Painting pictures with data: Emma’s year of adventure.

 

How’s this for a year’s project?

THE RULES:

  • Do something new each day

  • Do it with someone else

  • Document it

Pretty daunting, huh?

That’s why I’m not doing it. But Emma Lawton is. That’s incredible. What’s more incredible is that in 2013 at the age of 29, Emma was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. And, like so many people with Parkinson’s, she radiates a determination to focus on the things she can do more than the things she can’t.

Late last year Emma sent a call out at the Parkinson’s UK office to anyone who wanted to spend a lunchtime with her teaching her something. I wrote back and said she should come and geek out with me and Myuran over some analytics. She said yes. Hooray! A win for spreadsheets!

In prepping for Emma’s session, it was tricky to decide how to approach ‘analytics’ as a subject for an hour’s chat in a way that would do anything other than scratch the surface. It’s a vast topic that can easily get quite boring about stats if that’s not what a person is interested in. Instead of that, we did what we often do with clients and chose to focus on them rather than ‘data’. We took inspiration from Emma’s up front questions to us which were all about how important we regarded learning new things. Combining that idea with the knowledge that Emma’s own professional background includes design, we decided to play around with dataviz.

It turned out to be a fruitful starting point to ask Emma about her own project, regarding the year she was planning out and acting on as a potential dataset. She told us she had a planning spreadsheet that she was very proud of and would we like to see it (would we ever – hooray for spreadsheets!) Then we started asking questions. What did she really want to achieve by doing this? What kinds of stories would she want to be telling people? What pictures might she paint to illustrate those stories? What information might she collect that could form the material for those pictures if we thought of them as graphs or infographics?

Analysis can be defined as the summarising and visualising of information for the purpose of gaining insight.

Whilst Emma is writing a blog post for every activity filled with rich qualitative information about her experiences and thoughts on each, summarising and visualising the project as a whole after a year is more challenging based on reminiscence and journalling alone. That’s where data capture comes into play. By noting down a few pointers in a set format for every activity in a spreadsheet (hooray!), she can build material she can later mine for patterns, patterns she could draw. She could capture almost anything about her activities, but based around the ideas she gave us that the project was about people and about how doing this stuff made her feel, we kept focus there. The data capture includes names and dates, information on the activity, how the person she meets is connected to her and various measures of how she feels about the activity including how new, challenging and satisfying it was plus the brainwave of a dropdown list of emojis for overall feel.

Is this reductive? Yes.
Can we capture the richness of Emma’s emotional experiences with dropdown lists of ratings and emojis? No.
Might it allow the viewing of wood rather than trees? Yes.
Might it reveal something of her experience that might otherwise remain hidden? Yes.

Meeting, speaking and sharing ideas with Emma was a joy and I felt that in that hour we explored in microcosm what we do on any project with any client. We meet people where they are and focus on what they tell us is important to them. We then work with them to think of how data can be useful as a lens through which to look, not to the exclusion of other lenses, but in addition for the provision of a different angle.

I can’t wait to see what Emma’s year ends up looking like to her.

Catch Emma’s analytics blog post at the fuck it listAnd do explore the rest of her adventures. Perhaps there’s even something she could come and learn with you?

 

 

 

Tell your story! Easy to say, hard to do. Here are the tips that help.

Storytelling is vital. Whether for making data accessible to an audience or for any other reason.

We all know this, we’re told it all the time, mostly by Seth Godin! We’re surrounded by stories and we all realize that to create connection, to persuade, to make change, we have to tell our own. And to get anywhere, we better get good at it. So why is it still so damn hard to do it well? How come I forget how to do it every single time I come to write?

Fundamentally, it’s easier to start with the internal than the external.
‘What do I want to say?’, ‘what product do I want to tell people about?’, ‘what’s my opinion on this?’
Working at a charity, we fall into this internal thinking trap all the time. We have so many messages we want people to hear, so many important pieces of news to impart, so many actions to invite people to take. And for communicating insight we get caught up asking ‘what do my findings say?’, ‘what my recommendation?’, ‘how can I make this graph just a little bit prettier?’

But to start with the external means to think of the reader first. Who are they? What might they be interested in? Why should they care about what I’ve got to say?

Every story needs to start from the outside and go in. Every story is a fruit that the reader peels back the layers of to get to the juicy, tasty bit in the middle. If you’re like me and need a helping hand offering up the best fruit then look no further than Bobette Buster’s handy how to:

It’s all gold but here’s the best bits that are easily actioned every day:

  1. Tell your story as if to a friend, no matter who you’re talking to.
  2. Choose a ‘gleaming detail’, the one ordinary moment, object or metaphor that embodies the heart of what you’re telling a story about. Hook onto the senses: what does that detail look, sound, smell, taste or feel like?
  3. Be vulnerable. Dare to share the doubt, the anger, the surprise the joy.
  4. Bring yourself. It doesn’t have to be about you to include you or your opinion.
  5. Let go. Less is more.

Critical thinking – question your analyst!

If you’re the client for analysis, insight or research, keep these questions in mind when you get results presented back to you.

Analysts and researchers try to tease out useful information from data, whatever their methods. But their interpretation is in the end just one interpretation of what they have looked at.

Being critical doesn’t mean you’re saying ‘this is garbage, you’re wrong about everything!’ Being critical means being curious and having a healthy skepticism when information is presented to you as fact. In science, you learn to have your work ruthlessly pulled apart in order to have your ideas tested so you can improve what you’re doing. In non-profits people are often unsure of their data knowledge and that makes them too timid and too damn nice! Here are some questions to get your critical juices flowing. You don’t have to understand the data, you understand your work and you’re an intelligent adult who can form valid opinions based on information your are shown.

Being curious about alternative stories
Is there another explanation for that?

Debating findings
That’s the opposite of my hunch! That’s really not what I would expect, is it right?

Limits and assumptions of the analysis
How robust is this analysis?
How reliable and consistent was the data?
How did you get to your findings?

Insisting on clarity
What exactly does this show?
What does this mean for us? What can we do with this?
I didn’t get what you said – can you explain that again in English? (see There are no stupid questions)