Part 2 of 2
In part one of this blog post, I talked about how visualization can work in hackathon settings. That begins with creating a space for creative thinking. And thinking begins with the individual. Yet telling stories with data is inherently social. For good causes, we often see the best results when diverse peoples convene to communicate, converse, collaborate, and co-create.
Below, you can read more about how visualization works like a language, supporting similar purposes as verbal language.
In visual thinking, your first step is to get your ideas down on the page for an audience of one: yourself. Clarity here means conceptual clarity. The threshold for clarity in structural and even formal ways rises when you’re using visualization for communication. Here, you direct communication toward an audience. The intention of the communication tends to be more emphatic in one direction, from the meaning-maker to the recipient.
When you’re in communication mode, most of the time, you’re concerned about being understood well in translating your thinking and intentions. You’re trying to find a balance between providing credible information for the mind and emotions for the heart, while also ensuring that your communication is handy: like a door knob, accessible for your intended audience.
Information without emotion feels like a report and might not strike the dramatic emotions needed in advocacy work, for instance, while emotion with too little information might feel less than credible for audiences that want explanations rather than advocacy. In visualization terms, this might mean conducting some research on other storytelling styles that work for your goals, which you can adapt for your own needs.
You can review napkin sketches with a filter in mind. Designer Brandy Agerbeck recommends a filter that’s a series of questions: what’s relevant, relational, and generative?
For Kiron, what’s relevant for the story you’re trying to tell? The team at Kiron provides a lot of contextual possibility here, from their own data to a UN report about refugees and education globally. What’s relational, meaning what fits into the context of the story? Is it important, for instance, to visualize findings that refugees benefit their local communities despite the politics of fear often aimed their way? Finally, what’s generative? What suggests new possibilities that extend your original idea in a purposeful, even exciting way? You want to leave some moments of discovery open here.
However, sketches that are out of scope by missing any of these criteria might get tossed aside here, while ones that meet these criteria are keepers. If the sketches seem unclear to anyone but yourself, if you have time, you can re-sketch them or clear them up. In a hackathon, however, you can share your sketch in conversation form. The sketch doesn’t need to stand alone: a picture doesn’t need to be worth a thousand words. Let words and pictures work together through a conversation with your hackathon peers.
The great thing about a conversation that’s supported by a clear enough sketch: people tend to debate the idea on paper or screen rather than you personally. As Brandy Agerbeck notes, sketches are simple, tangible, spatial, and enjoyable to share in a social context. They can ease interpersonal tensions. And if the sketch is rough, as it should be here, there’s a lot of research that shows a rough sketch invites more participation than one that’s more refined. It looks unfinished, which helps people imagine for themselves how to finish it.
A sketch is an idea-generating gift. People might even ask, What if we tried this? And you might even find they start sketching too. Here, conversing raises visualization to another level.
This is where hackathons can begin to catalyze creative possibilities. Quality conversation involves flows of dialogue that help people from diverse perspectives understand each other. They depend on listening and asking relevant questions even more than talking and providing immediate answers and solutions. Through conversing, participants ensure that the organization they’re supporting can review a hackathon product that has asked the right questions, determined an appropriate scope, and that has been enriched by the viewpoints of people from diverse backgrounds.
While conversing, writer Warren Berger believes you should ask the following beautiful questions:
- How can I see this with fresh eyes?
- What might I be assuming?
- Am I rushing to judgment?
- What am I missing?
- What matters most?
Run your guided sketches through these questions, and watch how they begin to change through the conversation. These questions, answers, and conversations provide the seeds for collaboration and co-creation. A seed might be a beautiful question that proposes a future idea, or a rough sketch that you know can be layered and developed. It’s packed with so much potential.
Yet the seed still needs elements like rich soil, sunlight, and rain to make it grow. And like a plant, ideas that might otherwise seem the same grow differently depending on the context in which they’re nurtured. Soil, sunlight, and rain are like the participants in any collaborative or creative group.
