As a person who has dedicated my adult life to helping move the needle on social justice issues, I understand deeply why so many people feel disenfranchised, unable to take action on issues they care about in ways that actually make a difference. The landscape is daunting: social challenges are articulated in huge, overwhelming ways; physical protest feels meaningful mostly only when a significant number decide to do it simultaneously; and the organizations dedicated to change don’t usually do an adequate job of ensuring that our highest contributions—those of knowledge and specific skills—are effectively engaged. It is hard to know where to start.
Data—when used to tell a good story—can help break through these obstacles and begin to frame an achievable path to action. Take, for example, this Prison Population Forecaster developed recently by The Urban Institute. Using data gathered from 15 states, they have tracked the rise (or, less frequently, the fall) of prison populations in recent years (time frames vary). They then offer the opportunity for the user to test different policy scenarios: If we made XX policy change, it would result in XX impact on the prison population over the next seven years.
After exploring the Forecaster for a while, it helped me understand how different the challenges are for each state. It helped me see that the level of action we need to take in order to significantly change the trends of mass incarceration are far beyond what I originally understood. Perhaps most importantly, it provided me with a framework for making my own choices about what policy changes to support for the kind of change I want to see.
This tool also brought me to a bigger question: Are we as social justice activists using data-driven storytelling to help people engage in the issues they care about in a truly impactful way? There is plenty of data in our world, used mostly to evaluate the impact of past social change efforts and guide our future strategies. That is different than the ability to tell a data-driven story that moves people from awareness to action and not just action, but meaningful, sustainable action. It is the story that makes the difference.
I find this to be a powerful opportunity for those of us who develop, test, and lead new approaches to engagement and movement building in the effort to attain social justice. It is one of the reasons I am so grateful to be here at Aggregate. (Pardon the shameless—but authentic!—plug.) Long before I arrived (just this past June), the team here was exploring these ideas and developing tools like this one focused on Visualizing Health Data. They help us understand there is no single best way to share data. The story you tell with data depends on what your goals are, whom you are trying to reach, and what action you want them to take.
In an environment where engagement, community organizing, and policy change efforts are happening more and more frequently online—and in a world where people are constantly informing their lives and choices via mobile devices—the right data-driven digital story has the power to inspire an unprecedented number of people to meaningful action.
I haven’t seen a spreadsheet yet that helps get people out of prison, that’s for sure.