Making Events Better

Most meetings and events suck.  I’m lucky enough to know lots of folks trying to make this better.  Recently Civic Media hosted Gunner from Aspiration Tech for a training on how to create and facilitate  participatory events. Afterwards I was inspired to reflect more on my own approach to facilitating the workshops and events I run. A key reflection for me was that I put a strong emphasis on the process of collaboratively making of things. Our Data Therapy workshops and events are “think with your hands” events.  Almost every topic is tied to a hands-on activity where you make something with your peers.  This is how we invite participants to engage in the material - through the process of making things.
our Data Therapy "Data Sculpture" invitation to make

our Data Therapy “Data Sculpture” invitation to make

A key role of the facilitator in any event, meeting, or workshop is get people engaged. As facilitators, we use a variety of techniques and tools to do this – creating many invitations for a diversity of participants.  I think about this as three categories of invitations: invitations to speak, invitations to move, and invitations to make.
We have various ways that we invite people to speak and listen.  Two examples:
  • we can “read” the room and invite comments from those that have been silent for a while
  • we can set ground rules about argumentation and debate, personal attacks, etc (Aspiration Tech notes on ground rules)

Other invitations rely on physical movement to engage those that otherwise might not speak.  Three examples:

  • we can do brainstorms that get people up and moving around Post-It notes on a big wall
  • we can change the physical dynamic by breaking a larger group into smaller ones
  • we can offer movement by running a spectrogram to gauge diversity of opinions on a controversial topic (Aspiration Tech spectrogram notes, P2PU-course spectrogram notes)
from Heather Leson

photo by Heather Leson

I’m proposing we think harder abut this third type of invitation, where we invite participants to make something.  Two examples:
  • we can offer the construction of a collaborative object that symbolizes the theme and is an output of the meeting or workshop
  • we can create short opportunities to make something small that explores a topic, coupled with a short window to share what was made with peers (we do this a lot in our Data Therapy workshops)
I think the invitation to make is underused in facilitation and workshops.
That said, there are a number of people I see offering this invitation in a variety of ways. Here are some of the inspirations I’m drawing from:
  • The “Maker” movement – Obviously these folks are using the process of making and sharing to build community.
  • Tactical Technology Collective - Their events invariably have hands on components with an artistic approach, but at the InfoActivism Camp 2014 I found it to be on the periphery.
  • Discotechs – I’ve recently learned more abut this model from my colleague Sasha Costanza-Chock. I understand they historically integrate the collaborative construction of a disco ball as a centerpiece activity, and their philosophy looks like it centrally integrates creative activities where you make things.
  • IISC -The facilitative leadership training I attended included a short hands-on “challenge” involving cardboard tubes, tape, etc. It was integrated well into the topic of the training, and fun.  The reflective discussion they led afterwards connected to many themes of the training.
  • Connection Lab – My wife and Data Therapy collaborator Emily does amazing work offering collaborative arts activities as a community building activity for those working the world of public health.
  • Team building – There is a large market of team building activities sold to businesses trying to focus on internal community; many of these involve creative activities.
  • Arts therapy – I understand that the world of arts therapy uses the creative act to surface underlying issues and start difficult conversations

I’m looking forward to exploring these ideas more with people here at Civic Media, and if you’re interested let me know!  Are “Making” events better?  When we provide more invitations to make, are we making events better?

Notes: This is cross-posted to the Civic Media blog.

Permission to Play

After our training-of-trainers workshop in Belo Horizonte in March, someone asked me:

How do you get a room full of executives in skirt suits or ties to play with materials from a child’s playroom?

I thought I’d take to opportunity to reflect on that question, because giving people permission to play is a critical piece of our “Data Therapy” approach.

Usually our workshops start with some introductions, where I mention my time doing a master’s degree under Mitchel Resnick in the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group.  I always introduce the educational approaches I learned there, and its connections to the Media Lab’s approach to work.

That’s right, I have an advanced degree from a group called “Lifelong Kindergarten”.  From MIT.  It’s hard to overstate the privilege this background gives me in “rooms full of executives”, or most other rooms.  I can get away with things like asking them to build with pipe cleaners, glue, and pom-poms… and they take me seriously.  Of course, I take full advantage of this, because it gives me a short window of time to convince participants that it is worth following me on this journey!

