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Reading Data as Narrative

How Narrative affects our "design" of data, and vice versa.

Joshua Hill

on 13 November 2015

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Transcript of Reading Data as Narrative

Data as Narrative,
Narrative as Data

Dervin and Information
What all does the narrative we bring to the data affect?
When we are researching to prepare a data "story" for our presentation, we can ask:
Should I look at the data through the "standard story" (normal report, the usual suspects)...
Or might I need to look at the data differently to move toward a "paradigm shift," a new story altogether, a set of hidden connections?
The question:

What can we do to open up the "usual" Narrative so that we can "design" the data in a way that may be more true or useful for the current needs of our audience?
Do facts impose themselves on us?
Or do we impose our preconceived ideas on the world, so "facts" are really just ideas in our heads?
Dervin says "yes." The world is both "orderly and chaotic."
"Information" is not so much "transferred" like a product as it is (always) "designed" by the ones looking for it and looking at it.
For this "designed" information to be useful in a social setting (aka, a company meeting), it must be negotiated through communication. It is interactive.
Dervin offers a "sense-making" procedure of questioning as one "type" of interface. Duarte offers a specific "type" of narrative structure as the ideal sense making interface. Tufte offers some specific principles of visual communication to construct ideal visual interfaces with readers.
Critique: Though Dervin does a good job of explaining the need for interactivity in information design and the co-constructed nature of information communication, she does not talk as much about the shared narratives or stories that we are all already a part of. We have to deal with these underlying narratives that STRUCTURE OUR THINKING in order to even figure out what data to present.

What narratives structure our thinking about, for example, a Coca-Cola bottle?
Therefore, the best designs in information communication are the ones that provide the best interface for the relevant parties to co-design, co-create information. Information communication is all about engineering the social interaction in which a shared set of "information" is created through communication.
Philosophical concept for set of background expectations about the way the world works, and thus what events we anticipate, what chains of cause-and-effect make sense to us, and what the ultimate goal or "good" is that we work toward.
Recent influential theorists: Charles Taylor (
Sources of the Self
Ethics of Authenticity
A Secular Age
) and Alasdair MacIntyre (
After Virtue
Whose Justice? Which Rationality?
We never see facts "directly" but always through the lenses of our pre-existing expectations, which are shaped by the narratives we have inherited and the narratives we have been socialized into.
Examples: Medical school syndrome (learning narratives of diagnoses, early medical students find themselves "sick" with numerous diseases); UFO syndrome (UFO and abduction reports mirror the UFO books and movies that come about in the decade before); New car syndrome (after we buy a "unique" car, we suddenly see it on the road everywhere).
Most narratives, though, are more "below the surface," hard to see. The "education leads to success" narrative is one that is rarely "seen" because we take it for granted. This makes it hard to see the counterexamples to the narrative.
Thomas Kuhn
It determines...
what data we actually "see"
what data we consider more important
what causal connections we make btw data points
what further data we look for
what we consider "proven" or "unproven"
As long as our narrative or paradigm 1) fits our practical needs and 2) isn't challenged from another strong perspective, it reigns (for better or worse)
For worse: scientists spent the 1800's collecting "evidence" about the innate differences between "races."
Reading Data like a Mystery Novel
Reading like a Private Eye
1. First, round up "the usual suspects," the normal interpretations, so that you can look beyond them
2. Use data mining tools (and, alas, time) to look for patterns in precisely measured data that, normally, you would consider irrelevant
3. Partner up with someone who looks at the world from a radically different viewpoint, and get as many different perspectives on the data as you can--interview experts and non experts
4. Ask about the "motive"--what should a good interpretation of the data "do" for your audience? What purpose does it serve?
before we can create a Duarte-esque story that speaks effectively to our audience,
we have to take a close look at the information we intend to present...
- what narrative is our data following?
- are there different narratives/paradigms that we should look for?
- is there data that we are not "seeing," even though it is in front of our eyes?
- are there connections we aren't "seeing," even though they are there?

WHEN OUR PRESENTATIONS need to be "game-changers," not run-of-the-mill reports, this is the pre-work that helps us FIND THE RIGHT STORY TO TELL
Chapters 16-17: Reflecting on Romans' misplaced idealization of country life, Gordianus travels to Ameria, learning in a tavern along the way that Mallius Glaucia and his bloody knife had been there the morning after the murder. Also, he learned that the murder charge had been contradicted by Roman troops announcing that Roscius had been "proscribed" as an enemy of the state, making all his valuable lands forfeit to the state and its friends.
The changed values of Rome are seen in the changed country life and in the father-son tension between the innkeeper and his father.
In Ameria, Gordianus found out from Carus, an old Roscius family slave, that the lands had been mainly bought by Chrysogonus, a powerful Roman and favorite of the Dictator Sulla.
The urbanization of Roscius old country house showed the shift in values from rural to urban and pretentious.
Chapters 18-29: Gordianus learns from a neighbor that Roscius, elder, had a long feud with his cousins Capito and Magnus, who both profited from the murder. The town elders took a petition against the proscription to Chrysogonus, but nothing was done. Carus tells Gordianus that Elena had been there, was treated shamefully, and disappeared after giving birth. The baby died, and Gordianus learns later that Elena died soon too. Back in Rome, Gordianus is almost killed by a "bodyguard" supposedly sent from Cicero--confirming that there is a leak in their group. Tiro's secret affair comes out because he has been telling Roscia everything. Confronting her, Gordianus finds that her father is abusive. To interview Roscius's old slaves, Gordianus infiltrates Chrysogonus's house during a party for Sulla. Almost caught, they escape by jumping a balcony.
Fraud, political inaction, sexual abuse, assassination attempts, family against family--this is the portrait of Roman society. Cicero, interestingly, doesn't want most of this sleuthing because he "has enough for his case."
Chaper 30-31: Gaius Eruscius, the prosecutor, makes his speech based on innuendo, the horror of parricide, and a veiled political threat. Cicero insists that a parricide conviction must have clear evidence, which this one does not, and asks WHO BENEFITS. Taking the answer to that question directly to Chrysogonus, Cicero praises traditional values while excoriating the acquisitive values of this man and his henchmen. While the speech was going on, there was another attempt on Gordianus's life, and he is saved a second time by Tiro.
Though interrupted by that murder attempt, Cicero's speech is a keystone of the conflict of values inherent throughout the novel--the good man as good orator seeking a healing of the torn social fabric of Rome, starting with the clearing of the name of Sextus Roscius.
Kuhn's "paradigms" in science are roughly equivalent to what
other theorists call "narratives." The Ptolemaic paradigm worked
for thousands of years, then came Copernicus's shift, then
Newton's shift, then Einstein's. Each paradigm does not
so much "build on" the others as "replace" them. What
counts as information is relative to the paradigm/narrative.
One of these mismatched detectives knows how to
use the library to connect medieval literature to modern crimes...
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