By the Numbers

For about a year now, I’ve been pondering the idea of data storytelling.

To me, data storytelling is both the use of data to improve existing stories, and the act of discovering stories within data. I plan to spend the next three years (at least) exploring this, and Dataspheare will be a record of what I learn.

There will be three subplots running through my posts. One will be my pursuit of a Master of Library and Information Science degree via San José State’s online iSchool. The second will be a return to journalism – data journalism, that is – after a diversionary period in which I ran marathons, studied zen, wrote plays, and gave speeches. Finally, there will be a major reassessment of my writing across various genres, informed by William Zinsser’s “Writing to Learn.”

Graduate school was a decision made earlier this year when I decided that I need to add some “hard” skills to my toolkit. I briefly contemplated data science before realizing the math prerequisites alone would kill me. An MLIS had been in the back of my mind for awhile, but I was intimidated by the lack of programs that could be tackled while working. Over time, the options have increased and the added emphasis on data administration and digital curation improves my marketability down the line. Doing the entire program online sealed the deal and I’m now proud to be a Spartan.

When I began researching data storytelling, I mainly found it mentioned as a component of data visualization. I really wanted something that looked at data from a writer’s perspective. What I found, somewhat to my surprise, was the growing field of data journalism. In the seven years since I’d left the Los Angeles Times, this had become a major thing. I am a longtime fan of Sabermetrics pioneer Bill James and Nate Silver’s Fivethirtyeight so it is not surprising that I gravitated to this specialty. This post by Troy Thibodeaux suggests five tools a 21st-century journalist needs to thrive and I am attempting to incorporate them into my program of study.

In adding “hard” skills, I didn’t want to neglect the “softer” humanities-based attributes I’ve been riding all of my adult life. In May, Zinsser, best known as the author of “On Writing Well,” passed away at age 92. His death prompted me to read his memoir, “Writing Places,” and I was dutifully inspired to dedicate myself to improve my own writing. Presently, that means everything I do in this space, any journalism I produce, the papers I write for school (and hopefully publish), and a play I’m working on called Petroglyphs.

My goals for the blog are as follows. To create something that is meaningful and engaging. I want people to read it. To post something substantial at least once a week. To vary the lengths and subject matter. I’ve read repeatedly that online readers prefers posts that are either fairly short, 400 words or less, or relatively long, north of 4,000. It would be great if my accumulation of posts provides me the foundation for a book. Ideally, my experiences will help someone with similar interests who comes along after me.

As for subject matter, I hope nearly everything connects to data storytelling in some way. Movies, sports, books, and theatre will inevitably work themselves into the conversation. I’ll start with what I know, but hopefully I will gradually expand the topics to which I apply data to create compelling stories.

It is duly noted that this inaugural post clocks in at close to 600 words.