When I give folks permission to play, they take it.  The key insight I’d offer though, is that most people are looking for permission to play.  Working with data is too often rendered boring by hard-to-learn tools and stuffy restrictions on looking “official”.  People want to do interactive, hands-on activities.

The kind of privilege my MIT credentials give me is powerful, but doesn’t last long if my content isn’t relevant.  Our hands-on activities, my facilitative energy, the insights of their peers, and the content of the workshops keeps folks engaged and interested.  You can do all that without having an MIT degree! People want to play… it is up to you to give them, and yourself, permission.

A Data Mural in Brazil!

I just returned from a fascinating week in Belo Horizonte (Brazil), where we ran multiple workshops to build capacity to work with data in creative ways.  The trip was organized by the Office of Strategic Priorities of the State of Minas Gerais (they are members of the MIT Media Lab).  This post is one in a series about the workshops we ran there.

The most fun we had on our trip was designing and painting a Data Mural with students at the Plug Minas school.  This was a our standard Data Mural workshops process, compressed into just two days (including painting!).  We worked with about 15 amazing students for the design session, and then had over 50 people help during the painting day.

Interested in making your own Data Mural? Here’s an outline of our process.



The first day we ran a story-finding workshop, and then a visual-design workshop.  The agenda were rushed, but covered all the topics we usually cover.  This was, of course, another chance to try out some new facilitation and learning techniques.


We started with a bunch of data about the school, enrollment demographics, public perception of their programs, and student satisfaction survey data.  From that data, the story-finding workshop resulted in a story they wanted to tell about how students go through a process of transformation while at Plug Minas, and come out as better people.


We then facilitated a variety of activities that helped them turn that story into a visual design for a mural!


And then we painted it!  The video they made (at the top of this post) is an amazing view into that chaotic process :-)





Plug Minas is made up of a number of “Nucleos” – centers that focus on individual topics.  Students tend to identify with these centers, rather than with Plug as a whole.  One of the goals of this mural was to try to tell the whole Plug story, and the design they came up with definitely does that.  The story of transformation has all the Nucleos feeding into the brain in harmony!

Another goal was to try and connect Plug more to the neighborhood it is in (Horto).  One amazing way they did this was to hire an announcement car to drive around inviting folks to participate (it’s in the video above).  We had a number of community members come help paint the mural, and as we finished we pulled out a big canvas to let others draw their thoughts about the neighborhood too!


On a different note, language is hard.  We struggled to facilitate some of the more interactive conversations.  For instance, when narrowing down to one story, or combining ideas into one visual design.  Luckily, Emily’s 1 year of Portuguese training helped her a ton – so she led those sessions.  That said, it was still incredibly difficult to hear all the ideas and summarize connections back to the group.  Facilitation like this is difficult in English already!  Our collaborators, Ricardo and Guillerme, were AMAZING as translators.

Here’s Emily’s quick write up about the mural.  Plug posted some pictures too.

A Training on Activities to Play with Data

I just returned from a fascinating week in Belo Horizonte (Brazil), where we ran multiple workshops to build capacity to work with data in creative ways.  The trip was organized by the Office of Strategic Priorities of the State of Minas Gerais (they are members of the MIT Media Lab).  This post is one in a series about the workshops we ran there.

As a followup to our large lecture in Belo Horizonte last week, we selected about 50 participants to join us at a hands-on workshop (called “Conecta Mais”).  The goal was to introduce a handful of activities that participants could run to empower their communities to find stories, and present, data in creative ways.  This was really our first opportunity to do a little training-of-trainers, so we were excited!  The event was generously hosted on the top floor of the SEED startup accelerator building.



We planned the agenda to introduce four of our hands-on facilitation activities.  We did each for about 15 minutes, shared results with each other for 10, and then reflected together for 10 about how it went, and how participants might use it in their communities.

You can download a handout describing these activities, and how to run them.

Build Data Sculptures

The idea of playing with data is new to most people.  This activity lets people quickly build sculptures that tell a simple data story with craft materials.  The playful approach to the data helps engage the participants in thinking about how stories can be found and presented quickly and helps people feel more freedom and flexibility about data presentations.

IMG_7443   IMG_7438

We introduced a tiny dataset and spread out traditional kids craft materials over each table.  Participants broke up into teams of 3 or 4 and had 5 minutes to build a quick physical/visual representation of that data using the materials.

Here are some pictures from a previous time we ran this activity.

