July 8, 2020

Online Purdue Data Storytelling courses use surprise and contrarian thought to make compelling stories from data

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Purdue University is throwing a life preserver to people who feel like they’re drowning in a flood of data that they need to explain in ways designed to captivate, rather than overwhelm, an audience. The method is new and aims to reinvent the nature and role of storytelling in data and science communication.

Purdue’s Data Storytelling program is a series of four noncredit online courses combining elements of rhetoric, data science, visual arts and storytelling. It leverages concepts borrowed from communication, narrative structure, data research, data analysis, data visualization, and data ethics. Students learn to convey the information and insights that data yields in ways so that an audience will not only remember the message but learn from and apply it.

Good data storytelling teaches, and it isn’t something that just happens, said Sorin Adam Matei, a professor in Purdue’s Brian Lamb School of Communication and associate dean of research in the Purdue College of Liberal Arts. It is the result of a thoughtful process of using surprise to wake up the audience from its common-sense assumptions about the world.

”We can’t just pluck the data and a story comes out of it,” Matei said. “You need to demonstrate that data changes misconceptions. All good research violates previous assumptions, and because of this, all good research is story-ready. I’m trying to empower researchers to bring those stories out.”

The courses, the first of which can be taken at no cost, aren’t just for researchers, however.

“I would argue that understanding and communicating data in a way that informs, compels or reassures is a core personal and professional skill for anyone who wants to be a successful member of the 21st century community,” Matei said.

The courses in the series include:

  • Data Storytelling 101 (free): Learn the concepts of data storytelling, why it matters, and how it can transform research results into impactful narratives from which your audience learns new things, remembers important findings, and acts on them. This no-cost course must be taken before any of the other courses.
  • Building Causal Data Stories: Learn how to think about research – from data collection to data analysis to results reporting – as a narrative process. Rooted in basic statistics, the course provides students who have some numeric literacy a clear and direct path for advancing from reportable results to stories with impact.
  • Narrative Visualization: Learn key strategies to visualize results and enhance visual communication of data stories, followed by a deeper dive into how to go from analysis of results to a compelling story enhanced with visuals. This course builds on the Building Causal Data Stories course.
  • Data Storytelling as an Ethical Choice: Learn how to build transparency into your data stories so that the audience can understand where the data comes from and how it has been analyzed, as well as assess its validity and whether it has been gathered and used ethically. This course builds on the Building Causal Data Stories and Narrative Visualization courses.

The courses are useful for any professional whose tasks include sharing data through presentations, infographics, videos, or written narratives. Ideal learners are communication and public relations professionals, journalists, academic and scientific researchers, and business analysts.

“Anybody can benefit from this,” said Laura Rossi, the doctoral student working with Matei on the courses. “There is often a divide between people who are comfortable with numbers and people who are comfortable speaking. You need to somehow bridge that gap. This is a method you can rely on to turn numbers into compelling stories.”

After Data Storytelling 101, which is free, each course costs $350 with a package of all four for $1,000. Students who complete all the courses receive a Digital Storytelling certificate from Purdue.

For more information about Purdue’s online Data Storytelling series and to register see https://www.eventreg.purdue.edu/info/data-storytelling.

Writer: Greg Kline, 765-494-8167, gkline@purdue.edu

Sources: Sorin Matei, smatei@purdue.edu

Laura Rossi, rossil@purdue.edu

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