On data storytelling – and how to make it responsibly

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetPicture from the Responsible Data Storytelling session, by Beatrice Martini (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Thanks to Nasma Ahmed, Renee Black and Sarah Moncelle for collaborating on editing this blogpost.

Stories are a key element of knowledge, and as such fuel evidence and empowerment. They can help communicate problems and challenges we might not have experienced personally, but that are key to be aware of in order to inform our understanding and agency as active members of our societies.

A compelling way to tell stories is through data. Presented as numbers, percentages and visualisations, data can transmit a message directly and sharply, often also helping going beyond misunderstandings caused by language or tone unclarity in our communication.

But are all data good (as in “not harmful”)? Is “the more the merrier” the most helpful way to work with them? Spoiler alert: no, and no.

As activists and capacity builders it is our responsibility to make sure the data and information we’re working with are secure and that we’re not making the people we’re working with vulnerable.

At the 2014 Nonprofit Software Development Summit (read more about it here) Nasma Ahmed, Renee Black, Nathalie Cheng, Mark Libkuman, Sarah Moncelle, Jessie Rose Lee, Ria, Yiming Roberts and I got together in a session I had the opportunity to propose and facilitate. The discussion started as a reflection on how technology (in any shape, from data to software, maps and more) can help social justice issues in the space of gender rights. Soon our brainstorming took a more specific direction which, by the end of the session, the participants themselves had summed up under the name of “Responsible Data Storytelling” (you can find our – very raw! – notes here)

What do we mean by Responsible Data Storytelling?

Technology and data offer activists, journalists and campaigners precious opportunities to serve and help individuals and communities who find themselves in dangerous and sometime also low-resourced contexts. At the same time, the very same technology and data, if used irresponsibly, can even aggravate their situation.

So how can we tell the stories of people who are in danger and often not seen nor heard? How can we help them make their struggle known and understood by anyone, from policy makers to citizens exercising their right to vote and consequently influencing the adoption of policies and aid programmes, while at same time protecting them?

What’s needed to make it happen?

We want to put our knowledge and professional expertise at the service of marginalised communities, learn from them about their battles and understand together what we could do to help them.

During our session we exchanged learnings, best practices and tips about relevant resources which can greatly help approaching this type of work. But we also realised we hadn’t yet find a comprehensive checklist addressing all aspects to be considered when working on a responsible data storytelling project, from conception to management, production and delivery.

So we thought: how about creating a guideline to help everyone involved in such a project being aware of the potential pitfalls but also of the best practices we can adopt when aiming to use technology to help tell and share stories responsibly?

Some aspects we identified/ sections the guideline could focus on:

  • Context analysis
  • Problem and goals identification
  • Approach and values: security, intersectionality, transparency
  • Stakeholders: their rights, duties, responsibility and involvement
  • Methodology: including recommendations on tools and security
  • Project management
  • Power (especially if the advocacy goal is to shift it) and empowerment

After our brainstorming, we made some research, which is surely far from complete, but is a start which thrilled us and made us decide to go ahead with the conversation. We want to connect with others who have been working on this, people or groups who might have already prepared a guideline of this kind we might not have discovered yet. Also, we want to explore potential collaborations to expand the discussion and the work on it.

Kicking off a resource list

A few initiatives, reads, talks and tools which have been providing great food for thoughts for us to further explore the topic.

A “collaborative effort to develop useful tools and strategies for dealing with the ethical, security and privacy challenges facing data-driven advocacy”, made possible by Amnesty International, Aspiration, the engine room, Greenhost, HURIDOCS, Privacy International, School of Data and Ushahidi.

A list of questions to ask when working as an intermediary with marginalized communities. Developed by Friedhelm Weinberg, Jordan Ramos, Tin Geber, Aseem Mulji, Michael Bochenek, Martin Dooley, Kellie Brownell, Adrian Sawczyn and Dirk Slater.

This website helps you explore the digital shadows you cast, and provides you with means to change their size and shape. Learn how we can stay safe and sound in the digital world. By Tactical Technology Collective.

What is a Digital Shadow – a video by Tactical Technology Collective (CC BY-SA 3.0).

A programme supporting advocates at various levels of awareness about issues of information and security. By Tactical Technology Collective.

Cases, tips, risks and a framework for when it’s safe to share information online. A talk by Dirk Slater (eCampaigning Forum).

Think about the traces you leave online and what this means for the work that you do and the people you interact with. A talk by Runa A. Sandvik (Deep Lab Lecture Series).
Video by Studio for Creative Inquiry (CC BY 3.0).

The free and open exchange of knowledge empowers people, promotes accountability and sparks creativity. However, publishing and using data for social good can sometimes have the opposite result: it can also empower the powerful, endanger the powerless, and generally make things worse while honestly trying to help. A workshop by Lindsay Beck, Alix Dunn, Tin Geber, Mushon Zer-Aviv (Open Knowledge Festival 2014).

What next?

After our meeting in Oakland, we agreed on writing this blogpost to share our discussion so far and invite a wider audience to provide feedback and join us so we can decide how to move forward from here. We would love to hear from you!

Can you see this being helpful in your work, and if so, how? Do you have any ideas or suggestions you’d like to share with us? Are you interested in getting involved with this project? Where would you like to see this project go next?
Please leave us a comment below.

Thank you! We look forward to hearing from you.

2 thoughts on “On data storytelling – and how to make it responsibly”

  1. Hi Bea, thanks for such a great post and the shout-outs. A couple of things I’d suggest for your guidelines when you flesh them out further:
    1. Be very intentional about what you are trying to accomplish with the story. What is your overall goal – if it’s a campaign goal or from a journalistic viewpoint – how does this illuminate the facts.
    2. Make sure you’re story won’t undermine the integrity of the person or the community it’s about. Particularly if they don’t have power in the situation but should.
    3. Know your audience and what you want them to do as a result in reading the story and interacting with the data. This exercise might help thinking that through: http://www.fabriders.net/spectrogram-stakeholder-map/

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