Michael Brenner is a designer and educator. He is currently Head of Design at DATA4CHAN.GE, which is a non-for-profit organization that helps civil society organizations create data driven advocacy campaigns. Before this he was Design Director at Beyond Words Studio. His approach to design focuses on creating tools and experiences to amplify voices, messages and ideas. It is holistic and research driven with an intent to clarify and engage to create perspective.
In this week’s episode, Michael and I talk about the various projects and programs Data4Change is conducting, how to use good data in developing areas, and what it means to tell stories with data.
If you want to help support the show, please consider becoming a Patreon supporter! You’ll get sneak peeks and other goodies. And if you’re interested in checking out new data visualization and presentation books, check out this Amazon list I pulled together.

Episode Notes

Tools | RAW | Infogram


Welcome back to the PolicyViz podcast. I am your host, Jon Schwabish. On this week’s episode, we are going to talk about doing good with data really is what we are going to talk about. We are going to talk about how we can improve the world using data, and to help you do so I am very excited to have my good friend Michael Brenner who is the head of design at DATA4CHAN.GE in London.

Jon Schwabish: Michael, how are you? Good to talk to you. What’s going on?

Michael Brenner: Thanks Jon. It’s great to be here and to talk to you as well. Yeah, things are well, and yeah it’s been some time since we’ve spoke in person, but thanks for having me on. And shall we jump into it?

JS: Yeah. Well, first let’s give people context because we met at the [inaudible 00:00:56] Conference in 2017 or [inaudible 00:00:59] it’s unclear.

MB: Yeah, it’s still unclear how to pronounce.

JS: [inaudible 00:01:02]. We were on a journey together doing the interactive pieces with on a flag from Marshall Project and Javier [inaudible 00:01:11] was there although she was on the other jury and I’d say we had a pretty good time.

MB: Yeah, absolutely, 900 projects in – what was it – two days was quite a trek.

JS: Yeah. And at the time you were doing studio work in London and I moved over to DATA4CHAN.GE, so maybe you can give folks a quick Brenner bio and let us know where you’ve come from and where you are now.

MB: Yeah, so a quick kind of background, I am classically trained as a graphic designer, received a BA from the [inaudible 00:01:50] it was back in 2005 and worked in New York for quite some time [inaudible 00:01:58] doing mostly editorial and exhibition work, and then started working with a small studio in Brooklyn called Management Design where I kind of fell into the infographic and then visualization realm at the time. This was still when things were mostly done by hand, pre wrought, pre [inaudible 00:02:21] the programs, and even I think of the [inaudible 00:02:26] even before the New York Times had [inaudible 00:02:29] we were doing a lot of op-eds for them on the Iraq and Afghanistan War during the [inaudible 00:02:35] pieces for them about soldiers and civilian deaths in conflict at the time. And then moved to the Netherlands, had a small studio there, then moved to London where I was on the team [inaudible 00:02:53] for two and a half, almost three years, and then I just recently moved to DATA4CHAN.GE.

JS: Nice. Tell us a little bit about DATA4CHAN.GE. How many people do you have there and what’s the mission?

MB: Right now we are currently three people, it’s Stina Backer who is head of content and Bronwen Robertson who is head of data and myself who is head of design, and the three of us right now are, you know we are still trying to figure out what DATA4CHAN.GE is and where it’s going to go because it’s just recently incorporated as an not for profit, but right now at its core DATA4CHAN.GE is a five-day workshop that brings together a trade of talent and CSOs from around the world in an [inaudible 00:03:41] and works for their original [inaudible 00:03:44] data to create [inaudible 00:03:49] in the hopes of impacting the change for those type of people that CSOs are working with. And so our CSOs are [inaudible 00:03:57].

JS: We got all the abbreviations. So, let’s start with where you’ve gone so far because it’s not like you are roaming around the UK doing this, these are countries in Africa and some other places. And then maybe you can paint a picture for us of how a five-day workshop works for this sort of work.

