With a long industrial history, it’s perhaps no surprise that the world-famous steel sector in Sheffield contributed to the city’s former standing as one of the worst polluted in the UK. While many steps have been taken to rectify the poor air quality, alleviated by the city’s deindustrialization, Sheffield still suffers from increased levels of pollutants when compared to other British cities. The longstanding problem has most recently be tackled by a growing focus on data and the awareness its publication can bring. Teaming up with Better With Data – the Sheffield branch of the Open Data Institute – Sheffield City Council created the Air Quality+ project to advocate the “[I]mproved availability of data and evidence, and knowledge and skills in using data [that] can aid our understanding of air quality in Sheffield and help us better respond to the impacts.”

Alongside hackathons, conferences and workshops, the Air Quality+ project also had a distinct artistic component which called upon the skills of data artists to visualize information in a tangible way. Among three commissioned works was the Air Transformed project. Conceptualized and created by Miriam Quick and Stefanie Posavec, the outcome are two series of wearable data art catching the attention of fashion editors and urbanists alike, and building on Sheffield’s legacy of making.

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Data artists Stefanie Posavec and Miriam Quick pose wearing the sunglasses designed as part of Air Transformed. STEVE MCINERNY

“There’s been a renaissance in data visualization recently. Because it’s easier for us to access data now, the discipline has reached its second iteration. Instead of just creating graphics, data is now being used to communicate more emotional and subjective messages,” explains Sefanie Posavec, an American data artist who’s lived in the UK since undertaking her masters at the prestigious Central Saint Martin’s College in 2004. “There’s been an impulse within the arts recently to use objective materials, such as data, as a structuring device and a different way to explore the world around us,” continues her partner for the project, Miriam Quick, a British researcher specializing in information visualization who grew up a few miles from Sheffield’s city center.

“Data visualized for government or media use often has inherently different intentions than something that’s placed in an art gallery,” continues Posavec, as the duo explain their approach for the commission that inspired a technicolor necklace and futuristic sunglasses, designed with air pollution data. “Better With Data’s brief was originally very broad – just to use data they’d collected through a network of sensors from around Sheffield and create something with it that would engage the public,” says Quick. “We considered a few ideas, and settled on the fact that we’d create something physical. We like the idea of taking something nebulous, like air pollution which you can’t usually see or touch, and take the data about it and make it real and tangible.”

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Each Perspex piece on the Touching Air necklace represents six hours of air quality data from Sheffield. STEVE MCINERNY

The necklace created, dubbed Touching Air, is comprised of colored Perspex pieces, each representing a six hours of air pollution data gathered by the sensors that Better With Data placed and monitored. The larger and spikier the plastic piece, the worse the pollution was on that day. “A lot of people don’t have a basic level of data literacy so we wanted to make something friendly, accessible and engaging. We knew we should speak directly to the citizens of Sheffield by designing something playful and approachable. Something wearable does that much better than a chart,” continues Posavec.

While Quick was tasked with digging deeper into the data and retrieving insights that could be translated aesthetically, Posavec took on the construction and design of the pieces. “The particulate matter that we looked at through data is PM10 which can impact the heart and the lungs, which is why we decided on a necklace. You wear it where it hurts,” she says. Indeed, poor air quality is said to contribute to the deaths of up to 500 Sheffield residents annually, often triggering respiratory and cardiovascular issues.

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Touching Air, annotated with dates of particularly notable air quality data. STEVE MCINERNY

The large, red spiky piece on the Touching Air necklace represents Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night – an annual British firework and bonfire-based commemoration of the namesake’s foiled attempt to blow the English Parliament. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the nature of these celebrations increase particulate matter in the air. What is surprising, however, is just how much it told about human behavior. “Bonfire Night fell mid-week, so you get a huge spike there. But then there’s a secondary spike on the following Saturday – when people who weren’t able celebrate mid-week instead lit their bonfires and fireworks on the weekend,” explains Quick.

Seeing Air is the name given to the range of three sunglasses also created by the duo as part of this project. “Each pair of glasses has three different Perspex lenses that each correspond to the levels of a particular pollutant in Sheffield – nitrogen dioxide, PM10s and PM2.5s,” describes Quick. “Each lens is engraved with patterns – the larger the patterns, the higher the level of pollutant on the day from which the data was collected.” Quick analyzed the Sheffield air quality data to find the most extreme three days in the data set to inspire the three pairs of sunglasses. Again, Bonfire Night made an appearance, but the week of Christmas stood out too – “No one’s in their cars and industries take a break and sure enough, the air quality was a lot better.”

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Each pair of Seeing Air sunglasses correlates with Sheffield air pollution data from a notable date. STEVE MCINERNY

“We wanted to communicate how the pollution affects atmosphere around you. So when you put the glasses on, the more your vision is obscured, the higher the pollution being represented,” says Posavec. “We approached the whole project on two levels; the objective and the impressionistic. The numerical data is etched on the pieces, so not only do you get the accurate, data, but you also experience it when you wear them,” adds Quick.

“We explored data from an experiential angle by making the visualizations wearable, while making sure the numbers are accurate,” reiterates Posavec. “Does that make the data more memorable? That’s what we were trying to find out.” Since their creation, the Air Transformed pieces were exhibited across Sheffield and the UK, as well the USA and the duo continue to look at how data can be presented off the page and into the real world. “How to make data more impactful for people who are otherwise not interested is what I’m exploring as a designer,” says Posavec. Meanwhile, Quick continues her data research, championing open data principles. “The blindspots in data in cities across the world are as revealing as the data that’s available,” she says. “It’s a reflection of what’s important culturally and, more crucially, it shows who holds the power.”

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