Thursday, February 13, 2020

We're Going to Need a Bigger Dream

There is an exchange between the two main characters in the 1954 version of A Star Is Born that often sticks out in my mind. James Mason's "Norman Maine" has just discovered Judy Garland's "Vicki Lester." And as they get to know each other, the dialogue goes like this:

Vicki Lester: [Norman has finished looking through her scrapbook] You know as much about me as I do myself. But... you see how long it's taken me to get this far. Now, all I need is just a little luck.

Norman Maine: What kind of luck?

Vicki Lester: Oh, the kind of luck that every girl singer with a band dreams of - one night a big talent scout from a big record company might come in and he'll let me make a record.

Norman Maine: Yes, and then?

Vicki Lester: Well, the record will become number one on the Hit Parade, it'll be played on the jukeboxes all over the country... and I'll be made

[laughs self-deprecatingly at the implausibility]

Vicki Lester: End of dream.

Norman Maine: There's only one thing wrong with that.

Vicki Lester: I know - it won't happen!

Norman Maine: No, it might happen pretty easily - but the dream isn't big enough. 
Someone once reminded me that we don't all have James Mason character's in our lives...someone who suggests that you shouldn't settle for the little dream...that you should move on to the bigger one. And this has been sitting with me as I've started down this road of the community-based data story that I described in the previous post. With every conversation, the dream gets bigger. This is mostly because it isn't just my dream anymore. Each person breathes a little more life into it and it is slowly inflating like a beautiful balloon. It also feels so much lighter and easier to carry as it grows. And while this seemed counter-intuitive to me at first, I have realized that with more and more hands to lift it, maybe it does make sense that my part isn't as heavy. I have also noticed that when I start to feel tired or overwhelmed by this whole thing that someone else steps up to offer to schedule the next meeting or make the next phone call. It is not dependent solely upon my focus and energy. Others are going to ensure that it happens.

I have never had this experience before, and I have to say that it feels pretty magical. It still feels a bit terrifying at, can we really do this? And I also have brief periods of, is this really happening? But I am treating this like an adventure, or at least a journey of sorts. I am meeting all sorts of characters along the way. I am learning, sometimes the hard way, about questions I should ask and things I should have prepared for. Yet, we are moving forward with this grand design. A very chatty carpenter is building a display. A local car dealership donated all the keyrings we needed. The owner of an upholstery shop has helped us find the right thread, after reminiscing about the designs he used to make. 

This is at once the most challenging, yet most fulfilling, thing I've ever done. There is power and energy here to make a difference and a lot of conversations about the future. It is exhausting, but oh so satisfying. Onward we go.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Creating Connections

I usually write about the data stories I build when they are complete. But this one is a little different and so I am starting its documentation at the beginning.

A few months ago, I was unhappy at work. The change in leadership has not been a positive one. I still love my job (and those people I have worked with over the years), which creates an interesting challenge. Some friends suggested that I just wait out the bad seed, as those never grow for very long. But I am 50 years old now. I have spent nearly all of my working life waiting for some dude to move on. I'm tired of that...and it doesn't do anything to create a better system for younger women, people of colour, or others from underrepresented groups.

So I pondered my options:
  1. Wait it out, as suggested. Hope new leadership is competent and supportive
  2. Look for a similar job to what I have now, since I like the work
  3. Do something different
But, why choose when you can have them all? Just going with Option 1 is untenable; however, I can't just up and quit, either. So, I'll just keep my head down and work and have as little interaction as possible with the leadership at hand. I'm not particularly interested in Option 2, as it would mean uprooting my entire life. There is a similar job to my current one that is posted in a district north of Seattle...and pays $50K more a year than I make now. On one hand, it seems silly not to apply for it. And, on the other, chasing money for its own sake is also silly. Option 3 is even riskier. Not that I haven't taken leaps before or that I feel too old to do so now. But I had to spend time really thinking about what that would be. If I could have any job I wanted, what would make me happiest? I realized that what I like the very best about my current job is working with people to use data to answer their own questions and tell their own stories.

Are there jobs like least in how I envision them? Kinda. There are things like We All Count, and DataKind, and The Data Lodge. They all have some pieces I like. I've described a bit of what I want in a previous post. As I thought more about putting something like this together, I realized that I would need to build up some demand for it. I would probably need to keep my day job (sigh) and do consulting work on the side until I reached a tipping point of time and money to make the jump to "dream job" full time. And as much as I want it now, I also recognize that I just need 5 years to maximize my retirement options with the state. If I build capacity in the next few years, I can leave education knowing that when I reach retirement age, I will have all the benefits waiting for me.

How would I create the demand, I wondered? And then I thought about an idea that's been in the back of my mind for a year or two. People who have my role in other school districts often tell me that they wish they could build these stories, too...or at least that we could do one together. Why not start now? Better yet, what if we connected the work with a community-based organization (CBO) that was working on a strategic plan or needed some large-scale input? I remembered that I knew someone who was leading just such an organization. We had coffee one morning and the idea was off and running. I chatted with people in my role in neighbour districts...and the idea grew longer legs.

