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.
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…
Good question. I’m in information school (iSchool) because knowing how to interview people and write stories is not enough to succeed as a journalist today.
In earlier eras, mainstream media were the source of facts (re: information). Between the World Wide Web and mobile technology, facts now lie at our fingertips. We don’t need to wait for the morning paper or the nightly news to keep us updated. Facts have become commoditized, but journalists never traded solely in facts. A journalist’s unit of currency is the story, a set of facts that, when taken together, help people make sense out of the world.
Which brings me to data.
Data is everywhere. On its own, one cell from a spreadsheet is useless. But thousands, millions, billions, even trillions of data points taken together produce meaning. Data plus a human to analyze and contextualize it coalesces into knowledge, insight, and conclusions. How can we humans develop these skills? Enter iSchool. Take this list of the 10 things journalists should know coming into 2013. iSchool students build skills, interact with data, manage information, build online communities, design user experiences, build mobile applications, and learn very quickly that change is the norm. That’s more than half the list!
Data, as Ken Doctor writes, enables journalists to go deeper:
“Well-programmed technology can do a lot of journalistic heavy lifting. In part, all the technological innovation simply lets smart journalists ask better questions and get a faster result. It both allows journalists to get questions they know they’d like to answer — and goes a step beyond. Getting at unstructured data opens inquiry to lots of content previously beyond reach. Machine learning, says [Chase] Davis [director of the Center for Investigative Reporting], ‘allows datasets to tell you their stories. You don’t have to be limited by your own experience.’ ”
It also makes business sense to hire a data journalist, as Amy Gahran points out:
Journalists, editors and publishers who make an effort to become data literate may be able to demonstrate a competitive advantage to the communities they serve — and, indirectly, to funders, sponsors or advertisers.
As a student at UMSI, I am creating my own path of study called data storytelling. This includes computer programming and data analysis (to learn how to glean insight from data), graphic and interaction design (to present that insight in a compelling manner), and information policy (to put that insight into context). I also help organize the A2 Data Dive, a service event in which community members and students spend a weekend crunching data for nonprofit organizations.
Join me on this adventure to learn how to interview data and tell its stories. Do you have a thought, idea, or (constructive) criticism to offer? Leave a comment below, send me a tweet, or email me at priyaku [at] umich [dot] edu. Welcome!
(And yes, I treat “data” as singular. As linguist Geoff Nunberg writes:
“Whatever the sticklers say, data isn’t a plural noun like ‘pebbles.’ It’s a mass noun like ‘dust.’)