MB: Sure. So, since its inception in 2014, to date we’ve done seven workshops and we’ve worked with a total of 27 civil society organizations in 65 human rights activists. We’ve received over a 1022 applications and in that time we’ve put together a 141 Data Viz professionals. And it’s taken place primarily right now in the MENA region which is the Middle East and North Africa, we’ve done a couple of workshops in Beirut, we just recently finished one in the modern Jordan and we’ve also held two workshops in Kampala. And so basically what DATA4CHAN.GE is, is it’s a five-day workshop and participants come together from a selected body of talented – because we have no one to call for it and so we put together data journalists, we’ve put together researchers, we’ve put together developers, designers and team leaders to basically come together and work with these original datasets to find key messages and ideas from specific civil society organizations to help promote their causes. And basically, [inaudible 00:05:34] the civil society organizations a chance to work with creative teams because they may not have access to, to be able to walk away with a very high level and rendered prototype at the end of the five days. And then basically what we do is depending on where the projects are and depending on involvement with the team and how [inaudible 00:05:53] that they are about it. We will find further funding to fully realize those projects and launch them into the world.

JS: So these are CSOs who, they have a project that they want to start, they don’t have the teams or the skill sets to do it and so they apply to DATA4CHAN.GE and you guys are convening all of the experts both in terms of the technology and the subject matters to bring folks together to help build these websites or tools or what have you?

MB: Correct. I think one of the key benefits of DATA4CHAN.GE is that we also, we bring together international talent and local talent in reaching so that we have perspectives from all various areas so that we can really craft and also, yeah, craft very sensitive and impactful projects. So it’s not just people coming thing and say, “Oh we should do this,” it’s definitely very considerate in terms of what needs to be done and one of the great things of the workshop is [inaudible 00:07:02] all egos are really left at the airport and everybody comes willing to work towards a common vision in terms of getting whatever the needs are with CSO out there. And everybody was very willing and very open in the environments and I think that that’s one of the key benefits to the space that we create with DATA4CHAN.GE, it’s really a truly collaborative experience. I know that sometimes when you are in studio environment or you are in your house environment, to be able to express ideas sometimes are met with challenge, but here we really make it a point and make it a [inaudible 00:07:40] explicit point that this is a [inaudible 00:07:46] this is a stage for many ideas and it doesn’t matter how crazy it is out there, of course safety is an issue especially when dealing with particular topics in particular regions. But generally so far we’ve had very few projects that have let’s say once we have [inaudible 00:08:07].

JS: That’s good. Can you tell us a story of one of the meetings that you’ve done so far?

MB: Yeah. I think one of the most interesting projects that we’ve had so far with one of the CSO teams from Yemen and basically they had a very robust status that [inaudible 00:08:31] Yemenis perceptions and they had a very unique design challenge and the fact that electricity was sparse, internet it provides [inaudible 00:08:41] which is also sparse and the country is fragmented by a civil conflict right now. And so they want to get this data out to other Yemenis people and also to local authorities so that they can better serve and help local people to try to make life continue as best as possible, it was very difficult time period in Yemen. So they came to the workshop with basically massive sets of survey data from about I believe 4000 respondents which was roughly 150 questions. And it was an equal slip between men and women so I would say that given the methodology that they’ve used they have a very robust and set methodology even down to the questionnaire design even pre-testing that to make sure that things are clear and there’s no one to understand the questions where if there is this understanding what caused that and does that derive a new question. So they [inaudible 00:09:40] you get a way to get it out into Yemen and the design team came up with a very, very fabulous solution in terms of not only individualization of the data which [inaudible 00:09:56] there’s another kind of design challenges that 35% of the population in Yemen is illiterate and now that schools are closing that statistic is due to rise even more. So how do you see also design data visualizations for people who can [inaudible 00:10:14] everything else? So that was also a very, very good factor.

And so after the design team and the CSO representatives sat down a couple of hours, they had hashed up that, there’s still a large contingents of people who like to meet and discuss their daily lives every day and basically that people share a lot of files and use Bluetooth on their phones, so the group came up with an idea of taking USB hubs or [inaudible 00:10:44] and basically carrying them into little localized networks that people could connect to and distribute information that way. It can be run off a small solar panel, and basically there’s a whole site that was designed with the data visualization and a curated set of questions from that but that were then also recorded and let’s say described to someone who basically is illiterate so that they can still look at the visuals and understand what’s going on.

And with that website basically they were able to also figure out a way of compressing audio, all the data files and the codes in HTML into a small package, I believe it was something around [inaudible 00:11:29] that could be then uploaded to the [inaudible 00:11:30] that could have been distributed out into the field and then people in fields, local populations, local council leaders, local governors could go to these data hub spots and download that website virtually on their phone and pass it around but still be able to look and see what the needs of people are in their government, what’s happening on national level.

