Monday, October 23, 2023
The Center is pleased to release this essay submitted as a part of its 25th anniversary challenge grant award competition.

Connecting, bridging, translating, and weaving are all common descriptions of how to bring together experts, data, and people. The latter, weaving, may be the most insightful, going beyond simple connection points by creating a loom that holds together the many elements required to bring about success as we bring data and evidence forward for the public good.

The hidden opportunity here involves recognizing and addressing a gap in understanding how to best use data and evidence in local government. Onboarding a new role, the data storyteller, can help close this gap and enable communities to harness data and evidence in a thoughtful and informed way. An individual with expertise in using and sourcing data, but who is also skilled at weaving together the framework for communicating and facilitating implementation, is a key asset to the success of the use of data and evidence in government. The “data storyteller” would bring a unique ability to understand data, ability to translate that into common language, and more importantly, to real world use. Skills in communication and specifically storytelling can help push a good idea across the line.

Technology advancements have brought change in terms of jobs, medicine, business, and more --technology has made an unfathomable impact on economies and societies. These advancements will almost certainly continue to abound; the ability to apply them well, in a useful, simple, and ethical way, is a critical need.

Technology has undoubtedly impacted local governments, but may lag the speed of technology adoption in other sectors. While this may occur for a variety of reasons, a key missing role may be to help blend science and real-life applications for the benefit of everyday citizens living in communities.

A data storyteller can paint a picture with data to help governmental decision-makers understand the gaps, opportunities, strengths, and current use of resources in a better, more informed way. Shared stories, experiences, and demonstrations can enable a transfer of knowledge and abilities to help extend the benefits of insights derived from data and evidence. Pairing robust data with the human resources necessary to tell a story will guide and better communities far into the future.

Storytelling can bring together information in a simple way, combining community insights and stories with visuals to help illuminate issues and solutions. Helping local officials and the public connect on a personal level by bringing about compelling insights and data also allows the community to visualize the urgency and generate the momentum needed to take action.

How could a data storyteller work with other local officials? In communities large enough to have a Chief Data Officer (CDO) or similar role, the data storyteller can work to understand the possible implications of data. Enhancing the message and awareness of the data is key, as is putting this into a visual, or everyday story that is easy to understand. In small communities without a CDO role, the data storyteller may both source and share stories with the help of its local team of officials and community champions. There may also be local partners, such as higher education institutions, chambers of commerce, and even the business or tourism industries, that might be able to share stories illustrated by data. For example, in a small city in Iowa, a local chamber of commerce has hired a “storyteller” as a part of its team to help the city focus on tourism and to promote welcoming newcomers. This example reflects the many different formats for storytelling, and the varied networks for a data storyteller to work with to boost community betterment.

The data needed to fuel these community stories abounds. Data can be found in a multitude of sources, to include administrative data, sensors, testing, photos, social media, mapping, and even paper documents. A storyteller can often convert what can often be overwhelming amounts of tangled and messy data, to explain a community’s challenges and opportunities and support betterment.

Technology, data sources, and methods continue to evolve and change. For this reason, new sources of data and new stories may become possible in the data storytelling world. As an example, generative artificial intelligence (gen AI) is an emerging source of information that can play an important role storytelling. Gen AI can help a data storyteller develop evidence-based and compelling information in support of community goals, and can help summarize vast quantities of data into a concise, insightful story. The data storyteller would need to take care to be sure the AI-generated information is accurate and credible to help shape and communicate the local message, not using such information as a copy-and-paste function. Local details could be added to help the story stand out to its intended audience.

Data storytellers must acknowledge and talk about the validity of the data they use. Whether local or federal, AI or data derived from other sources, part of the job of a data storyteller is to consider the risk and trustworthiness of the evidence being used to tell the story. The risk that abundant data misrepresents, distorts, or tells a “false” story is a possibility, whether or not intended by the storyteller. So, how can storytellers be sure that the data story represents the truth? While there is no one way to guarantee that a particular data source is without error, consider the following:

  • What is the source of the data? Is it a recognized, reliable, proven source of information?
  • How was the data collected? Can the public review or ask to see the methods?
  • If possible, contact the data source directly to ask about the data, and the information being considered.
    • Think about the data in context. Is it an appropriate application of the data? A well-recognized source of data could be queried, providing information about its applied context.
    • Take a close look at the data and any potential surprises. Try to look for reasons for these outliers. What fluctuations exist? Are there external factors that might also come into play?
  • Can more than one source validate the same or similar data?
  • Does the data set apply to the local circumstances? How is it similar or different?

A data storyteller must be aware of potential risks, differences in situations or demographics, or outside factors that may add error to their stories. Using faulty data can quickly undermine the trust and confidence in the local story being told. But with care, a storyteller can take measures to mitigate this risk. Part of the job of the storyteller is to know how to evaluate and use credible data to underscore stories and guide decisions in the interest of the public good.

For storytelling to matter in practice, a team must be willing to leverage new information, and communities must be able to change how they approach decision-making. Simply hiring a data storyteller without those important commitments will not yield practical improvement; but weaving together the expertise of the local officials with the support and guidance of the data storyteller can unlock powerful discoveries. By leveraging the power of information illustrated by data storytelling, communities can make choices that have great potential to enhance the quality of life and experience of their citizens.






Image by vectorjuice on Freepik