Sunday fun: The Data Storyteller

This weekend, while researching something else, I came across an enjoyable talk by Ben Wellington which was recorded at a TEDx event on Broadway this spring.  In the talk, he explains that over a year ago, he wouldn’t have have known what a data storyteller was, nor would he have imagined that he would have become one, but that all changed after he used some data about biking accidents from the New York City Open Data Portal to create the heat map shown below and it became the subject of articles on a few New York-area websites and blogs.

The Terrifying Cycling Injury Map of NYC, 2013 Edition by  Ben Wellington

The talk is entertaining and informative, and I recommend watching it to learn more about what he does with his blog and how he has turned into a data storyteller.  As he explains, though, he realized that one reason his blog had caught on was that it provided a way of combining his interests in data science, urban planning, and, of all things, improvisational comedy.

From my perspective, both the talk and his approach encapsulate the “use everything” philosophy that I wrote about in an earlier post.  As he explains, he’s not using complicated math here, but he’s asking a variety of creative and simple questions, and then trying to see what answers the data provides to those questions.

In my last post, I wrote about some ways to use some of the features of Excel and Access to get started with data analysis.  Now while that may seem like a very basic way to start, as this talk illustrates, basic analysis can tell us many kinds of things if we use our imaginations and ask questions related to our interests and experiences.  Wellington even provides examples at the end of his talk of how students who were new to statistical analysis were able to use the New York City data to begin asking and answering their own questions.

Beyond those points, though, both the talk and the approach that it outlines illustrate that for people who are interested in learning to work with data, there are lots of free and accessible ways to get started.  The New York City Open Data Portal is a great resource that contains a lot of information, but there are many other large, open data sets out there if one knows where to look.   Here, for instance, is but one listing of the many sorts of public data sets that are available.  And although I plan to talk more about other kinds of data analysis software in future posts, here is a link to the open-source geographic information system software that Ben Wellington used to create his initial map of cycling accidents.

For me, though, one of the key points to take away from this talk is that if you are interested in working with data, you no longer need to make the mistake that I made for many years in thinking that you are seriously limited by the data that is readily available or even by the software that you do or don’t possess.  Even if your long-term goal is building predictive models, you can gain a lot of knowledge and expertise by practicing with other sorts of data first, and when you do, you might find that your interests take you in different directions than you originally imagined.

Have you used data to do any interesting storytelling of your own?  If your city or state has any open data portals, what sorts of questions would you be interested in finding the answers for?  Please share your thoughts below.


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