SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
We're going to introduce you now to an artist who's using big data to improve people's health and social lives as part of her artists and criminals series. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Laurie Frick is an artist on a mission. She wants to help create a future where self-delusion is impossible, and she thinks big data is the answer. Companies are gathering more and more information about our lives all the time. We might be able to lie to ourselves, but data tells the truth.
LAURIE FRICK: Data is going to turn into something more compelling than what we're seeing now - this idea that it's irresistible, that the data that's tracked about us can be used in ways that's super powerful.
SYDELL: Frick's obsession with data started years ago when she began tracking her sleep. She used watercolor drawings to help her see patterns in the data. It began a decade-long journey where Frick has used data about mood, exercise, personality and turned it into vibrant, carefully crafted art using dyes, leather, wood, laminate. The results look a bit like a spreadsheet composed by Mondrian.
FRICK: It's this moment in time where the data that's gathered about us is astronomical. It's crazy amounts. And how are we going to consume it?
SYDELL: Data may seem abstract, but Frick aims to make it personal, especially her latest work. It's about how we can use an algorithm and data to make better friends. Frick is bubbly and outgoing, yet she says she's not very good at assessing people's character.
FRICK: I'm the last one to figure it out, though, when people are bad for me. You give them too - it's like you give them the benefit of the doubt, you know, one time, two times, three times - too many chances. I think an algorithm would get me there a little faster.
SYDELL: Frick's been working with real data. She found a trove of questions and answers that were downloaded from OkCupid.
FRICK: So this one's about loyalty. If your partner shared their darkest secret with you and eventually break up, would you tell other people the secret?
SYDELL: Each question measures things like honesty, empathy and so forth. Today, her studio is filled with richly dyed felt that she assembles into what are essentially portraits that get beneath the skin, expose how we really behave and think. Frick takes each characteristic and ranks it on a scale of 1 to 10 and gives it a color.
FRICK: So the darker colors are higher scores - like a 10. And the yellows are lower scores, you know, more like a one or two.
SYDELL: Frick says data sites are still primitive in how they use data. She imagines a world where it would actually be able to predict how well you're going to get along with someone. This could all sound like pie in the sky, but Frick is not a typical artist. She has an MFA and an MBA. Her knowledge of business has opened a door into the tech world, which could make her ideas real.
In Silicon Valley, every executive is terrified that they're thinking so inside-the-box that they're going to miss the next big thing. So they bring in artists like Frick to present out-of-the-box ideas. Frick does it as a performance. Her theater is tech conferences, corporate boardrooms and offices. She's been an artist-in-residence at Samsung, been paid to perform at Google, Microsoft and IBM. Frick makes it seem as if her ideas are already real. Executives, investors, programmers willingly play along. Today, Frick is at a corporate conference room in downtown Austin.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hello, Laurie, how are you?
FRICK: Good. Nice to see you again.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hi, Laurie, great to see you.
SYDELL: Sara Brand and Kerry Rupp invest in health-related startups. They're here to check out one of Frick's performances for the first time.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: All right, Laurie, we're excited to hear what you're working on.
SYDELL: Frick stands up. She's dressed in a red-and-white seersucker power dress, her mop of blond hair stylishly cut. And she begins her PowerPoint presentation.
FRICK: I just want to show you this prototype that we've worked.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK.
FRICK: It's Friend Nutrition.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK.
SYDELL: Got that? Her faux startup is called Friend Nutrition.
FRICK: So have you ever noticed that some friends are a vitamin and others are a little toxic?
FRICK: And kind of in a nutshell, it's who you hang out with will be like diet and exercise - that we can manipulate body chemistry with friends.
SYDELL: Frick imagines a future where your smart watch will know how your body's responding to someone. Then it will combined with Facebook data about them and their personality, and then you'll know if that person makes you lethargic, raises your blood pressure or depresses you.
FRICK: I want somebody to give me permission to cut off toxic people faster.
SYDELL: Rupp gets drawn into the performance.
KERRY RUPP: And it wouldn't take much. I mean, if you start training people that look at what's happening to your inflammation levels or whatever. This is the best thing for you, and you can let go of the guilt.
SYDELL: There are studies that show that your health is affected by your friends. For example, people who hang around with someone obese are more likely to become obese themselves.
RUPP: It actually resonates with us because we're looking at what things can have literally an impact on people.
SYDELL: Rupp and Brand leave with a new idea of how to think about health and personal data, one that might inform what they fund. Frick feels affirmed in her mission.
FRICK: I mean, they looked looked at me like I was real.
SYDELL: But Frick is a very entrepreneurial artist. She's an optimist. There are a lot of potential downsides to her vision. Imagine if data shows certain people are toxic to everyone. They'll end up being ostracized. Or imagine the algorithm put sociopaths together since they relate to each other so well. Perhaps every time you meet someone from a different background, class or race, you get all stressed out. This could make our society more fragmented than it already is.
FRICK: I mean, I'm not naive about what could happen with that data that's not so helpful.
SYDELL: And then there's simply the legal and financial obstacles to getting and owning your own data. Facebook, Google, Apple - they aren't going to hand it over without a fight. Frick understands all of this. But as an artist, she wants to inspire people to push for change so that they can own their own data.
FRICK: As an artist, you conjure up the space when you step off the cliff and you are in open air.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SYDELL: Frick's work now is about creating a sort of visual dashboard to make looking at our data more engaging.
FRICK: I mean, I really thought about what would it take to have something that you live with that reflects what's going on with you so that you can see it as opposed to looking at pixels on glass and words?
SYDELL: In the future, Frick imagines that data is going to come in live, and the profiles will be made of something that can change colors and positions in response.
FRICK: And I'll start to track myself. I mean, they aren't going to be glued down. They'll, you know, move.
SYDELL: And it will change day to day. If you meet someone who makes you less angry, the red would transform to purple and, eventually, perhaps a calm blue. It's an evolving self-portrait that reflects day-to-day changes. And it will be so powerful that Frick thinks we won't be able to resist. We'll want to own it and use it. Laura Sydell, NPR News.