the campaign structure, with projects grouped within three categories of services: health and wellbeing, mobility and consumers. Themes that cut across these services include privacy & ethics, personal understanding/decision making (both core to Horizon research), and terms of engagement.

Themed stakeholder workshops took place to share the Campaign vision, identify partner challenges, provide project elevator pitches and identify ideas for projects.  These were followed up with a series of ‘Storyboard’ events to introduce and support development of Chronicle, the proposed system architecture which will underpin projects adopted by the Campaign.  (More will be posted about Chronicle soon!).

To date, five projects have been identified with four presently adopted into the Campaign. Additional activities are under way and involve data workshops with NHS colleagues, and further scoping to identify ‘agile’ projects to feature under the umbrella of the Services Campaign.


Hazel Sayers, Knowledge Exchange and Impact Officer, Horizon Digital Economy Research




The Memory Machine

When I think about the Memory Machine, I often imagine an idyllic and comforting situation. I see my dad sat on a comfortable sofa with my two daughters beside him. They are watching what it looks like an old fashioned and magical television able to blend the past with the present, personal memories with archived facts. The Memory Machine has been set to go back in time to 1950 to portray my dad as an eight year old boy growing in Spain, a country devastated by the Civil War. A black and white picture appears. It is my dad as young boy with an unusual hair style, a forced smile, and dusty shoes. ‘Is that you?’ asks one of my daughters. His handmade clothes are full of meaning and information. The picture’s background reveals his village in Cordoba, Andalusia. The pavement is made of cobblestones and you can see mules in the background. My dad starts talking about his childhood, the trips to the market, happy memories and funny anecdotes that contrast with the inherited sadness contained in the picture. Next, there is music in the background, a classic Spanish Pasodoble, with bullfighting footage but this does not go really well among my vegetarian daughters and the ‘next’ button gets clicked on a hurry. Images fade to present archived material from an exhibition supported by the Heritage Lottery showing children arriving to Southampton by boat. These are some of the children exiled in 1937. Well recorded and preserved memories triggering a new wave of questions.  I witness a learning conversation, a heritage acknowledgment, a connection with the past, an appreciation of the present.

My dad sadly died three years ago, leaving behind few scattered photographs and random video footage. While I will not experience the idyllic situation I have just described, maybe one day in the near future, I fantasise being on a comfortable sofa surrounded by my grandchildren. I will show them images of the 80’s and we will laugh at the dresses I had to wear, the Pop music I used to love and together we will build new memories.

I am confident about the Memory Machine becoming the most popular Christmas gift in 2020. And to succeed on our rather ambition mission, we are currently engaging with those whose precious memories are fading. We are partnering with people with early symptoms of dementia, their cares and friends, with dementia care home managers and other end-users to ensure that the Memory Machine is designed for them and with them. During this user-centric design process we are also involving historians, media experts and companies like British Pathe or BBC to provide insights on access and curation of archived material. HCI researchers, artists and developers are taking into account all the user’s requirements needed to ensure that the Memory Machine is technically sound and users can easily upload personal data while linking it to factual information. IT Law also plays an important role in the proposed architecture and we will consider carefully the larger ethical implications including post mortem privacy, succession of digital memories and issues linked to the Right to Be Forgotten.

A first prototype will soon be co-developed in the context of memory loss as a health application in dementia care. An initial workshop will take place at the Institute of Mental Health in April (contact me if you would like to participate: Once we have a Memory Machine that actually works, we will consider other contexts including end-of-life repository or digital souvenirs.

This is a product I would want for myself, a factory for idyllic and comforting moments.

Elvira Perez, Associate Professor of Digital Technology and Mental Health, Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences