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Monday, October 27, 2014

Telling Stories at the New York State Geospatial Summit

Earlier this week I attended the eighth New York State Geospatial Summit. While the speakers were mostly "GIS" folks, the form is different from other events. All attendees participate in one track. This year the crowd filled our venue's meeting room to capacity at 200. The format is this: three speakers each speak for 45 minutes, then there's a panel where attendees ask questions. We do this twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. My job this year was to serve as moderator of the two Q&A panels.

Skaneateles Lake in sunshine; it was dark and gray during the event.
(Image by Catherine Nonenmacher, public domain)
The organizers carefully select the speakers and the quality is always above any "regular" conference. What made this year's speakers so good? Stories. Do you know the phrase "driveway moments?" Where I live it's associated with National Public Radio and describes how you pull into your driveway but can't get out of the car because you must hear the end of an NPR story on the radio. That's one definition of compelling storytelling. Some news stories (from Morning Edition, for example) have this quality but the exemplars are also found on programs like This American Life, The Moth and one of my favorites, 99% Invisible.

I attend a lot of conferences and hearing a compelling story is rare. I'm pleased to report I heard a few in Skaneateles  NY last Wednesday. The first speaker was Esri's John Calkins. I've known John for years and if you know him for his "top ten features in ArcGIS," you don't know his true gift. It's storytelling. He told a few stories on the theme Mining Space-Time for Patterns. Note that unlike some of the speakers who had "TBD" on their presentation page, John's topic was detailed on the website some weeks before the event.

John started off by offering the assembled attendees donuts from five different Dunkin Donut shops around the area. To my surprise many folks accepted the gift, and ate a donut, even though we just had breakfast! His underlying point was to bring up and explore location and time data about restaurant health violations in different neighborhoods. Everyone was vested in the data - since he shared which box came from which store along with its location on a violations map. That was actually a white lie, he let us know later. All the donuts came from the store in Auburn, NY.

John moved on to talk about pirates and when pirates do most of their pirating. He showed us a "data clock," something new to me, and explained how to use it, but kept the tech to minimum. He focused on the story. I don't think John mentioned Esri or ArcGIS once. No, he was there to teach us about using time in our geospatial analyses by telling stories. What I did take away about Esri and its software was subtle: I learned that ArcGIS (some bit of it - an extension maybe?) can do this these time analyses. In the end, I felt satisfied that I learned something and was not sold anything. Did the stories increase the warm feelings I have for Esri? Yes.

How long did it take John to gather the data for the analyses and craft the stories? How many times did he practice telling the stories? I can't say, but I can say he didn't write that presentation on the plane ride to the conference! One of the presenters offhandedly noted one video was made on the train. I appreciate his candor, but sadly, his whole presentation had that feel, too. There was no story.

Paul Ramsey of Boundless is another great storyteller. I've known Paul for years, too. He reminded me we met at an Esri User Conference when he headed Refractions Research. Paul's presentation topic is not on the website, but he shared with me it was his "Open Source for Managers" talk. I've seen that presentation before, but wondered how it would "hold up" on second hearing. Like any great story, it was just as engaging as it was the first time! I'm not sure if Paul updated it since I last heard it (or since it was originally written), but since it now included Boundless in at least one slide, I think he did. I want to contrast that update with another speaker who showed a slide that indicated Facebook had acquired Titan, a UAS manufacturer. That was a rumor; Google ultimately acquired Titan in April.

While Paul was conveying some pretty high level content to us, there was a story. How do I know that? He regularly took detours from the story! Each detour was highlighted with a different "detour" graphic, and each detour was its own little story. Paul was also very careful to let us know when the detour was over and we were returning to the main narrative.

Image by Woodennature under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Even if Paul had written this presentation some time ago, he had to familiarize himself with it so it could flow during last week's presentation. It did. Again, how long did he prepare? I did not ask him, but I'm sure the answer was "some." And, like John's presentation, there was almost no mention of Boundless. I think it was noted in one or two slides as an example of a company within the open source community along with others like Cloudera and Red Hat.  In the end, I again felt satisfied that I learned something and was not sold anything. Did the presentation increase the warm feelings I have for Boundless? Yes.

The final storyteller I want to profile is Joel Caplan, a professor from Rutgers who studies crime patterns. He didn't provide details on his presentation, but when I asked him about the topic the night before he answered in two words: "dark alleys." Then he asked me what I thought he'd talk about. I answered with something on the order of "why crime happens in dark alleys" and "how we can prevent crime in dark alleys." That was pretty close. Caplan uses map algebra to identify factors that make certain areas more likely to encourage crime, then uses the results to predict other areas with similar characteristics where crime might emerge. Caplan's talk was pretty technical, but involved a number of "small stories" to make his point. I was thoroughly impressed when the first question posed from the audience related to his statistical methods. Caplan immediately moved to his "bonus slide" prepared for just such question because, as he noted, "it comes up a lot." The slide had all sorts of statistics I never heard of, like BIC. That didn't worry me; I understood the stories. And, I want to learn more about how such techniques might help identify and enhance spaces that encourage positive community behaviors  like eating well and exercising.

What is the big take away from these successful presentations? Stories. Tell stories. But, don't be fooled, telling stories is hard. If it were easy everyone would do it well! I'm not sure how John and Paul craft their stories, but I do know that organizations that have a reputation for great storytelling have "coaches" that help new (and experienced) storytellers hone their stories. The Moth holds workshops for regular folks, for high schoolers, for those in prison, among others, to craft stories. And, those who end up on the TED stage get some coaching. In short, if you want to tell stories like John, Paul and Joel, you may need to get some guidance and do some significant homework.

And two other observations:
  • I think it's virtually impossible to craft a good story, or a decent presentation, on a train ride or a plane flight.
  • Out of date slides suggests you did not prepare.

2 comments:

  1. My personal experience as an aspiring storyteller is that the story "cooks" in my mind for a while, sometimes it simmers for weeks and months before it's ready to be written. And when it's ready, it just pours out. The pouring can take place on a train ride, not the cooking.

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  2. Sometimes the "pressure cooker" (keeping in the culinary theme) does spur the creative juices, although time to tidy up great thoughts is critical too (since a collapsing cake is a letdown, no matter how tasty!).

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