Remix an Existing Visualization

The goal of this activity is to practice the various techniques for presenting data.  This gives participants a “toolbelt” of techniques they can use to tell a data story, helping them feel more confident that they can present data creatively.


We introduced an infographic visualization and gave printouts to each group (of 3 or 4).  We assigned each group one of the presentation techniques we ran through during the lecture, and gave them 10 minutes to come up with a way to present that same data using a different technique.

Make Some Word Webs

Abstract ideas are hard to picture, and even harder to draw.  A word web is a tool for exploring abstract ideas.  This activity gives participants a way to turn abstract ideas into concrete images, allowing them to move from numbers to pictures to engage new audiences.


Each group got a big piece of paper and came up with an abstract concept to put in the middle of it (poverty, social inequality, etc).  They got 4 minutes to write words on the paper that were connected, and then another 3 to try and draw whatever they could next to the idea.

Make Data Storybooks

Storytelling is an art form, and we don’t get to practice it very much.  This activity lets participants practice putting a data story together into a narrative, like a storyteller would.  It lets people sketch their story and play with different ways to tell it in a fun storybook form, creating a narrative that can tell their stories in a convincing way.

IMG_7492  IMG_7481

Each small group received a big piece of paper to fold into a storybook.  Each book had to start with “Once Upon a Time…” (ie. “Era Uma Vez…”).  Groups got 10 minutes to write and draw a short story about the small dataset we introduced.

Here’s a blog post I wrote about this activity previously.

Group Therapy

The event closed with some “group therapy” – a hallmark of Data Therapy workshops.  We grouped the participants into threes, and then gave each person 5 minutes to share their challenges with data and storytelling with the others.  After 15 minute of sharing, each person had 5 minutes to get feedback and ideas from the other 2 for what they might do.  We specifically designed this to help build community there in Belo.  That room had a lot more expertise than Emily and I, and this was our way of trying to make those valuable connections.



This whole event was a bit of a whirlwind.  Each activity was more fun than the last as people started to get into the idea of playing with data and stories!  The reflection time after each activity was a great feedback for us about how we’ve built these activities, and many comments also pointed to the goals and pedagogy behind their design.  I felt like participants really “got it”.

The group therapy time at the end was particularly valuable.  After the lecture the night before, many folks came up to Emily and I asking questions about their projects.   We realized we hadn’t put time in the agenda for this event to do that, so we moved the agenda around and put the group therapy session back in.  Thank goodness, because people did NOT want to stop.  We announced the end of the workshop, and no one even moved!

One of the gratifying outcomes for me was that all our hosts at the Escritorio took part in this workshop as well.  They dove right in and shared their problems.  This kind of active engagement yields the best kind of partnerships.

Raquel Carmago posted some pictures on Facebook.

Storytelling Lecture in Brazil

I just returned from a fascinating week in Belo Horizonte (Brazil), where we ran multiple workshops to build capacity to work with data in creative ways.  The trip was organized by the Office of Strategic Priorities of the State of Minas Gerais (they are members of the MIT Media Lab).  This post is one in a series about the workshops we ran there.

Data Therapy is usually about small hands-on workshops, but the “Storytelling with Data” workshop we scheduled in Belo Horizonte had 700 people sign up!  This event is part of a series of “Conecta” lectures the government has been hosting with guests from the MIT Media Lab.  Since the signups were so strong, we scrambled to find a larger venue and turned it into a lecture!  Clearly there is a a need to to start conversations and build community around the idea of data-driven storytelling.



Connecting the Media Lab’s approach, we introduced the ideas of sketching and playing with data as the way to empower people.  We framed it as opportunities to improve your work, the help your colleagues, and help your community.   We ran through the pieces of the process:

  1. asking yourself some questions to define your audience, goals, etc. (handout)
  2. asking your data some questions, to explore what it is telling you
  3. finding stories in your data, based on some templates of types of stories (handout)
  4. picking a data presentation technique, based on all the previous steps (handout)

Sounds boring when I write it like that, but in fact we have hands-on activities that make it fun along the way. More importantly, these activities open the process to non-data people in empowering ways (ie. building the concept of “popular data“).  However, because this was a lecture, we were only able to sprinkle in short pair-and-share activities along the way.  These actually got the participants talking to each other:


Here is the English copy of the presentation:


I’m not a huge fan of the lecture format – it sort of makes you feel more important than you really are.  One of our key goals was to improve connections within the community in Belo interested in this topic.  It turned out the short pair-and-shares that we did after each section of the talk worked super-well for this… so well that we had a hard time bringing people back after each!

