Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Go Tell It on the Mountain

I am stretching this week beyond the comfort and confines of my typical environment in P-12 public education. I'm at a convening of data storytellers from a large variety of industries. It's the first time I've been to a conference that is not specific to education.

About 100 of us are safely tucked away at the Stanley Hotel (you know, the one the inspired The Shining?) in Estes Park, Colorado, for the Tapestry Conference. As far as I know, I'm the only public ed person skulking around---although there are several higher education representatives. It is odd, for me, to meet and greet with people from Zillow, Comcast, ProPublica, or NBC News. Every face is new to me, although I finally met Robert Kosara and Naomi Robbins...both of whom I've been wanting to meet for a long time.  I love that everyone is passionate about the same goal of effective storytelling with data.

I have that interest and commitment to quality communications using data. But why else am I here? After all, I am definitely in the "one of these things is not like the others" category. I am here because public education needs to connect with everyone. It's public, for crying out loud. Everyone's tax dollars are funding it. Regardless of the industry you represent, there is a connection with public education. I hear all the time from educators who are tired of how others message our work. We can change that, but not by sticking to our own circles of influence and expecting the rest of the mountain to come to us. Sometimes, we have to go to the mountain.

Beyond this idea, however, is a more personal one for me: I need to learn and grow in my professional work. I get an opportunity to do that through education conferences---they help me learn about my job. But there is something beyond that...something that speaks to the purpose of what I do and feeds my spirit for it. That is what I am hoping Tapestry will be for me. This is not about the nuts and bolts of my day-to-day job. This is about helping me inspire and grow others when I return to the office.

Learning is my life's work. It is easy to lose focus on that with a sea of emails, ever-present to do lists, and a calendar full of meetings. It is critical for me to set all of that aside for a couple of days and just immerse myself in learning. Networking with others is great, too, and a change of scenery doesn't hurt. But most of all, this is an opportunity to just be in that moment of growing my knowledge base.

We are not so different, educators. We may have small-batch, artisanal data sets and handcraft our visualizations in Excel, but we face the same challenges as Big Data when it comes to data quality, effective communication, messaging, and design. We have the same issues around helping people ask good questions of their data and identifying the most critical aspects for action and attention. Perhaps we have a better chance of finding solutions together, rather than isolating ourselves as educators. Together, we can move mountains.

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