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Story telling with Data

February 18th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

Today Google Labs released their new data visualisation store. Very impressive it is too, although it is not a straightforward task to register on the site, upload uses an XML format and you cannot download data. But the visualisation is pretty good and Google themselves have linked to a number of large Eurostat data sets.

I have been working on data for the last couple of weeks. I am trying to build a TEBO – a Technology Enhanced Boundary Object (or objects) for explaining Labour Market data to Careers Advice, Information and Guidance (CAIG). Together with my colleagues from the Institute for Employment Research at Warwick University, I have been looking at TEBOs for some time.

Alan Brown explains the conceptual idea behind TEBOs:

The ideas of boundary crossing and tool mediation (Tuomi-Gröhn & Engeström, 2003; Kaptelinin & Miettinen 2005) and situated learning with a close alignment to the importance of a focus upon practice (Brown et al., 1989; Hall, 1996) informed considerations of the role of technologically-enhanced boundary objects in knowledge maturing processes in different contexts. One specific concern is to make visible the epistemological role of symbolic boundary objects in situations in which people from different communities use common artefacts in communication. A fruitful approach to choosing ways to develop particular boundary objects is to focus on what Onstenk (1997) defines as core problems: the problems and dilemmas that are central to the practice of an occupation that have significance both for individual and organisational performance — in this case the problems associated with providing advice relevant for career planning. One method this development project used was therefore to engage in a dialogue with guidance practitioners about common scenarios involving Labour Market Information (LMI) which could inform the development of prototype technologically-enhanced boundary objects (TEBOs). The development … was therefore informed by a consideration of the following issues:

  • Importance of developing methods and strategies for co-design with users
  • Need for conceptual tools to help people understand the models and ideas which are part of LMI
  • Need for a more open pedagogy (than is typical of much existing technology-enhanced learning, and existing workplace training practice)
  • A system in which boundary objects are configurable by end-users (practitioners) and by guidance trainers to be used in multiple ways
  • Need to build an understanding of how TEBOs may be used in ways that are empowering for practitioners, and ultimately for clients too.

These concerns could be coupled with another set of issues concerning appropriate skill development:

  • Need for time for people to interact, reflect, use concepts etc.
  • Trying to reach a stage where practitioners have justifiable confidence in the claims they make and can exercise judgement about the value of information when faced with unfamiliar LMI
  • Choosing between a range of possible use-contexts
  • Decide how to employ support from communication and discussion tools
  • Developing and transmitting Labour Market intelligence – importance of communicating to others
  • Preconfigure certain ways of thinking through use of scenarios; discussions can point into and lead from scenarios.

In practice it is not so easy to develop such TEBOs. Identifying key problmes is probably the most useful approach. But then there is an issue in accessing different data to visualise as part of the process. A great deal of data is now publicly available. But I am no data specialist and have faced a steep learning curve in understanding and interpreting the data myself. then there is the issue of visualisation – I am mainly using Google Gadgets, although we are also working with Tableau (a powerful tool, but unfortunately only available for Windows) and IBM;s Many Eyes. All these tools are good, but are all extremely finicky about how the data is formatted. We are working with data in xls and Apple’s Numbers but I suspect longer term it would be better to use the Open Source R programming environment.

And the hardest task of all is the storyboarding. At the end of the day we are trying to tell stories with data: TEBOs are a storytelling and exploration approach to learning. So for each TEBO I intend to make a short video explaining the key concepts and showing the various visualizations. We will also provide access to the raw data and to static versions of the graphing, along with explanatory notes. And for each TEBO we will try to construct an interactive visualisation tool, allowing learners to play with the data and displays. I also want to try to build some sort of simulations using the Forio tool. No doubt there is better software (and if anyone has any ideas I would be very grateful). But I sort of feel that the more social software, open source or free tools we can use the better. We want to encourage people to do it for themselves. And they have no money to spend on fancy software tools.We cannot possibly provide access to visualisations of all the data available. But if we cane explain what is possible, hopefully interested CAIG professionals will start there own work. And then who knows – a Careers Guidance data store?

2 Responses to “Story telling with Data”

  1. KlausR says:

    have a look at Gephi at They claim to be “Like Photoshop for graphs”

  2. Romi Rancken says:

    Thanks for the tip concerning Googles visualization store, I had not noticed that they had opened it.
    I have been using Google Fusion Tables, it’s very easy to get data in and out but the visualizations are a little bit limited. But at least there is a basic version of the Gapminder (moving bubbles) visualization tool, which is nice. The Google maps mashup tool is also very useful. I have embedded a few experiments here:

    For simulations I have been using the free Vensim tool ( for many years, it’s a good simulation tool, but it is not as eye-catching as some of the newer tools. The basics are easy to learn, you get a grip of the essential functions in an hour, based on my experience with students. And there is a Mac version too 🙂


    Romi Rancken

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