March 29, 2011

Data Reveals Stories: Part One | Why do data differently?

Sunday Times news visualisation

Data is not boring. Data is not something that's just for math or science class, and it's a whole lot more than just being able to create a bar chart. It's about making more than the humble bar chart to start revealing hidden stories, and creating impact in the minds - and hearts - of those viewing it.

Since 2010 we've never had so much publicly available data about the way our lives are run, the environment, our geography, our history… But most of us don't know how to tap into the PDFs, tables, geocodes and charts to dig out the meaningful stories hidden in there. Learning how is one of the key new literacy skills our youngsters will need if they are to be fully participative members of society.

Over the next series of posts I'll show some ideas for helping students make sense of the world of data around them. In this post, explore some of the rationale behind harnessing data for learning.

There are two main reasons why data has become a hot topic in civic life, and, I think, will become a core area of learning literacies:

  1. The tools are plentiful and easy to use
    You don't have to settle for an Excel bar graph or pie chart to try to make sense of information:
    • Ushahidi has a selection of tools that make soliciting information from people easy, and allow you to present it in a compelling way.
    • CrowdMap allowed us to create our very own fair fuel campaign earlier this month, to get and chart fuel prices across the country.
    • OpenHeatMap allows you to take data and show trends in the form of a heat map. This is the kind of thing newspapers used to present complicated information which, if presented too precisely could have had legal remifications regarding the privacy of the information being used (in charting supporters of the BNP, for example).
    • ManyEyes from IBM is not only a toolset for creating wordmaps, maps, graphing and interactive visualisations of data, but also provides data sets from which to start working. A gift.
    • Freebase is also a data store, covering everything up to what computer games have had most success in the past few years. Like ManyEyes, it also provides some simple means of visualising that information.
    • Tagcrowd and Wordle both allow texts to be analysed by showing words' prominence in a story by increasing their size proportionally. Run a Michael Gove education speech through and compare to one by Obama, or run the same news story from the Daily Express and Guardian to spot political bias in the journalism.
    • Dipity is a timeline tool par excellence, allowing multimedia to feature in your timelines.
    • Google Public Data Explorer is an information source, centring around North America and a few international sources. Match its data with Google Fusion Tables, and you can start to make simple visualisations of complex data.

  2. There has never been so much free data

Data needs to tell stories with emotional impact, so learn data storycrafting literacies.

Charles Minard arguably created the first visualisation when he placed the entire Franco-Prussian war in a compact infographic, one that helps explain the death due to cold temperatures, trechid river crossings and low morale:


In the last decade we've seen students begin to explore data by converting tables of information into fairly static charts. They can be fascinating - this one explains why the UK was always destined for a coalition Westminster Government.

Recently, Google Maps have made data visualisation something that anyone can do in a few clicks, and create impactful stories of their own. For example, this site makes meaning out a story most people otherwise found hard to connect to: an oil spill in a foreign land means far less than visualising it over your own doorstep:

Impactful Google Maps with free data (oil slick)


Over the next five blog posts I'll show how different forms of data can tell different stories, and hopefully offer some inspiration to maths, science and plenty of other subject teachers on how we can move beyond the graph.


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This series is an amazing resource! Thank you for sharing. I'll be sharing with all staff at my P-12 School - something applicable and insiprational in there for everyone.

I'm working on a website for a class project and I'm doing it on Digital Media and how it can be used in the classroom but I'm not fully sure how to start.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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