Telling Data Stories

Telling Data Stories-1

I have always admired the GiGL teams’ approach to technology. They understand, better than any group of people I know, how technology can be used to achieve great results, to tell stories that inspire change, and not just to impress and scare lesser mortals.

Many of GiGL’s service users may not be aware of the detail and intelligence that goes into every product and service they create. They perform technological feats that are barely short of miraculous and make it look effortless. The ability to deliver better services more efficiently is at the heart of everything the GiGL team develop. While I may not always understand the technology behind their services, I do understand that it is their service users’ needs that drive their endless innovation.

I’m fortunate to have worked with some of the great story tellers, from individuals and performers who can hold an audience in their thrall, to huge commercial entertainment companies such as Warner Bros and the BBC. Story-telling predates written cultures by thousands of years. It is at the heart of all good communication and at the heart of all my work. It is a skill to which everyone responds. Stories package raw information in a way that makes it easy for us to imagine a scenario, understand the context of facts, data and events, connect information in our minds and form a clear mental picture.

GiGL’s audience is a specialist and largely academic one but one that responds to stories no less.

The GiGL team are some of the best story-tellers I know. They bring data to life, squeezing it to uncover hidden tales about trends in species populations, they show how changes in human behaviour affect wildlife habitat, and show us the results of the constant and ever-changing interaction between wildlife, green space and human life.

Everything GiGL does and everything they create is a solution to a problem.

web04We have taken this same approach to the new website. It provides solutions to GiGL’s communications problems and, I hope, makes it appear effortless. It tells the story of GiGL and the data they hold. It tells stories from GiGL partners and service users. It invites users to share and participate in those stories.

Great things can grow organically from small beginnings. Sometimes. So too can complex problems. The old GiGL website had grown from a simple site, designed around the needs of the single project that had funded its initial creation, into an unwieldy and complicated leviathan. It was a creature of semi-epic proportions, combining hidden gems of information with a technical foundation that induced frequent bouts of apoplexy.

While GiGL’s time and energy has been focussed on improving products and services, and on delivering those services via other parts of the website, the core information and communication side of the website had been neglected. Something the GiGL team knew had to be addressed.

As Chloë, who has been responsible for maintaining the website, says: “Although data and number crunching is part of our day to day activity, relationships are at the heart of what GiGL does. We work with many people and organisations to build, improve and share an environmental evidence base. Therefore, we wanted the website to be, not only a source of useful resources but also, a communication hub and a friendly external face.”

The website had grown over time as need dictated, but as Chloë tried to shoe-horn each new project into its creaking infrastructure, so she spent more and more time fighting something that was never designed for the purpose.

“We started to build content on our website and branch out into social media. But because the structure of the website itself was old and the foundations had not been built with this in mind, before we got in too deep we decided to draw upon Miranda’s expertise to re-work and re-launch our website, bringing it up to date and making it more logical and navigable.”

Our first task was to step back from what was there and review what was needed. We had to look afresh at the context – to understand the website’s audience – to understand who needs to know what and what we wanted them to do with that information.

web03The GiGL team had recently started to create more content for different audience groups. But they had no simple way to signpost that new content, meaning much of it was hidden, to be discovered only after diligent reading. Simple navigation and a clear, rational structure would be key to the development of the new site. The task of auditing and restructuring over a hundred pages of content was mammoth. Chloë and I spent many hours trying to find the story to which each piece of information belonged. It was important that the new structure not be dictated by old content, or that important content was lost in the new structure.

While we tackled the structure and content and spent time making it look pretty and friendly, we knew that the long-term success of the site was dependent on a solid architecture. Good foundations would allow GiGL to easily update and edit content. They would allow the website to flex to suit GiGL’s changing needs over the coming years.

The whole site is designed with the GiGL team’s needs at its core. Having watched Chloë fight with an administration system that seemed designed to frustrate, I knew the user interface and architecture would be one of the most important aspects of the new site.

The new site is built using WordPress, the open source software that, thanks to the thousands of programmers that comprise the WordPress community, has become the most-used content management system on the Internet today. We already use WordPress to publish the GiGLer, so it was easy to demonstrate the advantages of this system to the GiGL team. WordPress is both highly customisable and user friendly. Having originally been developed as blogging software, it is also very intuitive.

The new website is clean and deceptively simple. Much of our time has been spent on what lies beneath the surface – on creating a site that is easy to update and where new content magically appears, perfectly formatted, in the right location. By hard coding a lot of functionality into the back end of the site, I have been able to keep the administration area uncluttered and make it easy for Chloë, or whoever follows in her footsteps, to navigate.

The website will also function as a hub for core GiGL information. We have devised a new system for updating and publishing GiGL policies, documents and atlases, and for managing staff contacts. New sections on planning and recording will provide a central information resource for old hands and new enthusiasts alike.

A lot of time has gone into saving time – and stress. Now, when content needs to be updated or added, it is a simple process that should leave Chloë calm and smiling, not half-bald from self-inflicted alopecia. Something I know Chloë is looking forward to.

 “Once we launch our new look website we’ll not only benefit from the better interaction with our users but also be able to more easily alter and add content as GiGL develops over the years – it’s the dynamic communication and information tool that we’ve been aspiring to.”

This article was originally published in GiGL’s own newsletter, the GiGLer.



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