Using Data to tell the Story of Your Life
The “Feltron Annual Report” sounds like a futuristic analysis of the GDP from a Tom Cruise science fiction thriller. In fact, it’s an annual recap of the previous year, told in numbers by information designer Nicholas Felton. In 2005, Felton combined his experience as a graphic designer with his desire to tell narratives through data. After searching for stories he could use—for a while he experimented with fiction—he acted on the advice: Write about the topic you know the best. So at the end of 2005, he collected, combined, analyzed, and designed the chronicle of his life that year and produced the first Feltron Annual Report.
In retrospect, the first report was simple: it quantified how many songs he’d listened to, how many miles flown, how many books read, and how many photos taken. Since then, every report has grown in complexity and contains several themes, much like a good autobiography. His 2007 report lists where and how he traveled the streets of New York City, and his 2010 report was a biography of his father who had passed away that year.
The Annual Report satisfies Felton’s desire to tell his own story, and while he offered his first report to anyone who asked for it, he didn’t expect it to attract much attention. But it did. People all over discovered the report, requested it, and enjoyed the beauty in the unique storytelling. While this shocked Felton at first, it shouldn’t have. Evidence of humanity’s fascination with other people’s lives appears in the biographies, novels, movies, music, and gossip we tell each other. And such story-telling is becoming as common as keeping a diary was in the 1800s.
What Feltron, Nicholas Felton’s artistic persona, did was combine his story with the abundance of data he generated every day. It’s easy to forget both the amount of data we create and the variety of ways we collect it. One can easily count foods and beverages consumed, entertainment enjoyed, people met, and sports played. Every receipt, for instance, accounts not just for expenditures, but also the items purchased, method of payment (cash or credit), date, time, store location, and often the person working the register. And that’s a low-tech tool of collecting data. Today, our smart phones record personal data every second: GPS location, songs heard, steps taken, minutes used, and contacts made, to name just a few. Personal sensors such as Fitbit, GPS, and pedometers, and apps and websites, such as Felton’s own Datum, last.FM, or Mint.com, make it easier for everyone to create their own Annual Report. And people have. And classrooms have.
In the world of education, we constantly create and consume data. Data analysis is a common best practice in districts, and teachers coach their students through the process of analyzing their test scores. Rubrics on projects assign data points to categories. Students in math practice basic skills by solving as many problems as possible in one minute, and at home, students complete reading logs by documenting page numbers counts and times. Software and websites such as Study Island and Khan Academy also generate, track, and analyze student progress.
Although these practices share much with the Feltron Annual Report, they lack its most important aspect: the design. We teachers must lead our students to design data and create presentations with a variety of visualizations that are not only informative and insightful but also creative and beautiful. Teachers are already aware of digital literacy and visual literacy. Students learn strategies to break down and analyze charts, graphs, infographics, and images. Now they must also become digital writers. “Writing digitally” is not a question of whether to write in text or a formal tone; rather, it is deliberately and creatively analyzing and presenting data.
At first, students may struggle with collecting, analyzing, and appropriately presenting data, and non-math teachers may balk at the need to write digitally in their classrooms, but the process is both easier and more necessary than teachers and students might assume. For example, all teachers can experiment by having students record not just grades and scores, but also times participated in class, questions asked, feelings had during class, types of food eaten at lunch, percent of their lunch they ate, whether they purchased ice cream that day, how many sticks of gum they bummed from a certain friend, etc. Such data collection will be immediately interesting and important to students of all ages.
Once students master the collection, analysis, and design of this basic data, the applications are endless. When beginning this process, teachers may supply students with data collecting tables and a templates for graphs, but as students learn how to make their own graphs and understand the purposes of each graph, there will be no stopping them.
What’s the craziest thing you could have your class track? Tell me your ideas, suggestions, and lessons. Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @KineticEd
Below is one example of how to start students in telling their stories through data:
How I Spent My Summer Infographic
Please contact me for a .pdf of a Student handout and a rubric.
DISCLAIMER: Since students may not have the best recollection and may struggle with details, assure them that it is okay to estimate. This assignment’s purpose is to get students used to the idea of designing data. After the first week of school, there will already be a wealth of information to calculate, like how many rules there are, how many minutes per school day are spent on warm-ups, or how many minutes are spent on homework or study.
