SRCCON Spotlight: Keeping Data Stories Human

William Wolfe-Wylie’s 2016 session on representation in data journalism

From CBC News’s “Missing and Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls.”

This year’s SRCCON—our fourth—begins next week. To kick off the run-up to the event, we’re featuring a selection of sessions from last year’s conference, including transcripts and audio when we have them, and brand-new interviews with the session facilitators.

The Session

One of the SRCCON 2016 sessions that attendees talked about most was “Keeping People at the Forefront of Data Stories,” facilitated by William Wolfe-Wylie and based on his experience working on the CBC News project, “Missing and Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls.”

Notes & Docs

From the session description: When dealing with data that encapsulates the lives of hundreds, or even thousands, of people, keeping those people from becoming anonymous numbers can be challenging. In this session, we walk through tactics and strategies for keeping humanity at the centre of complex stories, and avoiding losing our audience while exploring the sheer scale of some of these data stories.

Our Q&A with William Wolf-Wylie

We caught up with Wolfe-Wylie last week to talk about how his session worked, and how his thinking had changed since he ran it.

Q. What was your session about, and how did you land on that topic?

The core idea is that it’s challenging to write data-heavy stories without eliminating humans from the narrative. Whether the story is about drugs, housing, employment or even homicide, we have a tendency to abstract people into lines in a graph or an interactive data-viz that denies individuals their voice. But ultimately the job of journalism is to tell human stories. So I wanted to host a session that would help us to maintain the humanity of our data stories. I drew largely on the learnings from our national investigation into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada. Using that base, we were able to abstract the lessons to data-driven stories more generally.

Q. What was the session’s structure like?

I delivered a short intro-talk about the nature of the project, but largely used the time to introduce the rules of the talk. Every member of the group was assigned one woman’s profile from our investigation. Some of the profiles were very in-depth and others contained barely any details at all. Everyone in the session was responsible for defending the interests of their person.

As we moved through the stages of project development, from pitch to outline to wireframe to delivery, each person in the session was responsible for outlining what about the idea didn’t adequately represent the particular challenges of their profile. Some profiles were missing geographic data, some did not have a photo, others did not have a full name. Others included a wealth of data. Session participants were advocates.

Particularly interesting about this session is what happened when we were forced to compromise. There was no solution that adequately represented all profiles: So we collectively had to determine who was appropriate to leave out. What shortcuts were acceptable? Is there a better way forward? The discomfort in the room at making those decisions, and the necessity of confronting that discomfort, was ultimately the point.

Screen shots

Session participants worked with actual sketches and wireframes from the project’s development.

We used screen captures from the actual development of the project to guide our discussion. From the initial spreadsheet of data to wireframed ideas to final deliverable elements, we broke down real-world examples for their failings and compromises. The core of the discussion touched on data organization but was mostly about presentation and representation.

Q. Do you remember any specific highlights or surprises from your session or its aftermath?

One participant was shocked that they were defending a case in which we didn’t know the woman’s hometown. The level of detail missing from many of these cases was shocking to a lot of participants, and spoke to our assumptions going into the exercise.

Q. Looking back, has the way you think about your topic changed since SRCCON?

Yes. In retrospect I’m not sure I would have relied so heavily on the actual progression of the project to drive the session forward, but used the expertise in the room to build a new one as a group. Then we could have compared our work against what was actually produced and delivered an effective critique of both approaches.

Since Last Year

The CBC News project itself is still being updated as the Canadian government’s official inquiry into the unresolved cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls flounders.



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