Storytelling in the Era of Big Data
From a torrential influx of information, data scientists and innovative designers inspire social change
Big Data can be harnessed for the public good, but storytelling is essential to reach a mass audience and inspire social change. Fortunately, the tools and very forms of storytelling are changing in real time, as data-driven approaches—such as visualizations and interactive maps—transcend traditional narrative, revealing the important truths that can be obscured by the torrential influx of data. To make that information intelligible to a broad audience, dedicated data scientists and designers and developers who share an inventive storytelling vision are equally important.
Both facets were explored at the first Big Data for the Public Good seminar in San Francisco on January 23, 2012. Hosted by Code for America and sponsored by Greenplum, a division of EMC, Big Data for the Public Good is a four-part seminar series focused on how the Big Data explosion can be harnessed to address the great opportunities and pressing challenges of our time. Michal Migurski, the technology head at Stamen, and the design studio’s founder and creative director Eric Rodenbeck, spoke to an audience of change agents about the ways that data can serve the public good.
Data Science: Where it all Begins
Roger Magoulas, Research Director at O’Reilly Media, kicked off the seminar with an examination of the role of Data Scientists. Revealing relevant insights from Big Data requires management, collection and parsing through scraping, feeds and APIs, integration through identification, association, deduplication, and finally, organization. Once these steps are taken, a world of possibilities opens for analysis.
There are many ways to examine the results, including natural language processing, statistical analysis, and the power of collective intelligence manifested in crowdsourcing tools such as Mechanical Turk. But to tell a rich and compelling story from this torrent of information, you need to draw a relation to the big picture and demonstrate how these facts directly effect people’s lives.
Data Visualizations and Change Agents
That’s where innovators, such Stamen, enter the picture. For the past decade, the San Francisco design and technology studio has created stunning data visualizations and interactive projects that redefine storytelling for both commercial profit and the public good. Stamen’s growing roster of collaborators includes news outlets, financial institutions, artists, museums, technology companies, political action committees, and many more.
Michal Migurski opened with an overview of some of Stamen’s most high-profile work, projects that make facts, figures and statistics relevant to a mass audience. One of the studio’s most notable commercial projects is the Live Hurricane Maps it developed with MSNBC, which harnessed real-time weather data and records spanning six decades to reveal live and historical hurricane paths, wind speeds, and forecasted routes through an interactive interface.