MozFest: Turning data in to a story in three hours? Almost.

This year at MozFest, I responded to a “call for help” from three African nations to solve the mysterious drop in life expectancy they experienced. In a session called “Data Expeditions: Scout the Data Landscape with our Data Sherpas” (organized by a caped Michael Bauer) all participants split into groups to research and tell a story. My group, made of people with diverse backgrounds, reminded me how valuable a wide variety of skill sets can be, working together throughout an entire process. As a designer, the exercise showed me the importance of getting involved early—using visual thinking and making a better product in the end.

The ten MozFesters in my group ranged from students (like myself) to bankers with hacktivistic hobbies to professional digital journalists. Putting all of us together, with all of our diverse backgrounds and problem solving methods, allowed us to see what kinds of problems we would encounter in a more extensive project and learn many varied ways of attacking those problems. The natural tendency is to split work according to areas of expertise. The number-crunchers had dibs on the thumb drive containing the life expectancy data, and researchers vetted the World Bank’s online data archives. Once enough numbers were collected to paint a decent picture of the overall situation, the journalists and researchers scoured the internet for facts, dates, political programs and other explanations for the data we found. But one of the most valuable parts of this session was forcing us all to help (at least a little bit) with all the moving parts. Three hours isn’t enough time to set up an assembly line and chain of command. We worked together as best we could, learning and doing at the same time.

Our mission was to find and interpret the vast amount of data accessible with the Internet, and then tell a clear story about it. Visual thinking is clearly important for storytelling (especially with data, charts and graphs are key), and it’s undervalued in research. As a visual thinker and a journalist, I found myself able understand and interpret various charts and ask questions that led to explaining them. Beyond that, because I helped gather and interpret the data and facts, I felt all the more prepared to help tell the story — too often, designers are brought into the process at the end, trying to learn well enough to teach after the research has been done.

Despite how valuable I believe this session to have been, it felt cut short. My group spent much time researching, analyzing, interpreting and explaining, but we didn’t have enough time to tell the story to our audience. We quickly drew charts on large paper and compiled a timeline by hand. I wish we’d had more time to tell the story, because the information we collected was dulled and disempowered by our lackadaisical and slightly disorganized telling. The explanation is just as important the data we collected. I’m sure the roadblocks my group would have encountered in this part of the process would have been telling and interesting. It would have been fun to apply the same diverse, interdisciplinary methods to whatever those would have been.

About the author

Sarah Adler

Undergraduate Fellow

Latest Posts

  • Prototyping Augmented Reality

    Something that really frustrates me is that, while I’m excited about the potential AR has for storytelling, I don’t feel like I have really great AR experiences that I can point people to. We know that AR is great for taking a selfie with a Pikachu and it’s pretty good at measuring spaces (as long as your room is really well lit and your phone is fully charged) but beyond that, we’re really still figuring...

    Continue Reading

  • Capturing the Soundfield: Recording Ambisonics for VR

    When building experiences in virtual reality we’re confronted with the challenge of mimicking how sounds hit us in the real world from all directions. One useful tool for us to attempt this mimicry is called a soundfield microphone. We tested one of these microphones to explore how audio plays into building immersive experiences for virtual reality. Approaching ambisonics with the soundfield microphone has become popular in development for VR particularly for 360 videos. With it,...

    Continue Reading

  • How to translate live-spoken human words into computer “truth”

    Our Knight Lab team spent three months in Winter 2018 exploring how to combine various technologies to capture, interpret, and fact check live broadcasts from television news stations, using Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant device as a low-friction way to initiate the process. The ultimate goal was to build an Alexa skill that could be its own form of live, automated fact-checking: cross-referencing a statement from a politician or otherwise newsworthy figure against previously fact-checked statements......

    Continue Reading

  • Northwestern is hiring a CS + Journalism professor

    Work with us at the intersection of media, technology and design.

    Are you interested in working with journalism and computer science students to build innovative media tools, products and apps? Would you like to teach the next generation of media innovators? Do you have a track record building technologies for journalists, publishers, storytellers or media consumers? Northwestern University is recruiting for an assistant or associate professor for computer science AND journalism, who will share an appointment in the Medill School of Journalism and the McCormick School...

    Continue Reading

  • Introducing StorylineJS

    Today we're excited to release a new tool for storytellers.

    StorylineJS makes it easy to tell the story behind a dataset, without the need for programming or data visualization expertise. Just upload your data to Google Sheets, add two columns, and fill in the story on the rows you want to highlight. Set a few configuration options and you have an annotated chart, ready to embed on your website. (And did we mention, it looks great on phones?) As with all of our tools, simplicity...

    Continue Reading

  • Join us in October: NU hosts the Computation + Journalism 2017 symposium

    An exciting lineup of researchers, technologists and journalists will convene in October for Computation + Journalism Symposium 2017 at Northwestern University. Register now and book your hotel rooms for the event, which will take place on Friday, Oct. 13, and Saturday, Oct. 14 in Evanston, IL. Hotel room blocks near campus are filling up fast! Speakers will include: Ashwin Ram, who heads research and development for Amazon’s Alexa artificial intelligence (AI) agent, which powers the...

    Continue Reading

Storytelling Tools

We build easy-to-use tools that can help you tell better stories.

View More