Last week, check marks sprouted next to two items on my bucket list: earn a graduate degree and complete an individual thesis.
Before embarking on both journeys, I knew I loved to research and write. I felt like my mind, fascinated by such topics as journalism, astronomy, neuroscience, and colonial-era U.S. history, embodied the aphorism that a journalist’s expertise is a mile wide and an inch deep. Two years after becoming a student the University of Michigan School of Information, I have discovered where I want to go deep.
I want to understand how digital technology affects our relationships with ourselves, our significant others, our kids, our parents, our friends (and Friends), our governments, our devices, and the companies that manufacture those devices and harvest the data they so dutifully collect.
I’m a Millennial. I hand-wrote book reports in elementary school and made science projects out of cardboard and foam. My family bought a computer when I was nine years old, and I began typing my school assignments because tapping the keys was more fun than scrawling the pencil across the page. As a high schooler I conversed with friends over AIM; as a college student I was among the first generation to latch my social life to Facebook. I studied journalism as an undergraduate and watched digital technology pull the rug out of that industry right as I graduated and faced “the real world.”
I cannot imagine my life without digital technology. But I also wonder whether and how it is changing the way we live. Excited by our ability to capture, store, and disseminate large amounts of data, I designed my own curriculum in data storytelling to learn the basics of programming and design and apply those skills to the art of storytelling. The idea that people could use data to discover personal information (e.g., someone’s pregnancy) captivated me.
This became the basis for my thesis research in which I interviewed new mothers about their decisions to post baby pictures on Facebook. I had begun seeing baby pictures on my own Facebook News Feed, and I was curious whether the question of what to post and not post online entered new mothers’ minds.
As I was wrapping up one research interview a few months ago, the participant asked what I was studying.
“Data storytelling,” I replied, launching into my well-rehearsed, 30-second definition of this field of study.
“I feel like Facebook is the definition of data storytelling,” she said. “I am telling my life story in the way that I want to,…And it’s all data…That’s, like, the perfect thesis for what you’re studying.”
Her statement comforted me because I, for some reason, had equated data storytelling to working with numbers. But data is data, whether words or numbers. My thesis distilled more than 400 pages of interview transcripts into a story about what types of pictures new mothers do and don’t post online as well as what factors influence their decision.
The most rewarding aspect of completing this degree and this thesis has been hearing people’s enthusiasm and encouragement when I tell them what I’m doing. It is so exciting to believe you’re helping to make sense of what feels like a rapidly changing world, but also to realize that while the circumstances in which you’re asking the questions may be changing, the questions themselves are timeless. In the case of my thesis, taking baby pictures is nothing new, but broadcasting them to an audience of hundreds is.
One of my professors quoted a colleague of hers as saying, “Graduate school was when they stopped asking me the questions they already know the answers to.” In my time at UMSI, I’ve helped to answer some of those unanswered questions. I’m leaving campus with a better sense of what questions I want to ask of the world moving forward.
Data storytelling and storytelling with data: is there a difference? A fellow conference attendee posed this question to me during last month’s Tapestry Conference in Annapolis. After thinking for a moment, I responded that for me, the difference lay in the process.
I envision data storytelling as when you’re looking at data and want to know, “What is this data trying to tell me?” Storytelling with data for me is where you have a story in mind and seek data to substantiate it. Data storytelling feels more quantitative; I imagine needing to collect, clean, manipulate, and analyze the data before crafting the story. Storytelling with data, however, feels more fluid, with the story and the data coming together concurrently.
I acknowledge this may be complete bunk, and I welcome thoughts and critiques from others. At the end of the day, defining data storytelling may be less important than actually doing it. But after attending the second Tapestry Conference on data storytelling, I’m left itching for a framework, or at least continued conversation. Data storytelling is a beautiful concept, applicable across many domains: journalism, academia, technology development, business, advocacy, public policy. It’s also in its infancy, and defining it might force structure on a realm that needs exploration and freedom.
That doesn’t mean we should avoid descriptions of what constitutes good data storytelling. Journalist and infographics professor Alberto Cairo offered a starting point in his keynote (slides) on visualization for communication as “the insightful art.” Visualization for general audiences, he said, should be:
1. Truthful: Present your best understanding of the truth.
2. Functional: Choose perceptual elements (e.g., color, font) that help your audience understand what you want to convey.
3. BeautIful: Please the senses of your reader.
4. Insightful: Help your reader understand the main point; explain what is surprising, relevant, or interesting about the data.
