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Floodlight: New digital tool helps Colorado organizations tell their stories

by: Susan Mernit |

What can a data-driven local foundation with a strong social justice mission do to empower the many non-profit and community organizations they work with to have an easy way to tell their stories and present information? 

If you're Terry Minger, President and CEO of The Piton Foundation in Denver Colorado and Matt Barry, Piton's former director of technology, the answer is pretty visionary. Build a platform that makes it easy for your constituent organizations to use templated tools to create and publish their stories in a variety of formats, including such as story-telling through photos, data, or explanations. 

To make their vision happen, Migner and Barry teamed up with The Denver Foundation and applied to the Knight Community Information Challenge for funds to plan, build and launch this tool; and now, roughly a year later, Floodlight (originally named Citizen Atlas), is live on the web for everyone to use. "It's been an intricate process of working with constituents to understand what they need, engage them in the design process and then build tools that can execute," says Jordan Wirfs-Brock, Data Curator at The Piton Foundation, who has been one of the key team members guiding the development of the Floodlight tool set.  "We've got the tools live now and we're rolling them out to local organizations via community storytelling workshops and what we call storyraisings."

For Matt Barry, Piton's former Director of Data and Information Initiatives (who recently joined another local nonprofit), Floodlight and the related (and not quite live) Data Engline project are part of a vision Piton has been advancing since 2005. In his work at Piton, Barry focused on creating data visualization capability to support community and school level data, and using information to present and even help alleviate problems with poor communities and education reform. "We read a paper called "Narrative Visualization: Telling Stories with Data"  that was written by  Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer of Stanford and published in 2010. The ideas in that paper about type of stories that were effective in communication different types of information suggested we could build tools that would make choosing and using these formats much easier that it had been previously," says Barry.  Once Piton received a Knight KCIC grant in in 2011, the Piton team was ready to kick the project off.

"There was a high amount of input and consensus as we worked with our partner groups to plan the platform," explains data architect Jennifer Newcomer as she demos the live product. "We thought that level of discussion would be great as a springboard for going back to the groups to get them to storyboard and share their data with the early versions of the tool."

"Our first story raising had about 60 people from 34 different groups show up to build stories," adds  Wirfs-Brock. 

During the first story-raising evening Wirfs-Brock and project coordinator Wendy Norris, a former Knight Stanford fellow with a strong interest in both community and data, showed attendees how to use the platform, offered some tips for structuring effective stories (see http://floodlightproject.org/stories/design-thinking-for-storytelling-your-story-in-5-e/), shared tips on the creative process and structuring stories and even build a Storify sharing participants' tweets and comments and put t into a Floodlight template.

Among the stories created in the workshop were:

 "Planting Peace in Whittier" - by Whittier Neighborhood Association

"Holistic Health in Unlikely Places" - by Tyrone Beverly, Im'Unique
"Cathy: A Story of Hope" - by Mount Saint Vincent,

"What if you didn't know the ABCs" - by Children's Outreach Project

"Seniors Want to Stay in Their Homes" - by Catholic Charities and Community Services

"It's a very cool tool for presenting information," says Wirfs-Brock. "Both individuals and organizations members can use it express themselves and to put data and information together, ideally in a way that can help them link all their social media tools in one place as well."

In the Denver area, the rollout of the tool has been met with delight. CEO Terry Minger, said it's a useful tool to show issues in the Children's Corridor,  where 53,000 children live in poverty or are at risk. "With the Floodlight tool," says Minger,"It's now possible to better tell these stories, so that we can have a regular beat showing news and data.

The Piton team is still working on another aspect of the project, the Colorado Data Engine. This still-being-debugged destination is a portal where data sets, data storytelling and data journalism will all flourish, gathering together everyone from small local nonprofits to regional and national organizations who has stories that can make sense. "We've got some tweaks we need to do, " says network architect Jennifer Necomer. "But we're almost there, and we expect it to be live very soon."

Both the Colorado Data Engine and Floodlight are tools open to everyone. Even though the platforms' focus is on Colorado, there's no absolute restriction. "We do imagine this is, for now, a Colorado-focused initiative," says Wirfs-Brock, "but there's always that idea that sometime, we could scale."

For more information:
Follow the Floodlight project at http://floodlightproject.org
Colorado Data Engine at http://codataengine.org/
Follow hashtag: #storyraising

Photo credit:  http://floodlightproject.org/stories/story/

This blog is made possible by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Susan Mernit

Susan Mernit is editor & publisher of Oakland Local a news & community hub for Oakland, CA focused on social justice
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