Jul. 15, 2010
(A colleague of mine says I need to put a disclaimer on this post — affirming this is a true story, because when I told her about it, she didn’t believe me.)
Yesterday afternoon I presented for the first time as a mainstream BLC presenter. For me, this was nothing short of a VERY BIG DEAL. My session was about data visualization. In short, how new technologies and transparent access to real-world data make it possible to “democratize” visualization. We focused on a site called Many Eyes, the best known application of which is Wordle.
I decided to frame my presentation around myself as a learner, because I’m not the stereotypical person (e.g. statistician, economist) you might expect to geek out over “charts and graphs.” My themes, as such, were “curiosity” and “story,” because that’s what drives me as a learner and meaning-maker. I was hoping for (trusting!) my participants to connect my “presentation story” to their own contexts and lives.
One of my examples of data “telling a story” involved survival on the Titanic. A particular visualization showed that all the children who perished were in Third Class, and we considered the possible meanings and reasons for that. But the comments included a note about a little girl in first class who died, suggesting the data was wrong. However, it gave no source or details. So this became an exercise in information literacy — finding the truth.
I searched for the manifest online and found a family with a little girl. Sure enough, a two-year-old girl from First Class, Helen Loraine Allison (called Loraine), died along with her parents aboard the Titanic. The nanny had taken her baby brother and boarded a lifeboat without telling the family. Mrs. Allison was put in a lifeboat with Loraine, but refused to leave the ship without her son, so she stepped out. I showed participants a photograph of Loraine and her baby brother, reinforcing the theme: “Data tells a story.” In this case, a very human one. From a “matrix chart” to the fate of an individual child. (And, scene!)
I then asked my participants to explore the Many Eyes site, to “test drive the possibilities.” While they were working, a woman named Cindy approached me and said “Now I need to tell you the rest of the Titanic story.” She then shared that the Allisons were her family, that Loraine was named for her grandmother, and that she had the original photograph that I had displayed. The Allisons nearly missed boarding the Titanic because Mrs. Allison had forgotten her passport. She also told me that some years after the tragedy, some people brought a child to her family, claiming (fraudulently) it was Loraine, and that she had been raised by nuns!
My follow-up slide to everyone’s exploration of Many Eyes contained the question “What did you discover?” I practically Snoopy-danced waiting to share Cindy’s story with the group. I couldn’t have planned for such a gift! And now my third graders, who study Titanic, may be able to interview Cindy on [insert tool here — whatever works!] and authentically experience the “story in the data.” It really is a web of connections.
I have been part of many conversations about the fear of technology dividing us from each other. But my gut feeling (and personal experience) has been that it can (and does) powerfully connect us. In his compelling, moving keynote this morning, I think Michael Wesch had it right — leveraging these new tools for “dark or light” is really up to us. What will we create and share? How will we connect? What stories will we tell?