We recently produced this blog post on age, gender and unemployment in South African municipalities. It marked the beginning of what we hope will grow into a coherent data story over time. It also got us thinking about what data stories actually are and what methodologies we rely on when we produce them. When we work on a data story, it is important for us to remember whose story is being told. It is also important for us to make this clear to our readers and to be explicit about why we chose the particular data in which a given story is rooted. With this in mind, we have produced a working methodology for producing data stories. This blog post explains parts of it.
Why a working methodology? Well, because telling stories in the way we envision is really tricky, and will require a fair deal of experimentation. While we at OpenUp are confident in our abilities to present data accurately and in an accessible way, storytelling is an intricate process which speaks to more complex issues such as agency. As this post should clarify, we often facilitate storytelling, meaning that the stories told will often be someone else’s story. While it is difficult to tell someone else’s story without making it one’s own to a degree, our aim is not to be advocates but to make it easier for others to advocate for themselves. As we engage in this process, we will always be looking to improve how we engage in this process.
What does an OpenUp data story look like?
As we understand the term, ‘data storytelling’ is a process of creating a story from the findings of data analysis that assist readers to make sense of real-world problems, usually with a view to achieving a particular aim. From an OpenUp perspective, this will entail looking to achieve a combination of at least one of the following three things: (1) informing; (2) empowering; and (3) activating.
The OpenUp mission statement entails us seeking to empower people and government, through data, technology and innovative-thinking, to become active agents in creating positive social change. We often simplify this by stating that our mission can be boiled down to the phrase “inform, empower, activate”. OpenUp uses this phrase with a particular understanding. Someone who is informed understands their rights, and is able to make informed decisions. Someone who is empowered is informed but also has the necessary means to to take action. Finally, someone who is activated is empowered but also actually takes the action necessary for bringing about positive social change.
Against this backdrop, we quite enjoyed this explanation of data storytelling over at hacker.io (mostly because it included Venn diagrams). We’ve used an adapted version of that explanation to construct our very own Venn diagram.
In the hacker.io version, the part of the diagram where all three circles overlap says “change”. The OpenUp version simply replaces a generic take on change with the specific manner in which OpenUp hopes to see change come about: through informing, empowering and/or activating.
Where did this story begin?
In this case, the starting point for our story was Codebridge Youth (CBY) ‒ a project led by OpenUp that seeks to promote public participation amongst young people in particular municipalities in South Africa. The CBY project has a strong focus on providing young people with the skills and access to information that are necessary to effectively engage in public participation processes. However, what ultimately matters is that CBY members are able to advocate for the issues that they experience and view as most important. As such, OpenUp’s job is not to determine the content of people’s submissions. Rather, what we prioritise is ensuring that young people have access to information and skills that will increase the likelihood of their engagements with local governments having a positive impact. In essence, we ask young people what they view as the most pressing issues in their communities, and then try to help them understand these issues in-depth, usually through the use of data.
An issue that comes up at every CBY engagement is that of youth unemployment. This is hardly surprising given the high levels of unemployment amongst both young people and the population in general. However, unemployment is a complex issue that involves many different dynamics. It affects different people in different ways, and it is unlikely to find a one-size-fits-all solution. Our blog post therefore tried to highlight some of these dynamics, as well as demonstrate how data can be used by CBY members to substantiate their arguments. The hope is that young people who know about public participation processes and the issues that are affecting them are more likely to be active and engaged citizens.
On to the next chapter...
As mentioned above, our blog post on youth unemployment was the beginning of a lengthier story. Crafting the next chapter will involve speaking directly to some young women CBY members about the issues raised by the data on age, gender and unemployment with a view to trying to understand how they experience them and what they think can be done.
What are we missing?
As alluded to above, while we at OpenUp are confident in our abilities to work with data and produce helpful visualisations, we recognise that data storytelling is a far more complex process than simply finding a data source, extracting data from it and turning it into something that looks good. We think that storytelling is an incredibly important part of developing an informed, empowered and activated citizenry and will consistently look to improve our storytelling processes.