JS: Wow, that’s impressive. So you mentioned that this group brought in their own data and I am curious how you think about issues about data quality. We are always telling people, you know make sure you understand your data, you read the dictionaries, this and that, you explore it, so with five days and a group coming in with the survey data that they’ve collected how do you think about dealing with the data quality issues?

MB: So to get people up to speed, so I am going to backtrack a little bit, and then we will get back to the question. One of the things that we do do with free workshop is that we set up [inaudible 00:12:36] channels, and the team basically needs about two weeks prior to start looking at data and start gaining some insights on the data so that it’s not a complete cold start. So they do have a little bit of onboarding into the dataset [inaudible 00:12:54] the experience prior. However, it’s not that everybody is really sitting at the table that you can really start to fully understand, start to find the objectives and desired outcomes for the projects and what the key messages are, and get back to your question about data quality, with this particular improvement actually with most of the CSOs that we work with for the workshop, they generally have exceptionally high quality data because they have a lot of people in the field collecting data. And so one of the things actually that was another key component to this project in Yemen was that we also created a survey [inaudible 00:13:30] for the CSO there that this was [inaudible 00:13:34] at the backend of the website that people can then go to the hubs and actually they can use surveys of the field, the surveys to be answered at the hub via a local [inaudible 00:13:45] WiFi connection or LAN connection, and all the results have soared on that and are locked away so that they can’t be tampered with. So that’s another way for them to collect data in this field, rather than having to send people into very precarious situations which you now are [inaudible 00:14:02] there. If we have [inaudible 00:14:04] data issues which so far, knock on wood, have been almost none, of course like any other Data Viz project, we try to find supplementary data that is part of the realm in which the CSO is operating and that they can then use, because one of the other traps while the [inaudible 00:14:24] are working during the workshop, CSOs also receive training on their visualization skills, editorial skills and basically the visualization design language but also the basics of 101 of Data Viz tools such as [inaudible 00:14:42] Infogram to be able to produce Data Viz in their work, once they return back to their [inaudible 00:14:49]. And we are also giving them some training on methodologies and how to collect better data and that is one of the bigger objectives that DATA4CHAN.GE would like to set up just to be able to provide a standard kit of data collection methodologies that can be followed so that should any of the CSOs data wind up let’s just say off work [inaudible 00:15:16] that it is, that it would sense that [inaudible 00:15:24]. And I would say that a lot of the gains that we’ve worked with so far would withhold that pretty well.

JS: It’s kind of amazing really like it’s a whole toolkit for these small groups. So once you’ve provided them with a prototype for a project, a website, a new data collection tool, you’ve provided them with some basic training in data visualization, data analytics, whatever it maybe, then the event ends and they go on, what have you all found the groups need going forward – I mean, presumably they are coming to you because they don’t have the skill sets that they need, so now after the event ends, what has the experience been from these groups that have come to you for help?

MB: Well, so far we’ve continued support for them and we try to basically tap into our local networks there, because the network now is rounding 150 plus Data Viz professionals around the world that we can then tap into those local Data Viz professionals in country to continue to help these groups and to continue to help the CSOs with their further needs. We do some provide and we are still in contact with many of the CSOs and help them through the situations and provide further training for them. They do get a toolkit post workshop where they have continued access to Infogram, where they have continued access to shorthand, and to the gracious sponsorship of a lot of places like Infogram and shorthand that they allow access to continue to those tools.

JS: Right. One of the other things I noticed on the DATA4CHAN.GE website is a focus on storytelling and data storytelling and as you and I have talked about in the past and as people who have looked at my site know this is sort of a key interest for me of what do we mean by storytelling and I can imagine, I can easily imagine what the sort of work that you are all doing that engages with stories but I am curious how you all view what that freeze means and what it means when you are working with some of these groups of these developing countries?