In addition, people responded well to the you, your organization, your community framing we laid out.  It let folks that weren’t specifically focused on empowerment still connect to the content.

Movimento Minas wrote up some notes and linked to the presentation in Portuguese.  Raquel Carmargo also posted some pictures on Facebook.

Data-Driven Storytelling for Entrepreneurs

I just returned from a fascinating week in Belo Horizonte (Brazil), where we ran multiple workshops to build capacity to work with data in creative ways.  The trip was organized by the Office of Strategic Priorities of the State of Minas Gerais (they are members of the MIT Media Lab).  This post is one in a series about the workshops we ran there.

We’ve always included a diverse set of audiences in the Data Therapy workshops.  However, I’ve never had a chance to really connect with the entrepreneurial and startup communities.  This changed last Monday in Belo Horizonte, when we had a chance to run a workshops for members of the first class of startups accepted to the the SEED accelerator program run by the state (@SeedMG).  The government created the program to foster an ecosystem of innovation.  They host the in a startup-y co-working space, give them a little money, and offer them access to mentors and such for about 6 months.



We introduced them to our basic Data Therapy brand of story-finding and story-telling.  In addition, we introduced some evocative examples to think about a few ways business use data:

  • getting useful feedback
  • understanding product use
  • improving product use
  • validating assumptions
  • improving process
  • surprising and delighting customers

This workshop included two participatory components (both learnt from the Tactical Tech Collective last summer):

  • visualization reverse engineering – we hang up visualizations and have small groups walk around trying to identify things like audience, visual technique, data used, goals, etcIMG_3096
  • convince me – we introduce some sample data, select volunteers to play personas (like CEO, funder, potential customer), and have everyone try to use the data to convince them of goalIMG_3090

Here’s the presentation content, for any folks that might be interested.



The group of about 15 entrepreneurs enjoyed the chance to focus on their data problems. In particular, the “convince me” activity sparked a great discussion about how and why data can be used to talk to different audiences.  This connected really well with their natural entrepreneurial instincts to hone in on customer personas and narrow focus.  A handful were particularly interested because they had presentations to make to potential investors that day!


The SEED blog has a short writeup of our workshop in portuguese.

PS: You can tell it is a startup space, because they have ridiculous things like a giant pool of plastic balls you can play in!


Thoughts on “Big Data” & “Small Data”

I’ve seen a lot of writing lately on Big Data vs. Small Data.  I know this is something I should pay attention to, because they are capitalizing words that you usually don’t capitalize! Here are some still-forming thoughts…

Rufus Pollock, Director of the Open Knowledge Foundation, recently wrote on Al Jazeera that:

Size doesn’t matter.  What matters is having the data, of whatever size, that helps us solve a problem of addresses the question we have – and for many problems and questions, Small Data is enough

He argues that Small Data is about the enabling potential of the laptop computer, combined with the communicative ability unleashed by the internet. I was sparked by his post, and others, to jot down some of my own thoughts about these newly capitalized things.

How do I Define Big Data?

Big Data is getting loads of press.  Supporters are focusing in on the idea that ginormous sets of data reveal hidden patterns and truths otherwise impossible to see.  Many critics respond that they are missing inherent biases, ignoring ethical considerations, and remind that the data never holds absolute truths.  In any case, data literacy is on people’s minds, and getting funding.

My working definition of what Big Data is focused more on the “how” of it all.  For one, most Big Data projects run on implicit, unknown, or purposely full hidden, data collection.  Cell phone providers don’t exactly advertise that they are tracking everywhere you go.  Another aspect of the “how” of Big Data is that the datasets are large enough that they require computer-assisted analysis.  You can’t sit down and draw raw Big Data on a piece of paper on a wall.  You have to use tools that perform algorithmic computations on the raw data for you.  And what do people use these tools for?  They try to describe what is going on, and they try to predict what might happen next.

So What Does Small Data Mean to Me?

