13 September 2017

Dear Principal

You might be familiar with the Dear Data project, "a year-long, analog data drawing project by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec, two award-winning information designers living on different sides of the Atlantic." I can't think of another creative project that has brought me so much joy and inspiration---and if you haven't heard about it, then have a look at the site and definitely buy the book.

As for me, Dear Data first inspired the data stories I have been building and posting in my school district. But I've always found the original post card idea charming and daunting. It's a more intimate way to communicate, as well as an opportunity to connect about different types of data. But I just don't have the stamina (or a partner) for a weekly exchange.

Instead, I am starting small. I have blocked out time on my calendar every other week to spend in schools. And while there, I want to capture data about something that we wouldn't ordinarily notice. Later, I'll create a postcard and send it to the principal.

Yesterday was my first attempt. I visited our two middle schools. I counted the number of smiles I saw from the moment I walked into the building to the moment I walked out.

This was definitely a challenge. How do you capture this? What are the categories? I started with a simple chart that I could make tallies on. The top line represented who initiated the smile (adult or student) and the side represented who received the smile (adult or student). But, of course, nuances arose. Did my smiles count? (I decided they did.) What about someone who was just sitting there smiling to themselves? (I decided that counted.) What about people who greeted me by name...or the autistic kid who saw me and said, "Hello, stranger." in the manner of a western movie. (I didn't count them, but I recorded them.)

I spent about 3 hours between the two buildings, connecting with people, sitting in on classes, and surreptitiously making tally marks. Back at the office, I summarized the data and then thought about how to display it.

I ended up using arrows to show the direction of smiles between people, with the widths representing the number in a particular category. I decided on a consistent measure (.03" = 1 smile) and then drew the arrows in PowerPoint to scale. I cut them out and used them at templates to draw the cards.

Here is the first one:

And here is the second one:

They're not perfect---not even close. (I haven't had an art class since 5th grade, in case you couldn't tell.) I liked the idea of using school colours, but I could have used colour better with the design. I am sure there are better designs for communicating the data. Some of my writing is a mess. However, it is important to me to get these out into the world. I can't spend days or weeks on them, because the data might not be as relevant. And, I have other things I have to do in the meantime! So, I am doing my best to let go of some of my more perfectionistic tendencies and just make something happen.

Meanwhile, I find the data on these cards interesting. One school had far more students smiling at one another, but far fewer adults smiling at kids. That same school had relatively even numbers of kids and adults smiling at adults, but the first school was disproportionate. Both had the same number of kids and adults smiling to themselves.

Principals don't know that I am doing this work this year. I don't know what they'll say or if they'll care. I don't know if they'll spend time with the cards to decipher them and think about what is represented or what it could mean...or if they'll just think this is weird. My hope is that, if nothing else, they will find a little bit of inspiration. But more on this in another post.

I was both excited and sad to put them into the district mail today. I'll never hold the cards in my hands again, even if I have the images. I like to think of them as seeds I'm sowing. I'll only learn later what I will reap.

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