What is data?

We often talk about “data” at the Harmony Institute — previous blog posts have discussed “data-driven storytelling,” and our forthcoming web platform StoryPilot (formerly ImpactSpace) will feature data and impact metrics on films and social issues. In presenting our work, we’re frequently asked,“What is data, really?” In response, we’ll be addressing this question in a three-part blog series. This first post defines data in the context of storytelling. The next post will delve into work at the intersection of art and data. The third and final post will introduce HI’s StoryPilot platform as a tool that that can help users navigate rich datasets to inform future creative projects.

What is data in storytelling?

Philosophers and information scientists have long grappled with the concepts of “data” and “information.” For the purpose of this post, we’ll rely on two common definitions of these terms: data as discrete “units” of information, and information as  “facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis.” Although the two words are often used synonymously, we can think of information as data that’s been “processed, organized, structured” and otherwise interpreted.

Let’s consider these ideas of data and information in a creative context. The House I Live In, the critically acclaimed documentary film by Eugene Jarecki about the war on drugs, uses a combination of statistics (quantitative data collected together) and firsthand descriptions of working & living in the US prison system (organized qualitative data) to convey the systemic issues caused by current drug laws and mandatory sentencing. The film not only makes use of both kinds of data, but also discusses some of the ways that the misuse or misinterpretation of data reinforces the current arrest system.

Transforming data to meaningful information is at the heart of a storyteller’s creative process; the manner in which a film’s informational content is structured and conveyed impacts an audience’s understanding of and response to the material presented.

Why is data important to storytelling?

For documentary filmmakers with social impact goals — whether raising awareness around an issue or prompting direct action — capturing and analyzing data around a film’s reception provides a means to judge how effectively a film’s content resonated with audiences and, ultimately, made an impact.

In other words, we can describe this as a reiterative process in which:

  • A filmmaker presents information about a social issue from a selection of data about the social phenomenon.
  • Audiences receive, interpret, and assimilate the information presented.
  • A filmmaker collects new data about the audience’s response to, understanding of, or actions following from having watched the film.
  • A filmmaker interprets and translates this data into information about the film’s impact, which may influence her future creative choices.

Because the audience impact from a creative work is a social phenomenon itself, it can be measured and interpreted as data and information the same way a social issue was measured and interpreted in the making of the creative work. That said, examining audience impact is not an easy task. The filmmaker would have to consider all the variables at play and rely on rigorous methods for data collection and analysis in order for the results to be accurate and meaningful.

“Puppies Behind Bars”: A brief case study

Geeta Gandbhir and Perri Peltz are currently directing and producing a documentary film, “Puppies Behind Bars,” featuring the namesake program through which people who are incarcerated at New York State Fishkill Correctional Facility train therapy dogs for veterans suffering from PTSD. For the past two years, six men, Arthur, Luis D., Kenneth, Luis M., Shannon, and Owen have poured their hearts into six puppies, reflected on their lives before prison, and built the foundations for new lives after their five to fifteen year sentences.

Ms. Gandbhir and Ms. Peltz hope to initiate legislative reform by demonstrating the value of vocational programs like the Puppies Behind Bars in reducing recidivism. As the documentary film is undergoing post-production, the filmmakers want to understand stakeholders’ reactions to their storytelling, or quantify the film’s impact.

One potential data collection and analysis plan that Ms. Gandbhir and Ms. Peltz can undertake is to capture the “buzz” generated by their documentary film. To that end, the filmmakers will have several important questions to consider. For example:

  1. What channels should they look at, from Facebook posts and tweets to critical reviews on the New York Times and the Tribeca Film Festival? The channels that are investigated should match the question being asked. Social media may be appropriate for looking at changes in the general public while critical reviews can provide context for the film’s performance.
  2. Should they only count the times their documentary film is referenced or count the increase in the public’s and critics’ interest in topics such as “vocational programs in prison,” “solutions to recidivism,” and “therapy dogs in prison”? Once again, the filmmakers should choose metrics that fit the question they’re asking. Focusing on mentions of the documentary film can give an estimate of how many people have been affected by Puppies Behind Bars. Looking for an increase in mentions of key topics can fit this data into the bigger picture. Compare the two figures and you may get even more insights into how changes in awareness of the documentary coincide with changes in interest in recidivism.
  3. For how long should they track these data points, from a week following the television release to the entire year of private screenings? When you’re looking for evidence of change, the longer the time period the better. However, for filmmakers with limited resources, taking snapshots of the landscape before a film’s release, shortly after its release or other major campaign event, and in the medium to long term can provide valuable insights about the film’s impact.

