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March 23, 2010, 10 a.m.

“Fun with data”: Oxymoron no longer! And other lessons from Linda Fantin and Ellen Miller

Say the word “data” in the presence of the majority of Americans, and you’ll most likely be greeted with a blank stare/a glare/an eye roll/an audible sigh. For most people — though we here at the Lab respectfully disagree — data sets just aren’t that awesome.

What data sets are, though, of course, is incredibly valuable. And now that we have more access to more information than ever before, it’s incumbent on journalists and other civic educators to change people’s minds about data: to make raw information relevant for them. And engaging. And — no, seriously! — fun.

The fun factor was one of the many ideas raised in a recent discussion on “Government Transparency and Collaborative Journalism” at MIT. The talk, sponsored by the university’s Communications Forum and its Center for Future Civic Media, featured a conversation between two people who don’t need to be convinced of data’s value (or, for that matter, its fun factor): Linda Fantin, director of Public Insight Journalism at Minnesota Public Radio, and Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation.

“When I framed the event,” said Chris Csikszentmihályi, director of the Center for Future Civic Media and the conversation’s moderator, “I had originally thought that I would frame it as something like this: Sunlight as something that essentially takes information from the top down, at the federal government level, and makes it accessible to the public…and Public Insight Journalism, on the other hand, as something that takes information from the public, puts it together through journalists, and brings it back out. But I think what both of you are doing defies that kind of reduction.”

Indeed, both organizations’ approaches rely on breaking down information’s traditional top-down/bottom-up divide, merging micro- and macro- approaches in gathering, recording, and packaging data. They simply take different paths in the search for the same solution: Sunlight focuses, in general, on information that’s already recorded, but inaccessible — “We’re starting to say that information is only public if it’s online,” Miller noted — and the Public Insight Network focuses, in general, on gathering and analyzing information that is atomized. For both, the core question is public investment in the paths they’ve adopted; and last night’s talk — as so many things journalism-related tend to these days — returned, again and again, to the problem of engagement: how to earn it, how to build it, how to keep it. And also: how to balance journalism’s core mandate — providing narratives and takeaways that people can act on — with its tantalizing new ability to work collaboratively and iteratively with its public. It’s a question Fantin and Miller tackle head-on in their work: What’s the most effective way to marry journalism as a process with journalism as a product?

Sunlight, for its part, “has always been in the engagement business,” Miller noted. She gave a brief run-through of the multitude of sites the foundation has fostered — Fedspending.org, Party Time, the just-launched Public Equals Online, and many, many more — noting that “all of these sites are driven toward communities, to get them more engaged.” The idea is in some ways to take the “data” out of “data set”: to take a jumble of raw information and convert it into a coherent narrative that will be understandable and, yes, engaging to users. “There’s really one test in our office about whether something works,” Miller said: “If Ellen doesn’t get it within ten minutes, you have to go back.” As the audience laughed, she added: “It’s actually known as the ‘Ellen test.'”

That approach — get-ability, user-friendliness and, more broadly, the fostering of emotional connection with information — is central to both Sunlight and Public Insight Journalism. “Part of the thrill of journalism is the aphrodisiac of discovery,” Fantin pointed out: opening new doors, following new paths, learning new truths, etc. And one of PIJ’s goals is to leverage that excitement — to allow non-journalists to experience it, and to write it into journalists’ work. “Sometimes, just talking to people and listening to them can teach you which questions to ask.”

As for the question of collaboration — “Do you still need journalists to do refining and storytelling,” Csikszentmihályi asked, “or is it more a collaborative process?” — Fantin, a longtime print journalist before joining MPR, noted the core value of the declarative voice. “I hear people say all the time that journalism needs to be a conversation,” she said. “Well, I don’t think journalism is a conversation. I don’t think it’s a lecture, either.” It’s both at once. And we need journalists, she said — paid, professional journalists — who have the knowledge and expertise and “journalistic curiosity” to inject conversation into lecture, and lecture into conversation, in a way that clarifies narrative rather than muddling it. “There’s always a need for sense-makers,” she said.

Besides, “people we talk to in our network don’t want to do our jobs for us,” Fantin noted. Their desires, she said, are simpler than that: “They want to be invited into the process, and they want to share what they know.” They want to put their knowledge and expertise and experience and wisdom to work. “As Clay Shirky says, we’re in the middle of a revolution,” Fantin noted — and that revolution is predicated on the we’re-in-this-together approach that both PIJ and Sunlight embody.

“We are all moving into this era step by step,” Miller noted. “It’s okay to try something that doesn’t work.” The point is to try something. And to try something, more to the point, together. “This,” she said, “is a remarkable conversation to be having.”

POSTED     March 23, 2010, 10 a.m.
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