Sunday, March 13, 2016

Stories, Not Atoms

This is the 100th post for this blog, and while it has not always featured Excel, it has always tried to keep a focus on telling the best stories we can with data. I've been thinking about the storytelling with data may evolve. The recent Tapestry Conference was just what I needed to spur me creatively and think about the next stories to tell.

I have a few conference posts to share in the coming weeks, but will wait to publish them until the videos are available. I hope that you will appreciate the presentations as much as I did for the diverse lenses represented and how presenters tell stories with their data. We all have our challenges with data quality, helping our peers and audience become more data literate, and the storytelling process. For now, I'd like to share my takeaways and next steps.

Continue Sketching
I draw very poorly. I haven't had an art class since elementary school, and I assure you that was many many years ago. But I find that when working with data, drawing things by hand is a critical part of the storytelling process. I keep a notebook and coloured pens with me nearly all the time. The notebook is a place to just dump ideas. I find myself jotting down various things while I'm in meetings, out for a bite to eat, or even on the plane home from the conference. Not all ideas make it into production, but having them captured in one place is extremely useful.

Thinking about how to display attendance

Catherine Madden and Nick Sousanis both spoke to the importance of recording and communicating with visuals. More on this in other posts, but if you're not using sketches to draft or sort through your data, I encourage you to try it. No one has to see these. They'll just be pleasantly amazed at the final product.

Be Open with Your Audience
This seems obvious, but the presenters at Tapestry put some new spin on the idea. Alan Smith spoke about supporting our peers in becoming competent critics, Enrico Bertini implored academics and practitioners to connect and collaborate, and Eva Galanes-Rosenbaum encouraged us to be transparent about the sources and quality of our data.

Photo by Ben Jones from Bertini's presentation; This slide has good advice for educators, too.
This sense of openness really does need to be mutual. It's one thing to tell an audience that your story is missing some data or is of dubious provenance...and it's another for the audience that you tell the story in specific ways. Scott Klein presented a nice timeline of how data visualization has developed as a journalistic endeavor. This includes educating readers on how to interpret a line chart. Jessica Hullman talked about the types of sequencing with visuals that readers prefer. These lessons are useful, but they are not the whole picture. As an audience, we have a responsibility to be open to new types of visuals and stories. We have to be willing to engage and grow.

Seek New Territory to Explore
I met a lot of people this week. Some I've only known from an online presence, others I would never have connected with had Tapestry not brought us together. It was good for me to get out of my little box that is normal life, but this also applies to the wide variety of boxes in which we work. Sousanis showed us how comics and graphic novels encourage narratives to bleed over the edges to create new directions. This message was a little at odds with Jessica Hullman's presentation on her research on how to generate the right sequence for stories, as well as Trina Chiasson's look into creating data selfies. We like things that are predictable...but we are creatures that like novelty, too.

The opening slide at Tapestry quoted Muriel Rukeyser: The universe is made of stories, not atoms. As I continue to think about this push-pull between staying safe in the universe we create and the need to explore beyond those borders, I've come up with an idea to try for next year. Maybe you'd like to play along, too.

I'd like to tell ten new stories about my school district next year---one for each month we have classes. It's convenient that we have ten schools, but I don't know that they have to based that way. Maybe there should be a month about attendance or early learning. The views of different stakeholders could be featured. Or perhaps something more Dear Data-like, capturing a month of meetings in the board room. I want to use a bulletin board in our district office for some offline data well as links to some online data to explore.

That's my ambition, anyway. I'm using my sketchbook to gather all kinds of ideas now and maybe this summer I can start putting the structure in place. By putting this goal out here...making it public...I hope you'll keep me honest and on target with it. And of course, you're more than welcome to do something similar in your own school.

So here's to the next 100 posts for this blog. There are lots of stories left to be told.

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