Story Prompts Derived from Data

In a blog entry back in the spring, Tony Hirst suggested some interesting story prompts that spring from data.

For example, map-based journey: “Given a trail, what can you tell about the journey that was taken and what happened on that journey?” Hirst asks.

This notion happened to resonate with me because I had recently wanted to express to my social-media friends the challenge of a particular bike ride Randall and I like to do. It’s a very steep hill with several switchbacks, but I didn’t feel I successfully conveyed the elevation and challenge of this ride. Photographs failed to communicate how high up we were. I used a Google satellite map that showed the switchbacks, but I still think I missed the mark.

Hirst suggested MapMyRide for telling the story of the ride. I’ve used the site before, but this time I fiddled with it for about a half hour and could not figure out how to show the route I wanted to show. Same for Hirst’s other suggestion, EveryTrail, which seems to work best with a GPS device. (However, if you look at the images in Hirst’s entry, you can get a sense of what I might be able to show of our ride if I weren’t a dunce using these sites.) Interestingly, “Tell a Story” is one of the tabs for constructing an EveryTrail route. So, given my ineptitude with these two apps, the best I could manage was a terrain map of the route (right), showing that we bike to an elevation of 2,000 feet.

But the twist Hirst suggests for these journey-related is to look up routes mapped by others and speculate on the story of the trip. He discusses the site GarminConnect, “where folks share all kinds of personal data:”

Running a Google search for site: should turn up all sorts of results pages, which leads to one possible data driven storytelling assignment — given a Garmin connect data journey, what happened to that person on their journey?

Similarly, Hirst suggests Daytum, a personal data-logging site. In finding someone’s Daytum information, “what story can we tell about a day in the life of this person, inspired by what they spend their time doing?” Just as he suggests searching for the journeys of others to prompt stories about them, Hirst proposes performing the search site: to “turn up a random selection of public data profiles around which we can ask: what’s this person’s story? (Or we may go one further: pull down two random profiles, and tell a story about their life together, how they met, etc etc.)”

Hirst shares a few data-driven story ideas from others:

Another way to integrate Google Maps and your childhood home into a story-like experience is with the recent viral video project, The Wilderness Downtown, featuring the song “We Used to Wait” by Arcade Fire (“The lyrics of the song refer back to the days before instant communications when we used to write letters and the anticipation of waiting for them to be delivered,” notes the the blog for the company Delvinia). Other bloggers have suggested that readers view the video before reading more about it, so if you haven’t experienced it yet, you may want to try that before reading further. (Supposedly, the video needs to be viewed on Safari or Chrome; when I tried it on Safari, it was still only 97 percent loaded after 4 hours — yes, you would think I would have given up sooner — but loaded in about a minute on Chrome). NPR and Delvinia describe the experience:

As the video plays, browser windows open and close, sending a flock of birds scattering to the movement of your mouse. You’re invited to interact with the video, writing postcards to your younger self and sprouting vines from your cursor. [Delvinia: “After drawing the message with your cursor, the animated birds fly in to roost on the type before flying off into another one of the panes.”] … Type in the address of your childhood home, and Google Street View personalizes the video for you [“a Google Maps satellite view and rotating Street View images appear based on the address chosen,” notes Delvinia]. … As the music swells, a browser window opens, showing a young man running down the street. It closes and reopens throughout the video. [Delvinia: “The song climaxes with animated trees exploding into view on the paved streets within the Street View image captures. The experience continues by ‘Sending your Postcard Downtown’. The digital postcard has a unique URL that the user is asked to bookmark, this is where they will receive digital postcards from other users. The postcards will also be used as live concert visuals during Arcade Fire’s tour. Some postcards will be made into printed cards on special paper that contains birch tree seeds and distributed at concerts. Plant the cards and a tree grows.”

Delvinia states: “The term ‘transmedia’ has been adopted to describe these experiences, as stories are presented across a number of media platforms with multiple paths, entry and exit points available to the viewer.” I’m not sure The Wilderness Downtown is quite at the transmedia level, but it is certainly an interesting, high-tech storied use of data.