Part I of 2
Viz for Social Good is hosting hackathons around the world for a volunteer partnership with Kiron, a non-profit based in Germany that supports refugees and their educational goals. We invite you to participate in a hackathon or on your own by joining this project, which closes on July 31, 2019. Don’t worry if you miss this date. There will also be future hackathons and projects after this one. In our hackathons hosted by local chapters of Viz for Social Good, people convene to make data-driven stories more accessible to wider audiences. People typically work from data provided by a non-profit or other socially conscious organizations. They also access a creative brief from the organization that outlines its goals, audience, branding standards, and all relevant data.
Typically, a Viz for Social Good hackathon occurs in a community space with small tables and limited time. You work with your peers in a “design dash” to take collected data and raw material, and then turn it into a vivid and shareable idea that meets the needs of the organization that posted the challenge. The final design could be a dashboard or an information graphic in a poster form, or something else depending on the needs of the project. Your work might not be resolved by the end of the hackathon — it probably will need more crafting, for instance. Yet you should be well on your way to discovering and developing an idea that’s asked the right questions and clearly communicates a response appropriate for the design challenge. In a hackathon, you’re being creative in a social context. Here, you arrive at a vivid and shareable solution where many possible solutions still exist.
You can read more from Amanda Patist about a recent Viz for Social Good/Kiron Hackathon in Amsterdam, which was also run with Data Plus Women Netherlands. Amanda talks about the lessons she learned in bringing a community together on behalf of Kiron and its mission of supporting refugees’ educational goals.
Let’s say you’re thinking of participating in an upcoming hackathon. What might happen? How can you incubate your creativity as an individual while also being productive in a group of unfamiliar people? Most likely, you’ll be using verbal, written, and visual mediums to bridge the gap between what’s going on in your own mind and the group.
Since we’re Viz for Social Good, here, we’re going to talk about how to use visualization as an idea-shaping tool in the social setting of a hackathon.
Visualization for individual and collective thinking, making, and reflecting
In a socially creative setting such as a hackathon, you can use visualization as a tool to shape ideas that might otherwise be foggy. Just like a carpenter might ply an array of tools to craft their raw idea into a coffee table or a bookshelf, people who work with data — numerical and conceptual in nature — need tools to give a shareable form to their ideas. As you navigate a complicated topic, visual thinking supports the same purposes as verbal modes of thought. You can use visualization to think, communicate, converse, collaborate, and co-create. Designer Dave Gray created a nifty sketch that shows these actions as stages. At the beginning stage, you’re making your ideas visual so that you can understand and validate them for yourself; at the highest stage, your visualizations are part of a co-creative process.
Visualization for thinking is all about how you talk to yourself, taking the thoughts in your mind and sketching them on pages and screens. Don’t get it right, the old saying goes, just write it down. Some people call this type of visualization “napkin sketching.” While in the past, creativity experts believed in the power of group brainstorming when offered a creative challenge, today our understanding of creative idea-making has evolved. First, experts suggest that people need to time to think for themselves before joining a group. The reason: we’re most free when we’re not worried about what other people might think of us, and we’re more able to come up with unconventional ideas without fear of external judgment.
Also, napkin sketching works well for the introverts in the room: it offers quieter tiptoes into communicating and conversing. These “thought sketches” aren’t aesthetic objects, to be framed and put up on the wall. Instead, you need to quickly consume and process them, like the old cartoons of writers surrounded by crumpled up pieces of paper. While some people run this stage as a timed session, it could work even better to let people naturally decide when they’re done with roughly sketching their thoughts.
A typical rough sketch might take thirty seconds or less to make. These sketches don’t need to make sense or be readable to anybody but yourself. If you’re working with a creative challenge, David McCandless of Information is Beautiful recommends that you jot down the topic in a headline form, the variables involved, and your goal, which needs to include your audience. If you’re unclear about your audience, Jonathan Corum of the New York Times recommends keeping both Bart and Lisa Simpson in mind. Bart will skim your visualization, while Lisa will want to dig into it deeply. Your visualization will ultimately need to work for both types.
Then, it often makes sense to begin by visualizing the six w’s, the fact-finding questions employed in journalism and other types of reports since the ancient Greeks invented them. These questions are idea-shaping tools too, like a spade that digs ever more deeply into the surface of an idea. Who, What, How much/many, Where, When, How and Why? Designer Dan Roam has shown how each of these questions can be answered in writing and also by a sketch of qualities or quantities. To take the aesthetic pressure off, you might even call these sketches doodles.
For Who and What, you can doodle a portrait so we understand the stakes involved. For Kiron, who are these refugees? What are their needs (a certificate or diploma, for instance, might work, but their needs might also be emotional and social, not just functional). Imagine their faces and humanize the data. For How much/many, you can draw a bar chart. How many refugees do they serve? How much education do they have compared to other groups? For when, draw a timeline or a line chart. Over time, how has Kiron’s work changed? What are the patterns or trends here? For Where, draw a map, which can be of concepts, entities, or locations. A map can show where the refugees come from, but you can also map out relationships, such as the relationship between what refugees say they want out of an education and what the data currently shows. Any sketch that uses position in space to clarify the story is a map.
How and Why might be more difficult to sketch — you can hold off on these sketches for now, as they often benefit from our other levels of visualization and verbalization — conversing, communicating, collaborating, and co-creating.