Small Data is the new term many are using to argue against Big Data – as such it has a malleable definition based on each person’s goal!  For me, Small Data is the thing that community groups have always used to do their work better in a few ways:

  1. Evaluate: Groups use Small Data to evaluate programs so they can improve them
  2. Communicate: Groups use Small Data to communicate about their programs and topics with the public and the communities they serve
  3. Advocate: Groups use Small Data to make evidence-based arguments to those in power

The “how” of Small Data is very different than the ideas I laid out for Big Data.  Small Data runs on explicitely collected data – the data is collected in the open, with notice, and on purpose.  Small Data can be analyzed by interested layman.  Small Data doesn’t depend on technology-assisted analysis, but can engage it as appropriate.

So What?

Do my definitions present a useful distinction?  I imagine that is what you’re thinking right now.  Well, for me the primary difference is around the activities I can do to empower people to play with data.  My workshops and projects focus on finding stories, and telling stories, with data.  With Small Data, I have techniques for doing both.  With Big Data, I don’t have good hands-on activities for understanding how to find stories.

I connect this primarily to the fact that Big Data relies on algorithmic investigations, and I haven’t thought about how to get around that.  Algorithms aren’t hands-on.  You can do engaging activities to understand how they work, but not to actually do them.  In addition –  most of the community groups, organizations, and local governments I work with don’t have Big Data problems.

Put those two things together and you’ll see why I don’t focus on Big Data in my work. Philosophically, I want to empower people to use information to make the change they want, and right now that means using Small Data.  That’s my current thought, and guides my current focus.

Workshops in Brazil

Data Therapy is heading off to Brazil for a series of workshops next week!

We’re excited to announce the partnership with the government of Minas Gerais, to deliver a series of workshops and paint a mural in Belo Horizonte.

conecta-banner-siteepe1We’ve worked with our partners in the office of Strategic Priorities and put together and agenda that include multiple workshops, public lectures, and a Data Mural (with youth at the PlugMinas school)!

Know someone in Brazil?  Send them this information and see if they can join us!

Being the Data (ie. data & body syntonicity)

Recently I’ve seen a number of new examples of physically-embodied data presentations – examples where each person participates with their body representing the data that they are.  Using your body to act as the data in this way is not only fun, but reminds me of the work I used to do with the concept of “body syntonicity” here at the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group.  Seymour Papert coined this term to describe how children would program and predict a LOGO Turtle’s motion by imagining they were the Turtle (1).

Some kids kick it old school with a real LOGO Turtle at the MIT AI Lab!

A Corporate Example

The first connection I saw recently was a video ad for Prudential while I listened to Pandora Radio.  They are trying to tell a data story about how long people live after retirement, with the goal of getting them to set up a retirement plan with Prudential. The campaign is very appealing from a data-presentation point of view.  In one ad they asked people how much money they thought they needed for retirement, then gave each a length of ribbon, and had them walk from the center of a circle to the length of the ribbon:

Another let people put a sticker on a big chart to build a histogram of the oldest person they knew:

These are cool, and look fun.  Letting people be the data connects them with the information in a real, body-syntonic way.  I’m sure this makes the people more likely to be interested in Prudential’s product offerings and planning services.

An Academic Example

In the academic realm – my colleague Nathan recently went to the Computer Support Collaborative Work conference, where he learned about the MyPosition project from Nina Valkanova, Robert Walker and others.  Her recent work revolves around concepts of presenting information in public spaces.  Here’s an academic paper describing the MyPosition project.  It allows people stand in front of a projected poll and add their vote by holding up their hand:

Their findings in the paper around social pressure are interesting, as is the fact that people got around the fancy tech to actually engage in the question they were polling.  Also the idea that people used it more when it showed real people’s faces is interesting.  All in all, it presents a fascinating example and some usable insights into how to design these types of public interactive data presentations.

A Community Example

My colleague Sasha Costanza-Chock recently pointed me at the Crossing Boundaries project from the local Urbano Project.  Artists Alison Kotin and Risa Horn worked with 10 local high school students to gather data about local transit and create art pieces that told the data stories they found.

Their pieces are embodied data sculptures – wearable objects that represented the data story they want to tell.  This example is fantastic empowerment, data literacy, and art work.  I enjoy it in so many ways and look forward to talking with the creators sometime in the future.

Be the Turtle

So what’s the takeaway?  As a young participant in a robotics workshop I ran years ago said – “Be the turtle”.  Think about ways you can engage people to actively be the data in the story you’re trying to tell.

(1) Papert built on Freud’s notion of “ego syntonicity”, which concerned the mind.  This presentation I found online digs into this more in relation to computer programming.