Q & A:  Where should our digital data go, after we do? 

According to a  2018 whitepaper by the International Data Corporation of Canada (IDC), by 2025 every connected person in the world will, on average, engage with digital data over 4,900 times per day – that's about 1 digital interaction every 18 seconds.

So what happens to all our personal data after we are no longer here? And more importantly, where do we want it to go, and in what format?

A trio of UBC Computer Science (CS) researchers have explored possible solutions that recently earned them an Honorable Mention Award (top five per cent of submissions) for their academic paper on the subject, by the 2021 Human Computer Interaction Conference (CHI).

Chi logoThe paper "What Happens After Death? Using a Design Workbook to Understand User Expectations for Preparing their Data," is being presented May 11 and 12 at the conference and was authored by two computer science alumna: Janet Chen and Francesco Vitale, and Dr. Joanna McGrenere. Together, they developed and evaluated speculative design concepts with different approaches to managing posthumous data.

CS: Congratulations on winning an Honorable Mention Award with your paper. What was the impetus for this project?

Chen:  Thank you! I was so shocked. This was my first paper as first author, so to win this award from CHI is quite an honour. I was working with Francesco on his research about how people curate their data.

Vitale: Yes, we were running a study on a prototype designed to help users curate data in a personalized way. Some participants brought up interesting points around curating data over time, which ultimately prompted Janet to propose a follow-up study that focuses on this topic.

Chen: Those of us young enough to be growing up completely in the digital revolution don't really have physical photos, for example. All my life’s photos are stored digitally, and many of the platforms I use don’t have great tools to support the posterity of the data after I’m gone.

McGrenere:  So many of us have digital data all over the place, on different devices, apps or cloud storage systems. Even beyond pictures, we have important documents, videos, communication exchanges, etc. We wanted to look at how to curate this data both while living — and through Janet’s take on the research — to prepare for after death.

CS:  So what do people want to do with their data?

Chen:  Most people haven’t thought about it really. As a result, one of the methods we used is called ‘research through design,’ which helps to uncover desired expectations and experiences. We created and presented 12 rough concepts to get participants thinking about possibilities rather than putting a complete working prototype in front of them to test. A prototype would have only covered a small spot within the design space.

CS: What were some of those concepts and how were they received? 

Chen: Some that we presented took design inspiration from existing tools and some were based on novel design approaches. The concepts were all purposely under-designed, because the goal was to gauge users’ general reactions and needs. Made for You was a concept that leveraged auto-generated content, much like videos that are auto-generated using your iPhone photos. Users were receptive to this approach, because they can easily pass a curated collage or video to family and friends. Another design concept was Generation Cloud, whereby generations of your family can upload meaningful data to something like Google Drive, which future generations can also look at and continue contributing to. Participants really liked this concept.

We also explored the bigger question of preferred level of control. How involved (or not) did users want to be in selecting the data? We investigated human-selected, computer-selected, and AI-powered alternatives, including ideas that employed “nudging”, “collaboration” and “gamification.” We also explored saving-as-you-go and a privacy-focused approach.

One concept people clearly did not like at all was an AI-powered replica of the deceased which would interact with future generations. We heard from them that it was "scary" and "creepy".

"Participants seemed to like ideas that preserve their sense of agency and control over what was passed along, with tools to make it easier."        ~ Janet Chen

Generation Cloud Concept
"Generation Cloud":  o​​​​ne of the 12 concepts presented to participants in the study

CS: What were your key takeaways from the research?

Chen:  Without a doubt, participants seemed to like ideas that preserve their sense of agency and control over what was passed along, with tools to make it easier.

McGrenere:  There is a huge opportunity for new interfaces to support people who care about their data in this endeavour. I think the community needs to pick this up and continue to develop innovative designs and evaluate them with larger samples of the population. This was a first step. The whole point is to iterate through designs, getting as close as you can to ones that will eventually work from the user’s perspective. Tools need to be lightweight to use, and designed so they support the range of individual differences we saw in our participants in terms of how they want to manage their data.

View the workbook containing all 12 concepts 

CS: How will your research help people?

McGrenereThis research is within a really novel area of human computer interaction. It's not the design workbook method itself that is new, but it's the space in which it is being used; that is, in preparing for death. So much more needs to be done. Right now, it’s a pretty new approach to helping users. But down the road, this kind of work could impact millions in terms of how they manage their data. Ten years from now, it will be quite commonplace for people to be thinking about the reams of data they have online, and they will just expect good tools that help them figure out what to do with it all.

Joanna McGrenere
Joanna McGrenere

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Janet Chen
Janet Chen

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Francesco Vitale
Francesco Vitale

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