Empowering Data Through Narrative

When most people think of big data, they imagine long Excel sheets with a thousand fields, line graphs, and pie charts. While it’s true that collecting and organizing data for the official record is a very methodical process (and tends to be represented by long Excel sheets, line graphs, and pie charts), the communication of data can take on a lot of different looks and styles.

Data visualization is a hot commodity right now and for good reason; big data is becoming a form of currency in and of itself as different markets, political parties, and special interest groups use it to drive agendas, generate funding, and provide justification for ventures and initiatives. This is where we start encountering monster cases of correlation does not imply causationĀ which underscore the importance of maintaining the integrity of data and the original research it’s born from. The graphic representation of data immediately communicates concepts in a casual way that lines and numbers just can’t. This means that for scientists and researchers, it’s essential to have some creative communication skills in their back pocket – or they run the risk of passing data into less balanced hands, losing the integrity of their work.

 

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This data visualization by Andrew Lamb shows the reach of his Instagram network (user ‘speedoflife’). When you consider that this is a representation of one individual’s network on just one channel of social media, it’s easy to understand the rise in demand for analysts who can graphically depict even bigger data sets in a sensible way.

 

This past semester, the Team Creative and some friends of ALT Lab teamed up with Rodney Dyer and his cohort of 1st-year environmental studies (ENVS) graduate students. The mission? Take moderately complex data and visualize it into an effective piece of science communication.

Science communication is a huge deal. There are entire research centers devoted to the study and production of science communication, and it’s evolved rapidly since scientists have been empowered to generate their own short-format communications via YouTube and other video streaming tools. Scientists no longer operate in a world where the only road to professional legitimacy is through publication in an academic journal. Harnessing individual creativity and showmanship skills can be just as effective.


 

For this project, I put together some tutorials and starting materials for the ENVS class to begin understanding our software setup: Adobe Creative Suite. We had 5 small groups to work with, and we consulted each 1-on-1 to get an idea of the data they were working with and help begin to brainstorm how to translate numbers into visuals. Working primarily in heavy-duty programs like Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects, the students had a pretty steep learning curve to navigate on the technical side. It was another lesson in professional bias for me, and one that I was happy to have… because at the same time, I was navigating a pretty steep learning curve myself as the students presented the data they would be working to communicate. It was a fun challenge translating all the different variables within the data into different components of the narrative that would drive the students’ production process.

I learned a lot about these researchers’ field processes as well – did you know that when determining populations in fish and amphibious species, researchers will literally send low-voltage electric currents into bodies of water to count? There were so many small examples of crazy research processes like that I had no idea existed – and turning the visuals of those processes over in my head, it became clear that there was no shortage of compelling imagery we could include in these projects; the real trick would be helping students realize that their field was already full of beauty and creativity, despite the fact that most of their field’s output lives in black and white reports and charts.


 

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A still from “Understanding the Health of Virginia’s Waterways” by ENVS students Ron Lopez, Danielle McCulloch, and Bonnie Roderique

 

Over the course of 4 class sessions and a few pop-up workshops, the 5 groups we worked with each scripted, storyboarded, designed, animated, edited, and produced a complete short narrative film communicating their data. The class set up a site through Google where you can watch the finished products. In addition to learning some of the basics of ACS, the students also got some practice time with the teleprompter and green screen to develop their on-camera presentation skills. This project was a big push out of many students’ comfort zones, and we were really happy to hear post-semester that this was their favorite project of the semester. One student even went on to apply his new skills directly at VCU’s Rice Rivers Center.

When we help scholars create their own educational media, it really becomes less about having a polished final product and more about really cultivating new skills throughout the process. Considering we started at ground 0 on the technical/creative end of things, the final work these students produced is really remarkable and special.

In a few weeks, we’ll be iterating on this project again with a new class of ENVS students. Hopefully we’ll be able to push even further in exploring even more aspects of science communication, and start broaching new ground in distribution and acquiring an audience. Especially now, in a fickle political climate that doesn’t always prioritize facts, the ability to communicate real, trial-ed and true research clearly and understandably is a game-changing skill.

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