Wednesday, October 13, 2010

And thereby hangs a tale: When small data points become great stories

Data points: You're swimming in them, and ignoring them like so much plankton in the vast ocean, mainly because all that data's overwhelming.  But those small bits of data also are the basis for great stories and great storytelling opportunities you may be missing. 

But first, the ocean: This IBM video does a great job describing the vast amount of data that's available on the Internet, to give you an idea of the potential here. The video itself is a wonderful animated infographic and describes how we move from data to information to knowledge to wisdom:

Now, how to get from data points to stories? You need to pay attention to the small points, those plankton in the sea of data. Here are some tips, tools and examples to inspire you:
  • Stories from data patterns: An alert Maine resident documented a record-breaking path of one whale--6,000 miles from Brazil to Madagascar.  She compared photos of migrating whales' tails posted to Flickr against a database of photos of whale tails compiled by scientists for more than 30 years to identify and follow this particular whale. This citizen scientist just had her discovery published in the journal Biology Letters, contributing to scientific knowledge using freely available data--in this case, photos.  Looking for patterns and similarities gave her the ability to turn an ocean of visual data into the story of one whale's very long migration, a story that involves many chance photographs and photographers.
  • Stories left in the comments:  The Online Journalism Blog's post on "stories hidden in the data, stories in the comments" offers a good reminder to cull comments for new stories or expansions of the story you've put out there.  Looking at a visualization of tax data, it sees several data points highlighted that might not otherwise have been covered--and the comments yield similar gems on which new stories can be built.  It notes, "By publishing the data and having built the healthy community that exists around the data blog, McCandless and The Guardian benefit from some very useful comments (aside from the odd political one) on how to improve both the data and the visualisation. This is a great example of how the newspaper is stealing an enormous march on its rivals in working beyond its newsroom in collaboration with users." If you doubt that users want to play with data you're hanging on to, read about how the Texas Tribune's using its databases as an engagement and participation tool.
  • Stories raked up by apps: ReadWriteCloud blog offers these 5 tools for online journalism, exploration and visualization, ranging from heat maps to tools that make use (and sense) of open government data. Consider taking your data and mashing it up with another available database to come up with a unique (and perhaps useful) story.
  • Stories in real time:  The New York Times today is keeping track of the Chilean miners who've been brought to the surface and those still underground with a cunning at-a-glance infographic.  Faces of those underground are shown, along with the sunglasses-clad faces of those brought up.  On a day when the world's watching and only two data points matter--who's been rescued, and who's left to rescue--this one captures it beautifully.
By the way, your "data" doesn't need to be statistics, per se.  It might take the form of:
  • A group of related reader comments, a sure-fire way to develop stories that you know your audience cares about;
  • Opinions from key influential participants in your organization, from donors and board members to customers and partners;
  • Historic documents, photos and artifacts, and readers' comments or additional information about them;
  • Real-time observations you're collecting during an event, crisis or ongoing activity.
If you've got another great example of small data points turning into stories, please share them in the comments. (Hat tips to Nancy Shute and Joe Bonner.)

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