5. Enlightening: Change someone’s mind for the better.
Personally, I would put “beautiful” last, not because it’s unimportant, but because for me, conveying information comprises the core of data storytelling.
Cairo encouraged us to be evidence-driven communicators, not activists. This is 100 percent true for journalists. However, activists who want to tell their story should feel welcome to adopt the principles of data storytelling. I agree that infographics should not massage data or mislead readers. But, as my aforementioned definition suggests, it’s possible for the story to precede the data.
Jock Mackinlay, researcher and Tableau Software VP, offered one check against misguided data storytelling: provide raw data with visualizations. Doing so can hook readers into your visualization, letting them explore it for themselves. It also validates the author and can promote conversation, enabling others to carry analysis further.
The importance of data literacy underpinned both presentations. Readers are going to see infographics from journalists and marketers, and they need to know how to differentiate them. Raw data provides the audience with a powerful tool, but only if the audience itself feels capable and empowered to take that data and run with it. Plenty of people do feel this way, and I hope that future Tapestry conferences will help us think of ways to build data literacy in our schools and workplaces so that even more people do.
Stay tuned for more Tapestry Conference posts.
If information schools had a first book program, I’ve found their next selection: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The novel includes something for all information professionals: dusty books, Google’s book scanner, typefaces, time series visualizations, Ruby, dial-up Internet, Hadoop, Turkers, and an epic quest.
Upon completing my own epic semester of coding, event planning, and thesis research, I longed to lose myself in a story. I don’t read much fiction nowadays and didn’t care for an automated Amazon recommendation, so a few weeks ago I wandered into Ann Arbor’s newest bookstore, Literati, in search of human guidance.
The handwritten note did me in. Folded white papers scattered about the shelves and among the tabletop piles of books offered suggestions from the bookstore staff. Handwritten suggestions. Scrawled in pen, a refreshing reminder that these recommendations came from people who read the books and took the time to explain why they were worth your eyes.
The one tucked into the stack of “Mr Penumbra’s” said something along the lines of, If you like Google, you’ll like this book. “Well,” I thought, “I’m studying what Google does, is, and means in today’s society, so sure, I’ll pick this one up.” Ever the nerd, even in leisure.
The story centers on Clay Jannon, a recently unemployed art school graduate who lives in San Francisco and happens upon a bookstore in need of a clerk. But the bookstore loans more books than it sells, and the books it loans contain symbols, not words. Thus begins the epic quest, which at its climax includes the line, “We need James Bond with a library science degree,” (What iSchool reading group wouldn’t swoon over a book saying that?)
The story extends beyond the book; it includes an accompanying ebook “short” and a Twitter account. The physical book even glows in the dark (which is quite a novelty when you’re half-asleep and halfway through finals). So, take your mind off the cold (it’s -15 degrees F outside as I write this), wander into the world of Mr. Penumbra, and enjoy this technology-fueled homage to the printed word.
P.S. If anyone at UMSI is reading this, the author Robin Sloan is a Michigan native. We are meant to have a connection with this book…
I became a curmudgeon way before my time. For about five years, I rode the social media skepticism wagon. I had Facebook and Twitter accounts but used them sparsely. My concern stemmed from the privacy implications of posting so much information about ourselves online. I also felt web-mediated communication took people away from lively, meandering face-to-face or telephone conversations, away from the world around them. Arab media researcher Donatella Della Ratta captured this anti-screen sentiment in a different context — crisis reporting via social media.
“If we can document and verify things remotely, only using social media, like Andy [Carvin] and Eliot [Higgins] do, well then why spending [sic] so many years and hours and hours of hard study to understand a language, a culture?”
Della Ratta has a point. Staring at a screen cannot replace living a life. But we cannot discount the value that social network sites bring to our lives. Last fall I began using Twitter more often. The more I used it, the more I gained. I got to know people I’d briefly spoken to in person. I interacted with new people. If nothing else, logging on guaranteed me a few interesting articles to read.
From Cliff Lampe’s e-Communities course, I learned about the deep human need that online connection fulfills. I realized that online communication sometimes offers greater benefit than face-to-face communication. Between readings, lectures, and analysis of various online communities, I gained respect for social network sites.
