Hitchhiking Down the Data Story Telling Highway

Measure of American & DATA2GO: Data Story Telling on the Rise

(tl’dr: Telling a story about how we connect about telling stories.)

I recently enrolled in a course at the Knight Center’s Journalismcourses.org, “Data Exploration and Storytelling ( January 16 – February 26, 2017 )”. Why? As a composition teacher and as a writer, I find myself in need of the tools that help my readers understand data beyond text. In other words I need to become a better data storyteller.

In the forum where we introduce ourselves to each other I met Vartika Sinha. She cited as her inspiration a YouTube video by Ben Wellington for TEDxBroadway, “ Making Data Mean More Through Storytelling”. I watched it and was inspired myself. I immediately shared it with someone I know who is constantly trying to tell stories with maps, Daniel Bassill, and his organization, the Tutor/Mentor Institute.

I shared this video using Vialogues because it is such a simple tool for connecting across the gaps. Here it is.

(This video annotation service is free. If you wish to comment, then sign up. It is amazing.)

While there is no set protocol for doing this video annotation, typically, the originator of the vialogue will do their annotation, others will do their annotation, and then there will be threaded conversation and replies. Of course, we broke the ‘rules’. I did about five minutes worth of annotation and then Dan did the whole video. We are still working our way toward replies to each other’s notes.

There was one reply from Dan I could not ignore. His last note pointed me to a post about DATA2GO.NYC, a data visualization tool created by Measure of America (MoA). The article, “Connecting the Dots Toward Well-Being”, fit perfectly into the course I spoke of at the beginning of this post so I took some time to use my old skool annotation tool, Diigo, to dig deeper, to summarize, and to make sense of and perhaps internalize some of MoA’s discoveries about data storytelling. Here is a link to a Hackpad with my notes.

One of the themes in all my writing is the idea of working out loud. I am a firm believer in observing, describing and reflecting upon this mostly unseen and unremarked upon rhizomatic mat of connection. This particular riff above fits an idea that has been circulating to the top of my mind lately—the lowly hitchhiker. I am not referring to the lost art of hitching a ride, but rather to the weed seeds they call ‘hitchhikers’ in my neck of the hollar.

Hitchhiking is an evolutionary adaption by seeds to become more widespread. Humans link them to invasive species because it is such an effective survival trick. We call them weeds, but really they are just survivors. The suggestions the Measure of America makes I believe are ones that are intended to make data more ‘hitchhiker-ly’.

Some data is naturally ‘sticky’, but mostly, it slides off of our attention and understanding, falling to the ground, failing; however, the emotion of ‘story’ helps it stick. The data is the meat of the seed. It is the reason for telling the story. It is the DNA of meaning that we need to spread. We make information sticky in several ways. We make them useful or interesting, but the best way seems to be by enclosing them in a sticky story.

I am looking forward to learning a lot about data storytelling in my course. You can join with us here. It’s free in some ways but I suspect it will become very sticky, very soon.

How to remove small burrs, hitchhikers or sticky weeds from clothing.

Short helpful video on removing small burrs or hitchhikers from clothing after a trail run or hiking instead of picking them out one by one.

Every Force Evolves a Form: A Tale of Two Clothespins

I have been reconsidering a deep idea lately. It’s not my idea. It’s Shaker founder, Mother Ann Lee’s vision.  She argued that every force evolves a form. Writer Guy Davenport elaborates, “A work of art is a form that articulates forces, making them intelligible.”  For the Shakers, the force of dignity articulated as the invention of the modern broom but it also created an egalitarian society of believers.  For the Shakers, simplicity shook out as a force articulated in every aspect of their lives from architecture to furniture to music to dance.

I think this idea is as handy as a handle on a skillet. Let’s look at two clothespins.img_3418-2

The clothespin on the right is a classic example of mass produced consumer products that only marginally does its job.  You can pin up lightweight clothes with them, but who uses clothespins for that anymore? Very few folks.  I live near Amish communities and I see lots of work clothes spanking on their lines on wash day.  There is no way they are using the cheap, easy-come-easy-go pins that we see on the right. What force has evolved that form?  Consumerism. Throwaway culture. No sense of history or need or long-term consequence.

I remember my mother had a clothespin bag that came in and out with the laundry.  Such a lovely memory of working to help her hang out the bed clothes and blouses and jeans with patched knees and all the rest.  I was the only one she let borrow her clothespins to make the old bedsheets into my ‘reading tents’. She knew I would always bring them back.  And you never ever let them get rained on.  They were heritage, heirlooms from my father’s mother.  And they worked for the heaviest cloth on the line as well as the lightest. I wonder where they have gotten to.

I looked for regular commercial clothespins for years.  They were all made someplace under duress and under the thumb of the bottom line. The forces they evolved from were very simple: make them as cheaply as possible with as little care for durability as could be managed.  They were built to fail quickly not endure.  I would say they were “obsolescence planned”, but they didn’t even have that amount of care lavished on them.

I finally found what I was looking for. It is the clothespin on the left. It has evolved from an opposite force. It’s hand made. They aren’t cheap. They arose from a desire to craft something durable to pass on into the future.  They arose from a real need.

Yet…their design is exactly the same. How can we explain this difference?

Every force evolves a form.

Now…how can we extend that into the world of learning?  What forces have formed our current educational forms?  What forces make the best forms?  These are among the questions I will be exploring. I would love to have your help. Perhaps the form that arises from our collaborative force is just what our learner are looking for?

A picture of a boy hanging from a clothesline by a series of clothespins attached to his shirt and pants.
Real clothespins


Unconditional Love, The Facts



I love the satire here, gliding like a grinning dolphin below the surface. Add something true and honest like love to anyone’s life and what do you get–something unexpected, unknown before but not now, and profoundly unquantifiable. Yes, these infographics bust open the idea of unconditional love as a quantifiable. Not going to happen. These graphs are pure poetry.

The term ‘unconditional love’ is usually taken to mean something like ‘altruism’ — an emotion or attitude directed towards something, a child, ‘humanity’ or ‘God’, or whatever. This is a lovely idea and there may be a lovely truth to it, but it obscures a far more important sense of the expression — an experience of love that is not caused by anything.

Is it possible to experience love, a sense of vivid joy, a sense of grateful giving over of the self, a sense of soft-edged surrender — or however you want to describe it — for no reason at all? Could there be such an experience that is innate, basic to consciousness even?

As with anything of fundamental importance, either it is true for you, or it is not. Either you have experienced such love — or somewhere smouldering in your bones, sense that it is in reach — or you haven’t. Either the facts of unconditional love will strike you as silly, made-up, an exercise in creative expression, or there will be a tang of truth in them.

unconditional love

This study was carried out by a team of experts in the burgeoning field of Unconditional Love Studies. These experts, trained in rupturing acts of insane generosity, daily hour-long orgasms of sublime clarity, sweeping the room as it should be done, letting go of moodies and having-to-be-right and knuckling down for years in service to the greater good, were sent into the field to investigate attitudes towards unconditional love and experiences of it. They made strange and delightful discoveries.










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