[Summary: Exploring ways to use data as part of a youth participation process.]
Over the last year and a bit I’ve been doing less work on youth engagement and civic engagement processes than I would ideally like. I’m fascinated by processes of participation, and how to design activities and frameworks within which people can actively influence change on issues that affect them – getting beyond simply asking different groups the question ‘what do you want?’ and then struggling to reconcile conflicting answers (or, oftentimes, simple ignoring this input), to create spaces in which the different factors and views affecting a decision are materialised and in which those affected by decisions get to engage with the real decision making process. I’ve had varying levels of successes doing that – but the more time I’ve been spending with public data – the more I’ve been struggling to work out how to bring it into participative discussions in ways that are accessible and empowering to participants.
Generally data is about aggregates: about trends and patterns rather than the specific details of individual cases. Yet in participation, the goal is often to allow people to bring their own specific experience into discussions and to engage with issues and decisions based upon their unique perspectives. How can open datasets complement that process?
The approach I started to explore in a workshop this evening was linking ‘expectations and evidence’ – asking a group to draw upon their experience to write down a list of expectations, based on the questions that had been asked in a survey they had carried out amongst their peers – and then helping them to use IBM Many Eyes to visualise and explore the survey evidence that might support or challenge their expectations (I’ve written up the process of using the free Many Eyes tool over in the Open Data Cook Book). It was a short session, and not all of the group were familiar with the survey questions, so I would be pushed to call it a great success, but it did generate some useful learning about introducing data into participation processes.
1) Stats are scary (and/or boring; and/or confusing)
Even using a fairly interactive data visualisation tool like IBM Many Eyes statistics and data are, for many people, pretty alien things. The idea of multi-variate analysis (looking at more than one variable at once and the relationship between variables) is not something most people spend much time on in school or college – and trying to introduce three-variable analysis in a short youth participation workshop is tricky without leading to quite a bit of confusion.
One participant in this evenings working made the suggestion that “It would be useful to have a reminder of how to read all these charts. What does all this mean?”. Next time I run a similar session (as I’m keen to develop the idea further) I’ll look into finding/preparing a cheat-sheet for reading any data visualisations that get created…
2) ‘Expectations and Evidence’ can provide a good framework to start engaging with data
In this evenings workshop after looking at data we turned to talk about interview questions the group might ask delegates at an upcoming conference. A number of the question ideas threw up new ideas for ‘expectations’ the group had (for example, that youth services were being cut in different ways in different places across the country), which there might be ‘evidence’ available to support or challenge. Whilst we didn’t have time to then go and seek out the relevant data there was potential here to try and then go and search data catalogues and use a range of visualisation and exploration approaches to test those bigger expectations more (our first expectations work focussed on some fairly localised survey data).
3) The questions and processes matter
When I started to think about how data and participation might fit together I sketched out different sorts of questions that participation processes might work with. Different questions link to different processes of decision making…
- (a) What was your experience of…? (share your story…we’ll analyse)
- (b) What do you think of…? (give your opinion … we’ll decide what to do with it)
- (c) What should we do about…? (give us your proposals…)
- (d) Share this decision with us… (we need to work from shared understanding…)
To introduce data into (a) and (b) is tricky. If the ‘trend’ contradicts an individuals own view or experience, it can be very demanding to ask them to reconcile that contradiction. Of course, creating opportunities for people with experience of a situtation to reconcile tensions between stats and stories is better than leaving it up to distant decision makers to choose whether to trust what the data says, or what people are saying, when it seems they don’t concur – but finding empowering participative processes for this seems tough.
It seems that data can feature in participation more easily when we shift from opinion gathering to decision sharing; but building shared understanding around narratives and around data is not something that can happen quickly in short sessions.
I’m not sure this post gets me towards any great answers on how to link data into participative processes. But, in interests of thinking aloud (and in an effort to reclaim my blogging as reflective practice, getting away from the ways it’s been rather news and reporting driven of late) I’ll let it make it onto the blog, with all reflections/comments very much welcomed…