Sunday, April 10, 2016

Changing the Narrative

One presentation from the Tapestry Conference has kept me thinking long after the end of the event. It was a short story presented by Trina Chiasson, and explored the rise of the Data Selfie.

Trina talks about the importance of the user being able to see themselves within the data set. At minimum the data should support a personal goal or help solve a problem by revealing new insight. In this world, data become the jumping off point into a Choose Your Own Adventure style of story. I like this idea from the standpoint that part of audience engagement is a sense of personal relevance or connection with the data. 

One of the examples Chiasson gave was this interactive graphic from the New York Times that shows The Jobless Rate for People Like You.

There are tons of similar examples out on the interwebs---ones where if you fit the descriptors shown (male, female, white, black, Hispanic...), you get a chance to participate with the data and create that data selfie.

But what if you don't see yourself reflected in those descriptors? If I'm Asian, for example, I have to be content with "all other races." Beyond that, there's a lot of nuance missing. Does it matter if I have one college degree or three? It all counts the same.

What I think might be more disconcerting is what happens if you do see yourself in the data and don't like what you see. Using the NYT site shown above, if I'm a black male, the jobless rate is double the national average...but there isn't anything I can do about being a black male. I can't change that narrative. So then what?

I realize were talking about an example involving adults, but I can't help but think of the K - 12 world I live in. What if I did build something like this to show the graduation rate for people like you? I have the data. I know the demographics of our students and graduation rates. Not a big thing to put it together. But in posting it, what am I saying to the parents of black child in third grade? Your kid has  a 50-50 shot of making it to graduation in our district. What are the options to create a different story for him or her? Will it change before your son or daughter reaches high school? After all, dropping out is a process, not an event. Is it already too late to try? I can't imagine anyone would tell a child to just give up in third grade because data reveal that they're not going to get a diploma. But what is the takeaway for a child, parents, community, or teacher who sees just that in the data?

Sometimes, these aren't data selfies. They're system selfies. If the jobless rate for black males is twice the national average, that says something about us as a society...not those individuals. Ditto for my imaginary graduation rate display. It seems to me there is greater power in supporting individuals become critical consumers of their own data. Perhaps, as Chiasson suggests, it's tracking health or working toward a personal goal. But when we connect it to something larger ("People who lost 10 pounds also ate three carrot sticks a day!"), it stops being personal and projects a Fate you might not feel you are able to escape. Can we develop ways to effectively share data and use trends for insight without disenfranchising the most vulnerable among us? How do we balance the rise of the data selfie with the need for systemic change?