A recent conversation at work cemented my belief in the value of online interaction, and it involved the same Donatella Della Ratta. She spoke to a group of interns and staff about her current research on the role of memes in the Syrian conflict. Fellow intern Leigh Graham related what Della Ratta saw in Syria to her own fieldwork and Saudi Arabia. As they exchanged thoughts, this hit me: I live in a place where I’m free to go wherever I want, talk to whomever I want, and say whatever I want. I can wake up at 4 a.m., meet a friend at 7-11, and chat over slurpees. I wouldn’t, but I can. This isn’t always the case in other parts of the world.
When people cannot gather publicly because war ravages the public space around them or their government outright forbids it, they turn to the Web. Young people in Gaza are tech-savvy because they have nothing else to do with their time, Della Ratta said. Saudi Arabians share more information online than anyone else in the world, which makes sense given the country’s 13 million women live with their independence severely constrained, Graham explained. Sites such as Facebook allow people to communicate with others without leaving the house.
As the Prism news reminds us, sites such as Facebook also operate under the laws of the United States. This plus the fact that online communication means so much to so many people underscores our need for a national, public debate about how other people, whether government officials or corporate vice presidents, use our data. As Rebecca MacKinnon wrote in “Consent of the Networked,” what people in charge believe matters:
“Critics are concerned that Facebook’s core ideology — that all people should be transparent and public about their online identity and social relationships — is the product of a corporate culture based on the life experiences of relatively sheltered and affluent Americans who may be well intentioned but have never experienced genuine social, political, religious, or sexual vulnerability.”
Practically speaking, we can’t abandon the Internet. We as citizens must talk about about how much power over our data we want to give the government or private companies. The answer to these questions isn’t get off Facebook or stop sending email. As I realized this year and during this conversation, we cannot ignore the tremendous benefits that connection on social network sites offers.
Though my email address ends with @umich.edu, all correspondence flows through a Gmail inbox. My appointments are on a Google Calendar, and my fellow students and I routinely use Google Docs to keep track of group project information. The university and Google partnered in October, 2011.
I like Google products. Gmail is the best email client I’ve used, Google Calendar is what pried me away from paper planners, and I’m drafting this post in Google Docs. In exchange for free access to its products, Google can mine all the content I give it. This unsettles me, but I also have no other choice, at least when it comes to my university-related communication technology needs.
I bring up Google not to debate the advantages and disadvantages of its agreement with the university, but to illustrate a point Rebecca MacKinnon articulates in her book, Consent of the Networked:
“Internet-related companies are even more powerful because not only do they create and sell products, but they also provide and shape the digital spaces upon which citizens increasingly depend (p. 11)…The lives of people around the world…are increasingly shaped by programmers, engineers, and corporate executives for whom nobody ever voted and who are not accountable to the public interest in any way (p. xxii).”
While the United States is by no means innocent of pressuring companies and shaping laws that limit its citizens’ freedom online, I write this, send email, post on Facebook, and Tweet without fear that someone will persecute me for what I say. For this I am immensely grateful. MacKinnon writes of the Russian secret service obtaining financial records of those who donated money to a political blogger, the Chinese government forcing tech company employees to divulge personal information, including emails, of users, and the Iranian regime torturing people for their Gmail and Facebook passwords.
Internet companies collect and retain giant amounts of data about us. They can mine it, governments can force companies to share it, and black hat hackers can decide they want a look, too. As I write this, the Washington Post’s homepage includes an article about a Chinese hack into Google’s database of accounts the FBI flagged for surveillance. These stories are as much a part of data storytelling as combing through databases and developing apps. As I wrote in my post about policy, “Understanding what organizations do with data is as important as using data to present compelling stories.”
This summer, I will join the Berkman Center for Internet & Society as an intern. I will work on its suite of projects related to freedom of expression: Internet Monitor, Internet Robustness, and Herdict. Over the next few months, I hope my work will contribute, in some small way, to answering MacKinnon’s central question: “How do we make sure that people with power over our digital lives will not abuse that power” (p. xx).
What are the most critical Internet freedom issues you see in today’s society? Share them in the comments.
What do journalists, surgery center developers, professors, small business owners, and researchers share in common? All take in a lot of data and must translate and present that information to others in a compelling manner. Also, all of them attended Tapestry, the inaugural conference on data storytelling. The event offered a valuable opportunity to connect with all sorts of people who seek to shape this nascent field of data storytelling.
Wish you were there? Check out this Storify I created and learn more: http://storify.com/PriyaKumar/tapestry.
The University of Michigan School of Information has featured my concentration on data storytelling in its series, “I Will Change the World.”