- List the places you visited this summer (include friends’ and family’s homes, parks, camps, stores, movie theaters, other states and countries)
- Estimate the miles traveled (use Google Maps to help calculate the miles between your house and your various destinations, then add them together)
- Estimate the time spent travelling (include time spent in a car, walking, or on a plane/bus)
- List all the movies you saw in theaters and at home, and record the number of times you saw each movie
- List all the television shows you watched, the hours spent watching each (this includes Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc.)
- List any events, concerts, etc. you attended
- Estimate how much time you spent on the computer on an average day
- List the top 10 songs you heard
- List your top 5 favorite activities
- List all the places you ate a meal
- List all the fast food restaurants you went to
- Estimate how frequently you went out to eat (this includes fast food)
- Estimate how many times you ate your favorite food
- List all the vegetables you ate
- List all the different types of meat you ate
- List all the times you had ice cream or another frozen dessert/drink. Try to include all flavors and the number of times you had each flavor.
- List how many times you spent the night away from home
- List how many friends’ houses you visited and the hours spent there
- Use your phone, or get your parents’ help, and list how many texts you sent and received this summer; if you can, break that number down by who you texted and who texted you
- List how many phone calls you made
The Analysis and Presentation
- Use a map of the city, state, country or world and star each location you visited
- Add up the miles traveled to each destination. You can present the number as is, or use it to create a pie chart.
- Option 1: The pie represents the total miles traveled, and each slice represents the miles traveled to a certain destination / total miles.
- Option 2: The pie represents the total miles traveled, and each slice represents the miles traveled using a method of transportation / total miles.
- Create a bar graph illustrating how many times you visited a certain place
- You can make separate bar graphs for different types of destinations (restaurants, friends’ houses, states, etc.)
- Add up all the movies you saw and the times you saw them in theatres and at home. Create a pie chart. The pie represents total movies seen. Each slice represents the number of movies seen at a given location / total movies. For example: movies seen in vs. out.
- Add up the movies you saw the most times. Create a bar graph illustrating the movies you saw the most by the number of times you watched them.
- List all of the different types of entertainment (concerts, events, sports games) consumed and create a bar graph illustrating the number of times you went to each.
- Estimate how many hours you spent on the computer each day. Create a pie chart of your average day. The pie represents 24 hours. Each slice represents the number of hours spent on a particular activity / 24. Suggested slides: sleeping, on the computer, hanging out with friends/family, eating, practicing a hobby, or playing a sport.
- Create a bar graph of your top 10 songs, and if you can, estimate how many times you heard each. Figure out a way to illustrate which was your favorite.
- Create a bar graph of your top 5 activities, and if you can, estimate how many times you did each. Figure out a way to illustrate which was your favorite.
- Create a pictograph of the fast-food places you ate food from. Each picture represents a certain number of times (5 or 10 might be a good choice)
- Create a pie chart about the types of food you ate. The pie represents the total number of places you ate at. Each slice represents the meals eaten from a place or a type of cuisine / total number of times you went out for food.
- Create a pie chart about your favorite food. Assuming you eat three meals a day, multiply 3 by the number of days of summer vacation. The pie represents each meal. One slice is the number of times you had your favorite food / total meals. The other slice is the number of times you didn’t have your favorite food / total meals.
- Create a bar graph of all the different kinds of meat you ate and the number of times you ate each
- Create a pie chart comparing the number of times you ate meat with the number of times you ate vegetables. The pie represents the total different types of meat plus the total different vegetables. One slices represents the total different types of meat / total food. The other slice represents the total different types of vegetables / total food.
- Create a bar graph about ice cream and dessert. List the number of times you had each flavor or type.
- Create a bar graph illustrating the number of times you saw each friend (limit this to 5-10)
- Create a pie chart of where you spent each night of the summer. The pie represents the total number of nights. Each slice represents a place you spent the night / total nights. Suggested slices: friends’ houses, relatives’ houses, home, hotel.
- Create a pie chart of text messages sent. The pie represents the total number of text messages. Each slice represents the number of messages to each person / total number of texts. Create another pie chart for phone calls.
How to create an infographic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4-_e8zliqg
- Google maps
- Google forms
- Grade Reports
- Smart Phone
- Movie ticket stubs, receipts, notes from friends
- Microsoft Excel
- http://infogr.am/ – free but required log-in, best chart variety
- http://piktochart.com – free but required log-in, best options for custom theme and visual elements
“Numerical Narratives” http://vimeo.com/27800118