More Thoughts on Data Driven Storytelling

Every year for what must be getting on for the last 10 years or so now, we go to Festival at the Edge, a spoken word/storytelling festival at Much Wenlock. Although I’ve never plucked up the courage to actually tell a story there, I did do a workshop 3 or 4 years ago on Storytelling for Beginners. One of the exercises we did was to draw a sketch map of a walk we were familiar with from our past from having walked it regularly. Then we had to walk it again in our minds eye and place a marker at a point we could tell a story about from a walk we remembered: something that had happened at a particular location on a particular walk, for example, or a description about a feature along the route; (on the walk I depicted, I described a gap and a low stone platform in a wall by a farm where (I remember being told) the milk churns used to be left; it isn’t there now). Then we had to walk the route again, and add more features to the map, remembering more about it… And again… Five or six times in all… Then we had to tell a story or two to the rest of the group.

This technique is the flipside of a technique used by many storytellers to remember the essential points of a story: the use of a physical map (or memory palace) in which to situate key elements; the process of telling the story is then tied to tracing the route between memory locations, and telling each partial tale associated with each location.

The power of our creative imagination also means that we can take random markers, and generate story to connect them. Take @cogdog’s Five Card Flickr Stories exercise for example: “you get a shuffled deck of five panels from different Nancy cartoons, and you have to pick one at a time to, in five steps, produce a coherent story, or at least die laughing trying. The point is to make connections and discuss the reasons for the choice.”

Anyway, in a comment to Digital Storytelling, the Data Way @jimgroom suggested that I “come up with an assignment, and I will send my students to your blog to figure it out.”

I’m not sure I’m confident (yes, that is the right word…) enough to post such an exercise, but here are a few more thoughts exploring what form such an assignment might take, bearing in mind that the storytellers may not be majoring in statistics or have particularly good data handling skills.

Note that these ideas were spawned whilst walking the dog, so the sense of journey might show through!

First up, I thought about maps, and one of the most powerful stories told in the data visualisation community, that of John Snow’s Cholera Map. The story, dating back to the 1850s, describes how physician John Snow plotted on a map the location of the homes of people who had died in an outbreak of cholera, and in doing so was able to locate the source of the outbreak*. The storytelling here comes from being able to use “data” forensically, in order to tell the story of where the source of the cholera was, given the journey it took, and the evidence it left behind.

My second thought was off on a forensic tangent – historical storytelling based on aerial photography (see for example one of the many websites on aerial archaeology – what can you tell about what happened in a place centuries ago based on human modifications from those times that are still recorded in the landscape, though not necessarily immediately obviously from the place itself…) Interesting, but not necessarily data driven…

Being, as I was, on a walk, I then started to wonder about what data might be accessible enough to folk who don’t really do data that would allow them to tell stories inspired by that data. Map based journey data is one such source – given a trail, what can you tell about the journey that was taken and what happened on that journey?

Fortunately, there are several sites out there that already collect trail data. So for example, Mapmyride shows routes and elevation data on a bicycle trip:

Everytrail adds in speed data alongside the elevation data:

From a quick search, and in particular this post: Mountain Training in Moratalla, Murcia, which includes heart rate data alongside elevation and hill gradient along a bike ride, I found a way in to Garmin Connect, where folk share all sorts of personal data. Running a Google search for site: should turn up all sorts of results pages, which leads to one possible data driven storytelling assignment – given a Garmin connect data journey, what happened to that person on their journey?

One thing of course, leads to another, so having hit on the idea of telling a personal story about someone unknown from data traces (or 5 random photos…) they’ve left behind, so I checked my delicious bookmarks, and (re)discovered Daytum, a persoal data logging site.

So for example, what story can we tell about a day in the life of this person, inspired by what they spend their time doing?

Again, searching for just site: will turn up a random selection of public data profiles around which we can ask: what’s this person’s story? (Or we may go one further: pull down two random profiles, and tell a story about their life together, how they met, etc etc.)

It’s not just individual data that we have access to, of course – there’s also mass action data, like some of the webrhythms I’ve collected on Trendspotting, or data collected from living buildings that you can peek at on Pachube – but I’ve written more than enough for now. Hopefully there are one or two ideas in here that act as a starting point, at least, for a data driven storytelling exercise… As ever, comments are appreciated. If I get a chance in the next week, I’ll try to refine this post to make it a little more assignment like. And please, if you’ve ever run a data driven digital storytelling activity, I’d love to hear about it:-)

* There are a couple of books that tell the story of Snow’s Cholera map in more detail: The Medical Detective: John Snow, Cholera and the Mystery of the Broad Street Pump and The Ghost Map: A Street, an Epidemic and the Hidden Power of Urban Networks (interview). If you fancy tipping me one, they’re on my Amazon “Patronage” wishlist;-)

PS you remember that story about the “map a familiar route” exercise I opened this post with? Here’s a similar activity, told digitally: e.g. by Downes (Here Is Where I Grew Up…) and @cogdog (Memory Mapping). [UPDATE: Jim Groom has also set an assignment on neighborhood mapping for his Digital Storytelling class – cr3d1t. It’ll be interesting to see what his students come up with…]

PPS Here’s a fantastic piece of storytelling – and annotated line chart of a day in the life of hashtag that went bad… #cashgordon. A great resource for building this sort of story is Crappy Graphs (make your own crappy graph).

PPPS On the topic of maps’n’journeys – this Arcade Fire promo was incredible: Arcade Fire: The WIlderness Downtown

PPPPS here’s another great set of examples of new wave digital storytelling: We Tell Stories (six examples of new ways to tell a stort, from Penguin books). Of particualr note – a story told via Google Maps: The 21 Steps


  1. Alex Andronov

    I was walking past the John Snow hand pump the other month while live streaming on ustream (as it goes) and some people asked me why I was filming the water pump they were sitting on. Luckily I could tell them as it’s not particularly well marked. The story is better told on the wall of the pub opposite.

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