While there is no single correct answer to these questions, Ms. Gandbhir and Ms. Peltz will make their decisions based on the legislative campaign that they envision. The data that they collect about the reception of Puppies Behind Bars can help provide valuable evidence for public support of the program. They can use this data about audience response to help frame their presentation of the program and add even more depth to their analysis of vocational programs to help recidivism.

HI’s Impact Playbook provides an accessible guide for building an impact measurement strategy. It discusses methods for choosing metrics that fit a project’s goals and timeline. For a list of resources to help with impact measurement, check out our recap of the “Beyond Butts in Seats and Tweets panel at Sundance Film Festival.

So, now what?

All in all, creative minds have been and are continuously utilizing and leveraging data in their creative process. When working towards social change through their work, they should consider collecting and analyzing further data about the impact of their creative projects. StoryPilot can provide a starting point for investigation and help creative minds answer the data-driven inquiry that will contribute to the social value of their work.

In the next post in this series, we’ll be looking at several innovative cases of data-driven art and storytelling.


Top image | “Puppies Behind Bars” trailer

August 11, 2014
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Building and analyzing issue-focused social networks on Twitter

For media makers with aspirations of social change, we at HI have established a number of best practices for assessing impact. An important first step is to know yourself: set concrete goals for change along with realistic time frames for accomplishing them. The next step is to know your audience: identify the audiences that you hope to reach, as well as those most likely to be receptive to your message, and who can help facilitate your objectives.

Let’s consider a hypothetical film about the American healthcare system (see our previous case study). Although this issue affects all Americans, those already interested in and engaged with the issue are a more likely audience, not to mention potential influencers. How do we find such individuals? They may comment in one or many forums—on social media sites, in newspapers or the blogosphere, on television. As a first pass, we can look to a public forum that comprises overlapping interest networks in which healthcare is actively discussed: Twitter.

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May 22, 2014

Theory and the unseen forces of impact

For documentaries that tackle social issues, financial bottom lines may not be the best indicators of impact. Social issue documentaries have other benchmarks of success: filmmakers want to know if their film reached its audience, changed the way people think about an issue, or inspired change in the real world. Our experience working with filmmakers has illuminated the unique challenges of measuring the impact of social issue documentaries. We see the need to clarify what “impact” might look like—without boxing in filmmakers by using overly-specific methods or definitions that don’t apply to a wide range of projects and goals.

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April 08, 2014

Games for behavior change, Part two

This is the second in a two-post series by guest blogger, Rafa Kern. Read the first post here

In my first post, I wrote about how games can be helpful in training our internal elephant—that is, how games affect our automatic processing and can help us develop new habits. In this post, I’ll explore how games can also affect the elephant’s rider, which represents our conscious reasoning. Before I do that, though, I would like to provide a disclaimer along the lines of the one Daniel Kahneman provided in Thinking Fast and Slow (2011): I don’t think the rider and the elephant are necessarily “true,” strictly speaking. It is sometimes hard to distinguish these two processes and harder still to map them onto physically distinct entities in the human brain. They simply stand in for two generally different ways of processing information. In essence, they are “useful fictions” that we can use to better understand how games can impact our habitual behaviors and identities.

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March 20, 2014
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CATEGORIES Gaming, Guest bloggers

Games for behavior change, Part one

rafa pic longRafa Kern‘s research bridges the fields of design, interactive media, and education. Kern is a member of the Real World Impact Games Lab at Columbia University Teachers College, an initiative focused on designing and studying games for social  and educational impact.

If you’re like most other people, there are two voices in your head. Try it: tell yourself to be quiet. See? Two voices. In psychology, there’s a pretty handy metaphor used to describe the relationship between these two. Think of it like an elephant and a rider (Haidt, 2006). In this metaphor, the elephant is the voice that reacted to your telling yourself to be quiet. It represents the automatic mental processes, which are responsible for quick and reliable action and controls basic pleasure and pain. The rider, on the other hand, represents our conscious reasoning, or controlled system of thought—it’s the voice that did the telling. This system can project into the future to assess the consequences of our actions, and prompt further inquiry into the conditions that shape our reasoning. The elephant can be trained and guided by the driver but, at the end of the day, the elephant is the one in control.

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March 03, 2014
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CATEGORIES Gaming, Guest bloggers