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I remember my first foray into the world of data storytelling more for what wasn’t accomplished than for what was. It was 2004 – early in the days of the field we now know as data visualization – and I had recently started working at the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, where we had just launched, a Velir-built data website that was quite innovative in how it presented local-level facts on children’s health and well-being. I had a young daughter then, with a son on the way, so the data on my own community’s children mattered greatly to me and my wife. As an earnest parent of young ones, I was tracking closely the local data on childhood obesity, fitness, asthma, and other topics that was making available to help raise community awareness of children’s issues. 


I learned then, however, how deeply challenging it is to get fellow parents in my community to pay attention to the same data. It’s not that they didn’t care. They, too, wanted the best for their kids. It’s just that they had busy lives, and even if they had the time to focus on these data, what would they do with the facts? As any parent with young kids knows, you’re probably too sleep-deprived and time-starved to rally together fellow parents and create a movement to, say, combat the comparatively high cost of childcare in your region.

Is Data Being Harnessed Effectively?

Over and over, I found that this seemingly intractable challenge of effectively leveraging data to achieve impact - e.g. informing policy and program decisions, influencing public opinion, perhaps raising funds for needed causes – was a problem well beyond my own community. And I’m not just talking about helping lay audiences, like parents, harness data for effect. It applies, too, to elected officials, advocacy organizations, and even journalists. It’s as if the public sector collectively bats .200 when it comes to turning data into community-level action. Data reports are issued. A small fuss is made (e.g. a story in the local paper), but these data all too rarely catalyze community decisions. So, while we report on the facts, success in terms of seeing social change from the data, is both rare and hard-won.

"Over and over, I found that this seemingly intractable challenge of effectively leveraging data to achieve impact."

At the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, for example, we expanded from serving two Bay Area counties to all 58 counties in California. That provided me with an up-close view into how other communities statewide – including those that were very sophisticated in their use of data - were facing the same challenges as my own town. Similarly, at the California Health Care Foundation, where I led the foundation’s open data work from 2012 to 2016, I saw this problem from the perspective of the publisher of data. While governments can (relatively) easily publish data onto a portal, getting these data to gain traction and be used for community-wide action is a whole other challenge, and one that they’re, understandably, not equipped to take on."

We’ve Come a Long Way, but a Key Piece is Still Missing

So for a long time, I’ve been wondering: Why is this so hard? Why can’t communities across the country marshal data for action, with ease? I don’t think the problem, anymore, is with access to data. Increasingly, governments are publishing their data and collaborating with community partners – e.g. health systems – to help fill in the data blanks. If anything, especially with the growth in the open data movement, we’re more likely to be overwhelmed by the availability of data, not underwhelmed.

We‘re also not lacking useful tools that can help us analyze and visualize findings from what’s released. Velir, for example, builds some amazing tools to help foundations, nonprofits, and universities describe visually what public data show. Prior to Velir, I worked at LiveStories, which offers a data platform to help the public sector communicate and tell stories with data, and there are a growing number of such platforms available these days.

So we’ve got the data. We’ve got the tools. What more could we possibly need?

"From my vantage point, the missing ingredient is the capacity for the public sector to communicate data effectively."

After all, that’s not a skill we inherently know. And in most cases, busy nonprofits and government agencies are so focused on simply getting access to data and creating compelling maps and graphs that they have little left in the tank for effective dissemination that can achieve real-world impact.

The Last Mile in Spurring Real Change

In other words, the focus in the public sector on engaging constituents with data only really happens towards the end of the project, not throughout. How can you communicate and tell a story with data? How can you do the on-the-ground, community-organizing-type work to achieve action from data findings? How can you walk in the shoes of end users before you begin to build a data display, in order to know how best to package the information in ways that will be meaningful to them? And how can you leverage social media and your fellow community partners as information ambassadors to help spread the word about the important findings from the data? These questions surely don’t have quick answers, and all too often, I find that the public sector doesn’t have the time to truly address these issues.

I joined Velir for the compelling opportunity to help build out a data storytelling practice that’s attuned to and responsive to these last mile needs. We want to teach our clients, and the public sector at large, to fish when it comes to communicating data and building engagement. And we want to learn alongside them regarding what works on this front. Such learning, after all, will only make us better at building amazing products that express data findings and truly get to the heart of the matter at hand.

In future blog posts, I’ll explore this topic in more depthdiving deeper into the problems that communities face with data engagement, describing some lessons that I’ve learned along the way, and sharing more details about how Velir proposes to help its clients build a data storytelling capacity.


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