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How, and Why, to Be a Data Storyteller

The continuous evolution of data transparency requires that governments move data from informing to enabling stakeholders. Pairing modern technology with the timeless art of storytelling is a key way to overcome current public sector challenges and solve real-world problems.

What’s Your Story?

During my time in elected office, my colleagues and I would arrive at a budget package, then immediately ask, “So, what’s the story?” Each annual budget had its own “budget story,” which, in my years, covered themes of reduction, maintenance, rebuilding and growth. Admittedly more of a PR tool than an analytic exercise, the simple one or two-sentence narrative accompanied the budget numbers in order to cushion them in appropriate context and accurately inform staff and citizens so that everyone was on the same page prior to a referendum vote.

Context is Key

Storytelling has since evolved to include data as a central component. Storytelling allows governments of all sizes to create narratives that not only engage and resonate with stakeholders but that provide context around government numbers to ensure accurate understanding. Particularly in an era of pervasive social media, when one upset constituent can spread inaccuracies instantaneously, firmly establishing truth through an easy-to-understand narrative has never been more important.

Adding to this is the Open Government Data Act, which cements data at the center of public sector conversations. Transparency is critical in a well-functioning democracy, but data without context can be a project- or budget-killer.

Fortunately, modern technology can enable effective, data-driven storytelling. Beginning with user-friendly webpages that make understanding complex information easier, technology can help internal and external users understand what specific data means, where it came from, and how it connects to other related resources. This results in better outcomes inside agencies and in communities.

Storytelling Elements

Stories that provide context around datasets can increase the data’s usage beyond the reasons it was initially captured and spur private innovation and new partnerships. Effective data storytelling is achievable for government agencies of all sizes. A successful effort:

  • Includes visualizations;
  • Fosters engagement; and
  • Moves data from information to empowerment.

Cities across the U.S. and Canada are effectively telling their stories. Some have used data stories to facilitate innovation, for example, whereby residents use data to create new lines of business, applications and services that propel economic growth.

The government of Nova Scotia has offered a public open data portal since 2016. A unique storytelling feature, Perspectives, launched in February 2019 and transforms the offering from mere data to enhanced content that includes videos, images, and narratives that provide critical context. For Lyme Disease datasets, for example, information is conveyed in easy-to-understand charts and graphs, and is accompanied by helpful videos and additional resources.

Available data and context have already led to business creation. Two Nova Scotia entrepreneurs created WoodsCamp, an online tool that uses the province’s forest inventory data to match woodlot owners with loggers and markets for their timber.

Insight Improves Communities

In other places, public and private partners glean new insights from data, leading to innovative solutions to societal issues. In San Mateo County, California, a performance dashboard uses storytelling to show residents how their half-cent sales tax directly impacts service areas, including public health, housing and homelessness. This and the county’s open data dashboard give residents the power to monitor and evaluate publicly funded programs and services while providing application programming interface (API) access to data for constituents who want to interact or build with it.

The county and partners have used data stories on the two dashboards to support and track efforts around housing and hunger – important issues in an area with low housing availability and rising costs. Maps, charts and visualizations tell the stories of public and private work and address the public’s needs by improving access to social services. The Home for All section of the performance dashboard offers a map of affordable housing that highlights shelters, affordable rentals and proposed new sites. The county’s data is also being used in stories to drive outreach of human services agencies for food assistance with maps of food banks and instructions on how to apply for assistance programs.

Your message is more than just numbers. Putting your data into a story through modern technology provides all stakeholders with critical context. This leads to successful agency outcomes as well as innovative partnerships and improved communities.

Meredith Trimble is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She is a former municipal official and Town Council Acting Chair, who focused on strategic planning, annual budgeting, and bonded infrastructure projects. Her government experience also includes posts in both federal and state-level executive branch agencies: Associate Editor of the U.S. Federal Election Commission’s FEC Record; and Director of Education for the CT Office of State Ethics. In her current role as a Senior Content Specialist with Tyler Technologies, Inc., she writes content to help empower those who serve the public. You can read her posts here.

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