Storytelling: An Agent of Creativity and Change in Georgia

29 May 2014

Author: eric

Storytelling: An Agent of Creativity and Change in Georgia

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I have worked with civil, media, and public organizations in Georgia for many years now, and seen organizations doing a lot of good work on a number of important issues. How organizations are working with data is critically important if research is to allow all of us to understand important social issues, tendencies, and behaviour as well as try to predict how these issues might play out in the future. However, all too often, efforts invested in months and even years of research and analysis end up siloed in reports, websites, and personal computers.

I say siloed because the authors have already decided that their data is not valuable beyond the scope of their report. They have decided that the way they framed the issue, based on their research, is only valuable in the way they have articulated it, and that the audience should not entertain the idea of exploring the data to find meaning beyond what the report expressed.

Years later, all that is left of the data is the report, the vestiges of the original research and data possibly residing on a computer somewhere long after the author has moved on. Most likely, the research is just gone. As organizations' employees turn over, computers get wiped and information residing on them is lost forever.

We believe data is an asset for your organization and for others. You cannot predict how your data can add value to other work. We expect public agencies to make their data public, so why not have the same expectations for ourselves? Put it out there. Share it.

In our work at JumpStart Georgia we are often asked what is wrong with a report. Our response: nothing. Well, nothing... with a caveat. The norm in Georgia and elsewhere is that organizations conduct twelve months of research which results in one thirty-page report. Depending on the goals of the project, that may be fine, but often, the goals are to effect change or prompt audiences to act on the information. In these cases, the thirty-page report dooms the project to failure.

The thirty-page report is an anathema. It is a mindset which limits the possibilities for success. It is an approach with far too many assumptions to be successful. It is an expression of laziness.

JumpStart, the team I work with in Tbilisi, Georgia, has for several years now been exposing organizations in Georgia to alternative ways to communicate information that engage audiences, incite discussion, and motivate action. Often times, this information is derived from data, but sometimes it isn't. What is important is the message. Data just happens to make the message stronger, and depending on the target audience, can be crucial in convincing people your message is the right one.

You cannot (and should not) just throw a spreadsheet into someone's lap and expect that to make your case. Nor can you expect most busy people to read a thirty-page report. What you can do is break research and communication into chunks or stages. Organizations should view each chunk as an opportunity to communicate with one or many potential audiences. Explore what media speaks to each target audience.

This is where creativity is most important and where the report mentality so often gets in the way. The sky is the limit. Really! You can do so many things that there is no possible way to list them all. Each case is different. You can write in the sky, use graffiti and stencils, glow in the dark messages, infographics and factographs, web applications, performance art, music, billboard advertisements, newspaper articles, stickers, t-shirts, robots, and more. And you can combine them all in any way you need.

This is the perspective from which I approach the issues we work on and the communication solutions we apply to them. In a sea of reports, what distinguishes one from another? Organizations are not alone at fault in the missed opportunities presented by the data graveyard of archaic reporting. Donors have perpetuated this approach by continued funding with such low expectations. It is as if development funding's main goal was to produce artifacts of dust collection and deforestation while at the same time confounding journalists and the public with convoluted jargon and conclusions that they simply don't and can't understand.

JumpStart's work, by exposing organizations to creative and innovative (albeit sometimes quite technical) vehicles of communication, has had a positive impact on what Georgian organizations have come to expect from themselves. More media organizations want to communicate news visually. Civil society organizations want more engaging mechanisms to communicate their research and advocate for change. Evidence in Georgia is becoming increasingly edible and accessible to larger networks of people.

Where I see our future is in storytelling, data-driven, issue-based storytelling. Our team likes to communicate stories and we are passionate in how, by analysing data, we can uncover new and interesting stories, novel in Georgia and elsewhere. And we love exploring the best way to communicate a story. We are not limited by technology, as we are a team of technologists. We are only limited in the creativity with which we approach each issue.

When tools don’t exist, we build them. Recently we created a new platform to build a new type of mixed-media stories. We built StoryBuilder for ourselves, but opened it up for everyone to use. The demo application is open for anyone to use, including us, and the code for the application is open source. A week ago I went to the application and saw, all of a sudden, a bunch of new stories that we had not written. People all over the world are using it and this is just what we wanted. We have no idea how many organizations have or plan to set up the application for their own use, but we hope it serves their needs well. We are continuing to add new features and are also responding to others’ feedback and requests.

While that is not the only application of ours like this that has become popular, we are quite fond of this one. Through it, we hope to inspire Georgian organizations to communicate differently, to engage audiences differently. Moving forward, we hope to change the civil society landscape to one of unlimited creativity, where technology and design are the means by which creativity interfaces with project goals. We hope to see twelve months of research not end up in a lonely thirty-page report, but as a dynamic contribution to an ongoing conversation.