The final piece was to find a space for a display of the data story. Our town has an Arts Walk at the end of April, which seemed like a good opportunity. But what about the right place to host? I made a short list of spots in the middle of the event that I thought would have enough floor space for the design we had in mind. I reached out to the first one—our city's performing arts center—not expecting them to say "Yes." But they did, teaching me a very valuable lesson about being careful what you wish for...'cause you just might get it. They expect foot traffic of about 2000 people. 👀

Last week, I measured the space...met with one of the school districts involved (as well as the branch of the CBO we're working with in that area)...and tried not to be terrified of the enormity of what I've started. I am beyond excited about all of this, but it has been so long since anything positive has happened in my working life that I'm not sure how to mentally process this turn of events.

The Story
In my conversation with the leader of the CBO, he identified three major areas the advisory group of his organization had identified as issues students across the county are facing:
  1. Needs for support with mental health
  2. Lack of connection to others and community
  3. Lack of a sense of purpose or direction
It's important to note that the advisory group consists of people from the county courts, school districts, and business community—all of whom work with K - 12 students, but from different angles. They all see these issues as critical to address. My connection at the CBO said that he thought the second one was most important because working on that could lead to some gains in the other two areas.

Connection is a very powerful concept. Not only was there a ready-made analogy with all of the players for this data story, but it's something that everyone (regardless of background or age) can comment on.

The Plan
Yeah, yeah, I know. For my first time out, you think I could have picked a smaller bite to take. But that isn't how I roll. It's a good thing that I am a planner and I have a lot of support.

We'll spend the next month doing some focus groups and identifying 3 - 5 questions for an individual student survey. In March, we'll have 2,000 - 3,000 students respond to the survey by building a ring with pony beads, like the one shown at the right.
The colours of the beads will represent a scale, as yet to be identified. The rings are zinc wire keyrings. Each one is about 1" in size. We think we can make these items for about $200.

We're supplying frames with wire in them—much like a window screen, but much larger gauge. When a kid completes their survey, they will be able to attach it to the frame. There are six clubs/districts, so we'll have six sets of these. We'll connect these with some additional information supplied by districts to form a much larger structure.

And then, in April, we'll work on building the community response piece. Our plan is to do something like this:

The actual questions and categories will also be driven out from the focus groups. But the Arts Walk participants will add the strings as they pass through the space.

After the event, we plan to repurpose the student pieces into smaller, tabletop versions that are specific to a school district and can be displayed in other places for other conversations.

And then we'll see.  I'll keep you updated as this project continues to move forward. I have done this enough now to know that I need to stay flexible and that things never go 100% according to plan. There will be all sorts of things I haven't anticipated. Either this will be the starting point to a different world for me, or I will fail spectacularly. I am very much committed, regardless of the outcome. I will be footing the bill for this project out of my own pocket. I have skin in the game. Keep those good thoughts headed this direction.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Data Stories: The Next Chapter

When I started my data stories project in 2016, my goal was to build 10 stories in 10 months. Silly me. I had no idea of how ambitious a goal that was...or the twists and turns my journey would take along the way. Here I am in my fourth year of building these, and I have finally completed number 10. But I think about possible ideas for more all the time, so maybe I should update my goals and vision for this work.

Will I stop building these for my school district? Probably not. I do see 10 as a milestone, mainly because it was the original intent of the project. But I love doing them and their impact on others has surpassed anything I'd imagined. I will tell you that women and people of colour engage with them far more than the white males in my organization. That is not an indictment of that group or how they best engage with data. I've just come to realize that I'm not making these stories for them...and that's okay. They have plenty of other data representations that they like. But for everyone else, there is a sense of wonder and recognition in their awakening of sorts. I am making it sound more dramatic than it really is. It's just hard to describe how people who aren't pale males look at these stories and talk about if until that moment, they hadn't realized that this was the thing they were missing and someone finally showed it to them. Anyhoo, now that I've wallowed around in trying to learn how to build these things, I want to make sure I empower and equip others to do this, too.

Here are some ideas I'm thinking about pursuing in future stories...
  • I want to find a student or two in each school to give me a tour. I don't want the compliant, good-grade, class president type kid to do this. I want the one who is always asking for a hall pass. I want to see a school through the eyes of a first grader—what is the purpose of various rooms? what's the best part of the playground? I think these maps would be very interesting.
  • In a similar vein, I'd like to shadow students at different grade levels and track all of the things they touch during a school day. I wonder if I could build a physical tree map of these data—a shadow box with paper, wood, metal, and other materials in the proportion that students use them.
  • Thanks to data walking and participatory walks from Elastic City, I am thinking about what this could look like for our district. What sort of community data walk could I put together?
  • I continue to be intrigued by the concept of a "good school." I think there might be ways to capture data in the wild about this—the conversations that happen in the grocery store or at soccer games...the ones where parents and the community talk about us and come to their own conclusions. 
There are bigger things on the horizon, although they are still shrouded in fog. I would love a job where I work with groups to help them develop meaningful goals and ways to use related data (and have started on creating The Data Lab). I am interested in building more personal data stories to share (or sell). What would a novel look like? The life of a historical figure? My notebook is overflowing while my time allowance is not. Transitioning away from a steady paycheck and benefits toward the unknown is also not realistic at this time, but I continue to look for opportunities. I'm open to figuring it out. Dreams need time and space to breathe themselves into existence. In putting them out there, I am committed to seeing them develop.

For now, I am grateful for all I've learned over the last few shares...and the opportunity to share it with others. I am looking forward to the next chapter of the story and whatever is found on that page. I am already enmeshed in another data story project involving six school districts, our county-wide Boys and Girls Club, and city Arts Walk. I'll document some things along the way as we move data stories out further in the great wide world.