Technology Salon


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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

How to Use Digital Storytelling for Better Development


What does digital storytelling mean to you? Where do you find data? What form does your data take? Who’s your audience? How do you know what data you need? These questions were the focus of the February Technology Salon Denver held at the Posner Center for International Development.

The event on Digital Storytelling brought together development professionals based in the Denver and Boulder areas. The Tech Salon highlighted Denver’s growing number of international development focused organizations, experts and academics working in the areas of data science, monitoring and evaluation, and audio-visual video production – all with an interest in helping better tell the story of what international development is about and its impact.

The Salon discussion was led by:

Eric kicked off the discussion by highlighting the double-edged nature of data science, using compelling visuals to illustrate that the way the data is presented makes all the difference. He first showed the famous map created by John Snow during the 1854 cholera outbreak in London which displayed a distinct clustering of cholera deaths around a single well. Snow’s clear presentation of meaningful data identified the source of the outbreak and saved thousands of lives. Eric contrasted Snow’s work with examples featuring an overwhelming number of data points or a skewed axis, suggesting that the way data is presented changes its value and impact.

John Snow’s clustering of cholera deaths (left).  Twitter tweet map (right)

John Snow’s clustering of cholera deaths (left). Twitter tweet map (right)

Erin’s presentation posed important questions about ways we can increase the value of the visual qualitative data we collect. She proposed that the narrative our organizations strive to present gains value if it’s constructed through collaboration with the communities whose story we’re trying to tell. By sending an employee to the field with a script, we limit the scope of the narrative we’ll create to the perspective of outsiders.

Including the communities we work with in the storytelling process is empowering and increases engagement, side effects whose positive impact isn’t limited to a single storytelling project. Additionally, Erin suggested that the quality of our storytelling could benefit from seeking innovative sources of information and images, for example, social media platforms or the cell phones of members of rural communities.

These presentations kicked off a lively discussion that covered an array of important topics for consideration as we return to our respective organizations to begin the storytelling process. For example, it was suggested that all of us, whether we work with spreadsheets of quantitative data or archives of photo and video, are curators in some way. Our involvement introduces biases and imposes a context on the stories we tell, whether we mean to or not.

Even if we engage communities to tell their own stories, we run the risk that they’ll begin to see themselves through the lens of our organization. Collaboration with other local groups presents a possible solution; perhaps our biases will cancel one another and our combined perspectives will broaden the scope of our projects, allowing us to gather a better understanding of all the community’s needs, not just the ones we know how to immediately address.

The Salon ended on a collaborative note as we created a list of useful resources to investigate for future storytelling projects – some of these are highlighted below.

  • CartoDB is an excellent tool for visualizing and analyzing geospatial data. Available at a variety of price points depending on your needs, CartoDB makes creating stunning maps and studying location data accessible without advanced training.
  • Coursera offers a 10-course specialization in data science. You can take any class independent of the others, or enroll in the specialization for a small fee and receive a certificate of completion when you finish.
  • CreativeLive features workshops in photography, video, design, business, audio, music, crafting, and software training. Take any of their live scheduled classes for free, or pay to unlock an archive of classes to meet your creative needs.
  • The GlobalGiving Storytelling Project equips organizations as they prepare to go into the field with the tools they need to gather stories as they work. They use storytelling as a feedback tool, guiding users to analyze their stories and use the results to improve their programs.
  • Hatch for Good is a tool supported by the Rockefeller Foundation that guides storytellers to strategically craft, curate, and share stories to drive social impact. Throughout the process, Hatch will suggest tools, case studies, and resources to help you achieve your storytelling goals.
  • Storify allows users to create stories using social media data. It allows for collaboration by multiple editors and has built-in tools to deliver a story directly to your audience.

By Susan Abbott, Independent Consultant, and Jessica Harig, Posner Center for International Development

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