Collaborating & co-creating
Hackathons offer an ideal opportunity for collaboration and co-creation. Collaboration and co-creation are similar in that they are all about bringing together a community for a common cause. They differ, though. Collaboration emphasizes a plan. It’s more like a symphony.
Co-creation is more like jazz, where people burst with ideas that can only appear in the back-of-forth of creative play. In a hackathon, both modes of working exist. Too much planning might mean new ideas are overlooked; not enough planning can create chaos.
For both modes of working together, it helps to frame your challenge with a How Might We… question, an idea-shaping tool used in design thinking, at organizations such as IDEO and Stanford University. Here’s a popular breakdown of the question format: How is about the design of your idea. Might suggests there are many possibilities, which is generative and exciting to know. We suggests we’re all in this together in creating at least one such possibility.
Hackathons work well with teams of five people our less who can bring a diversity of perspectives to the table. These small teams can then report back to a larger group of people in the room. Hackathons are inspired by design thinking, a term popularized by creative makers that outlines a flexible process for innovation. In fact, design thinking is not about design in a traditional, aesthetic sense at all: it’s about innovating and putting human needs first. Here, you don’t have to immediately jump to a solution. By devoting yourself to a problem with a human need at its center, withholding answers, and distributing your ideas to a group, you hurry slowly toward a prototype.
A prototype is a design that helps reduce uncertainty by answering questions posed by the initial challenge. It’s meant to change over time. The big idea that Dan Roam details with his FOREST acronym: the best prototypes find a form, show only the essentials, are recognizable, evolve, span differences, and are targeted to a specific audience. Evolving happens through conversations that occur during collaborative and co-creative sessions.
Collaborating & co-creating in the design thinking mode
While many design thinking frameworks exist, such as this popular one from Stanford University, the one I like best for educational purposes comes from educator John Spencer. Together with AJ Juliani, they created the LAUNCH framework for students. I also think this works well in the “design dash” environment of a hackathon.
First, the authors discuss how a creative challenge benefits when the small group contains different types of makers. Some types of makers might be artistic types who enjoy imagining “what could be,” such a traditional graphic designers and illustrators. Others might be data geeks (data analysts or data journalists), point guards (people who enjoy project management, for instance), engineers (who really enjoy problem-solving the “what is”), or hackers, who prefer to take an existing idea or system and re-devise it for a new purpose — hopefully with the social good in mind. For data viz hackathons, one way to learn Tableau, a popular data viz tool, is to remix Tableau Public workbooks rather than begin from scratch. Check out this one by Rachel Costa from the Amsterdam Hackathon.
Many makers are hybrids of these types. I am, for instance, a proud artist-geek. The idea here is to convene your team around a framework that offers some guidance and milestones through the fuzziness of working creatively. Unlike a factory, where there’s a clear outcome, you don’t know what you’re going to get when you embark on a creative challenge. Spencer’s LAUNCH framework helps illuminate some possible steps to get to a product.
First, you listen and look at the problem presented to you. This involves understanding the topic, the variables, and your goal. Then you ask tons of questions. Then you understand the problem in a situated context through research. You sketch your ideas so that you can navigate them, sharing them with yourself and the group. Finally, you create our prototype. During small group feedback, you highlight changes and revisions, which can hopefully be done for further feedforward from the larger group.
The final step is LAUNCH itself, where you test pilot your prototype in the real world. You can do this by sharing you viz on twitter using our hashtag, #vizforsocialgood.
Hopefully, you’ll create a project that benefits Kiron and its mission of supporting refugees in attaining an education. At the same time, you might discover the benefits of vizzing for the social good. You might find a creative outlet for your empathy and curiosity. Todd Kashan, a psychology professor at George Mason University, believes curiosity is “joyous exploration: the recognition and desire to seek out new knowledge and information, and the subsequent joy for learning and growing.”
With that invitation to curiosity, we hope that you join our growing Viz for Social Good community to make a positive difference for yourself, your community, and our world.