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

Reversible, Reverse History and Side-by-Side Storytelling

Although I tend to live very much in the flow of the web, I also have a memory of (some of) what’s gone before. So for example, there’s a viral video doing the rounds at the moment about the Future of the publishing industry – feel free to watch it, but before you’re tempted to share it, please read on…

Very nice, and maybe not surprising that Penguin Books are behind it, as they were with a whole host of other innovative storytelling techniques two or three years ago (

But when I saw the video I thought: okay, but not that original (and I’m guessing originality was partly the reason why this video has gone viral…?) Because I’d seen exactly the same form and presentation last year in what is arguably a far more powerful story:

Thanks to @cogdog has for finding the original link, as well as an earlier political video it was based on:

This idea of reversible time requires a cleverly constructed narrative of course. On several occasions over the last year, I’ve pondered how to go about constructing such a narrative – the videos shown above give a host of structural clues and cribs to get you started – but I feel that an easy way in might to to take a familiar story and tell it backwards. That is, tell a reverse narrative.

I’m sure this conceit must be a well used one in science fiction, but the first time I (remember) coming across it was in the novel Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis which tells the story of a life, told backwards.

A couple of years ago, Brian Kelly used this trick as a tool for helping out with the creation of risk assessments – The History Of The Web Backwards, who “suggested idea of ‘History of Web backwards to @daveyp in pub in Glasgow on 2 May 06, after a Radio 4 prog which used this idea.” (I wonder if it was this programme, on international datelines, that spurred the idea? Shifting meridians: a tale of time ?)

Another playful take on time is the replay. I’ve posted about this before (Relative Time Replay: History, In Real Time) but the main idea is that we take the real time events from one epoch and replay them at another time. So for example, last year saw a replay of the first moon landing using Twitter, amongst other things, to replay the landing as if in real time. The idea of replay is also behind the idea of the Twitter video captions hack too, of course.

Finally, although not strictly a time based device, I think that here might be a good place to mention side-by-side video storytelling. A great example of this is Duelity which counters creationist claims with an evolutionary perspective, told side by side:

(This resembles the reversible device in the videos above in the sense that each separate video is coherent in its own right, as well as when the videos are played side by side; just like the forward and the reverse narratives in the other videos both work as narratives.)

Digital Storytelling – a whole lotta fun:-)

PS Hmm, maybe I should try to weave some of this into the “Narrative” Topic Exploration in the Digital Worlds course? (Delivered wholly online, now taking registrations for a May 2010 start;-)

Digital Storytelling, the Data Way

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been amazed by some of the amazing stuff that’s being produced by students taking Jim Groom’s Digital Storytelling class (Jim has been blogging highlights on his bavatuesdays blog).

Part of the new OU course T215 Communication and information technologies includes various digital storytelling activities too, but I’m not sure the activities will be carried out in such an open way, which is a shame…

Anyway, Jim’s course has got me thinking about the whole idea of Digital Storytelling around data, so here are a selection of bits to pop onto a mood board to try to get a feel for what data inspired storytelling might mean…

7 Visualization Groups On Flickr to Find Inspiration

(I was hoping to post a walkthrough of an activity I’d designed as a final challenge for a robot/data logging residential school several years, but it seems that just such a walkthrough is being asked for as the piece of assessment for a residential course later this year. I’ll try to make good in a day or two with a similar sort of example using some of the F1 data we grabbed last week…)

Relative Time Replay: History, In Real Time

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant: via my feed subscription to Jane’s e-learning pick of the day, I just came across We Choose The Moon –, a real-time recreation of the Apollo 11 moon landings.

Twitter feeds are also available…

That is, @ap11_capcom , @ap11_spacecraft and @ap11_eagle.

This ability to follow along replays of historical events in relative real time (realitive [re/al/i/tive ?] time;-) provides a degree of authenticity that makes the event ‘real’. So is technology enabled real-time replay being used in education at all (other than in hugely expensive simulation training environments?).

Although I rarely play online games, there is one I keep coming back to – Sharkrunners which allows you to go on a scientific mission in search of sharks…

And whilst I don’t read many history books, I’ve often thought that replays of things like Harry Lamin’s letters from the Wordl War 1 trenches were ideal for either real-time, or daily feed replays. ( A quick trawl will probably pull up several other replays of letters from the trenches.)

Then again, Peter Watkins’ black and white “documentary” of the battle of Culloden is pretty much the only thing I remember from that period of time in my school History lessons! Maybe it’s the apparent authenticity of the medium that’s what engages me?;-)

Which is maybe why I like this Google Earth recreation of the Hudson bay plane crash so much:-)

Replays from the diarists also hit the blogsophere from time to time: Pepys diary for example. (I’m not sure if there’s a real-time/relative time replayable version of Anne Frank’s diary online somewhere?)

If I didn’t have way too much to do already, or if I had “independent means”, I think I’d be tempted to try to put together a “relative realtime re-player”, maybe chasing someone like 4iP for the funds (though we’re still chasing them for something else…), or trying to do a deal with various news archives…

Hmm, now there’s a thought – maybe the news media could extract a bit of value from their archives by allowing people to replay historical events in real time? How far back does the Guardian API search I wonder? Certainly, I think Google news has a historical news search… I’d be quite tempted to follow the “Operation Julie” trial from the 1970s in relative real time, I think, rather than just reading a book about it, for example.

There are several things that I think can add to the feeling of authenticity by replaying content in this way:

1) the chunk size – the material is chunked at a human scale; lots of us write (or at least read) 500 word articles, watch 30 minute programmes etc in one sitting; but we don’t tend to read a book in one go, or watch a 20 DVD hour box set on one go;

2) the delivery schedule follows a human time scale – it becomes real to us as the event play out on a human timescale, and one that we are comfortable with;

3) the replayed material is authentic, and was generated at the time of the actual events;

4) the opportunity to look back to future at events as they unfold in relative realtime, but with the added advantage of hindsight.

Are there any history educators out there already teaching in this way, I wonder?

Oh for more time to think about this sort of realitivity, but ‘real work’ beckons :-(