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.

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.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Pretty Is As Pretty Does

I am often told that my work is pretty. I always find this to be a strange comment. I have to admit I've felt a little insulted by it at times. My goal is to communicate clearly using data...not make a pretty picture. No one talks about a sentence being pretty just because there's a capital at the beginning and a punctuation mark at the end. Why should it be any different for a visual that follows some basic rules of the road?

I've been thinking about this push and pull between what the story is in our data and how the story is presented because I will be heading out to the Tapestry Conference this week. The purpose of the conference is to "advance interactive online data storytelling [by bringing] different viewpoints together with the goal of generating a rich conversation about data storytelling."

What is the role of pretty data in such a conversation?

Is it an unnecessary add-on? Could we communicate with data just as effectively without paying attention to the finer points of layout, colour, and line? After all, the data visualization is not the end goal---it's what we do with what we see in it. Meanwhile, it is possible to have aesthetic and no meaning at all. Chad Hagen illustrates this with his nonsensical infographics.

We could also point to examples that look great, have real data that tell a story, but still don't mean anything. For example, Tyler Vigen's Spurious Correlations.

At the other end of the spectrum are arguments that the art of data must be present in order to create meaning. Both Giorgia Lupi in Beautiful Reasons and Moritz Stefaner in Little Boxes make the case that form and function, as well as art and design, are integral to deep understanding of our data.

I am learning to smile and say "thank you" when people tell me the data I show them are pretty. I am learning that the meaning behind the comment is one that can refer to clarity or deep understanding. I am hoping that the audience makes enough sense of things to see that pretty is as pretty does.