MB: So this is of course the topic that’s how it could be, and I know that storytelling from my personal opinion is done very seldom and very thoroughly with data visualization and I think that that really only happens at a granular level when you start really digging into the data and take a couple of data points that seem like there’s something there behind it, and once you want to start packing what’s behind that data point or what’s behind that, yeah whatever that data point is, that’s when you start getting into the storytelling aspect of it. Of course there are stories to tell and there are voices that come along with these datasets, but for example if you are looking at a broad contextual view of a dataset and you are presenting that I don’t necessarily think – I guess, it will depends on the presentation and how it’s delivered but I think it’s really that the storytelling aspect comes at that granular level when you start figuring out the stories behind it and providing a platform for that. So it’s a little bit of general context or overview with specificity that’s when you can start to kind of craft storytelling in data. They maybe one of the better ways to look at, at least for me are data driven stories which aren’t necessarily data stories but you are looking at a dataset and there’s something behind it and there’s a general context of seeing that goes with it, you know we have a tendency to call it data driven advocacy campaigns because sometimes we look at the data, but the data is necessarily taken from stage for that campaign, but inspires another type of action. With the Yemen example, where the real innovation is, this is how we get the data. The data is of course important and visualization of it is important of course but that 35% literacy rate that’s also important on how you can work that. But in terms of a data visualization story, I wouldn’t necessarily call that, I would call it more of a platform that people can develop to get insights. And so, if we are really looking at data visualization and story [inaudible 00:19:53] I think probably one of the best examples would [inaudible 00:19:58] what he was doing, as he was able to unpack a lot of information but in such a way that it provided him perspectives and it gave sure new insights into things, while digging into the data. And whether it be a country level or whether it be on more specific level, like [inaudible 00:20:18] I think that those are more types of things that I might consider to be data stories, and specifically within the data for change, projects that come out and the prototypes there are instances where there’s elements of storytelling with data and there are data driven stories, but I wouldn’t say that all the projects are there.

JS: Right. I mean, I think we totally agree, we’ve talked about this…

MB: We are in this [inaudible 00:20:51].

JS: And you mentioned Rosling, which I wanted to highlight not just because of the way I think he did a great job of really doing a good job of telling stories, but he has this book he published after he passed away, Factfulness, about how our perceptions about progress in the world are generally distorted or incorrect and I am curious when you are bringing people together, so you are bringing these experts from all over the world into developing countries like Yemen, I am curious about do you find that the people you are working with who are from outside Yemen or maybe even from outside the international development area, do you find that they have misconceptions about the culture or the politics or the economy or the work that you are doing in these countries?

MB: This is kind of one of the most interesting aspects of DATA4CHAN.GE is running together an international community, running together a local community to work on these projects because I think if you find that a lot of what’s totted in mass media obviously isn’t necessarily the facts on the ground and these are [inaudible 00:22:10] moments but not bad, and it’s not judgmental in anyway but there’s this, hey, you know what, we are actually world people and we are all after the same thing, we are all looking for similar ways of living, we are all looking for similar ideas, and going after very similar things, so let’s just jump into it and do it together. But, there’s never been a moment where there’s then let’s say any type of disrespect but it’s been more illuminating I would say for…

JS: But someone just doesn’t know about…

MB: Yeah, there’s lots of cultural aspects and I also still learn, I mean I am also very new to this as well. And so that there’s, you know that’s why it’s very important to have local talent and also can work with the CSOs because simple things like color can have a huge impact, simple things such as basic words that we would take for granted they have a completely different meaning and they are not in context or like I said before colors, even shapes, so it’s very important to have those different perspectives at the same table to make sure that we are sensitive but we are also producing these impactful campaigns.

JS: Right. Well, on that hopeful note, which is great, I think that’s – I am excited about what you are all doing, so on that hopeful note let me thank you for coming on the show, I am really excited to see what you are going to do over there and the type of work and projects that you work on. So Michael thanks a lot for coming on the show, I appreciate it.

MB: Thank you so much. And one last little club, there is a possibility where we are still in the works of it, but keep your eyes out on our social media because we are looking, and it’s still [inaudible 00:24:02] to put together a DATA4CHAN.GE in South Africa hopefully in the spring of 2019.

JS: Great. Well, I will link to the DATA4CHAN.GE site and the Twitter feed and the social media stuff for those who are interested. Sign up, take a look and hopefully more of us can get involved and travel out to exotic locales and help out. Exotic for me, maybe not for other people, but exotic for me. All right, very good. Well, thanks for coming on. It’s great.

MB: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

JS: And thanks to everyone for tuning in this week. We talked about a lot of things, so there will be a lot of links on this week’s episode. Be sure you check out what’s going on at DATA4CHAN.GE and see if you can get involved especially if they are doing workshops relatively close to you, it might be a great to get involved. So until next time, this has been the PolicyViz Podcast. Thanks so much for listening.