Alan Dix


The Leaves are Golden: Putting the Periphery at the Centre of Information Design

Traditional information systems design often focuses on centralisation privileging global consistency over local knowledge, the golden copy is at the centre, data at the leaves are views of this.

However, there have always been good interaction design reasons, to counter this centralising tendency.  In every organization there are numerous spreadsheets from contact lists, to alternative accounts and exam marks, creating parallel information systems, While seen by central IT as undermining integrity, it is often precisely these apparently subversive parallel systems that get the job done.

If anything the web and the cloud intensify the pressure towards the centre offering access anywhere and network benefits so long as all data is managed and stored globally.  The benefits of this are manifest, from finding long lost family on Facebook to Google maps on every ‘how to find us’ web page.  But these benefits come with a cost: hyper-targeted adverts and the demise of the handcrafted locally produced map.

Our challenge as designers is to leverage the power of the large to bring benefits to the small; privileging the information stored at the edges as primary, rather than central repositories.

I will discuss ways this might be achieved.  In traditional information systems, we can focus on highlighting inconsistency rather then enforcing consistency as a way of allowing distributed organisational knowledge to thrive.  In work on digital archives for musicologists, we see that authority is a central academic value and so central data isa view or cache of the original data not an ingest to replace it.  On the Isle of Tiree, and in general looking at open data for small islands and communities, we see how local maps and locally produced data can be a source of empowerment.

When we value individual and community knowledge and autonomy, the leaves are golden.


Alan Dix is a Professor in the HCI Centre at the University of Birmingham and Senior Researcher at Talis. He has worked in human–computer interaction research since the mid 1980s, and is the author of one of the major international textbooks on HCI as well as of over 400 research publications covering topics from formal methods to creativity including some of the earliest papers in HCI on topics including privacy and mobile interaction. In 2013 he produced an HCI MOOC that is now hosted at and in the same year he walked 1000 miles round the coast of Wales. The data from the latter is available in the public domain as an ‘open science’ resource. Many recent projects have a data theme including an analysis of the UK REF public domain data and working with musicologists on re-imagining digital archives for the humanities. He organises a twice yearly workshop, Tiree Tech Wave, on the small Scottish island where he lives, and where he has been engaged in a number of projects relating to heritage , communications, energy use and open data. His Talis research is focused on aspects of education including learning analytics and flipped class teaching, often using HCI educational resources as exemplars.