When you think about your carbon footprint, you are turning data into a story. When a movement declares “We are the 99%” it helps to make economics personal, and changes how we see ourselves, and the world. Advocacy is turning information into stories, almost by definition, but good storytelling isn’t easy, and the proliferation of data streams and digital tools means we need to be more creative and more responsible in how we tell stories, and how we collaborate to make them.

As the Covid-19 pandemic forces more of our lives and data online, the responsibility of social change groups to tell stories well is higher than ever before. In the early days of the pandemic, Michael Jarvis of TAI and I wrote this commentary for the World Economic Forum, building on previous work and consultations about the purpose and process of storytelling for social change.  

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed deep structural problems that go far beyond conventional ideas of public health, not least the impacts of pervasive inequality and racism. Civil society is mobilising to adapt and respond. Our ability to drive change will depend in part on our ability to communicate vital information in effective ways, harnessing the power of data and digital technology. The emergency has shown that the right information delivered in the right way can prompt people to change their individual behaviours and collectively save lives all over the world.

The iconic “Flatten the Curve” graph, which encouraged people everywhere to help contain the spread of COVID-19, is a case in point. It shows how measures such as hand-washing and social distancing can squash the expected peak of the pandemic, and keep infection numbers low enough for healthcare systems to manage. This simple public health chart, which originated in specialist journals and reports, was widely shared by traditional newspapers and magazines, then refined to clarify the message even further, translated into many languages, and creatively reworked into animations, cartoons and even cat videos.

The success of “Flatten the Curve” shows that it is possible to communicate urgent facts and instructions in a way that is compelling and emotionally resonant.

This aligns with research by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI) – a collaborative of funders supporting efforts worldwide to assure that people are informed and empowered and governments open and responsive. Through interviews and group discussions with civil society campaigners, community organizers and technology and media experts, TAI has gathered important lessons on how to communicate vital messages to build a better world as part of a broader World Economic Forum dialogue on the future of civil society. Here are some elements of what such crisis-informed, responsible communication and campaigning could look like:

  1. Tap the power of data – but in an ethical way

As shown by the “Flatten the Curve” message, data can be a powerful tool to effect change in policy and attitudes. There is more data available than ever before, and civil society needs to take full advantage of this. We need to be savvy in data sourcing, analysis and presentation. Big data analytics should not be the preserve of governments or big corporates alone.

Yet, civil society groups also need to align data gathering and use with considerations of data rights and protections. Only last year, a health non-governmental organization suffered a data breach affecting the information of a million New Zealanders. Assuring adequate cyber security is one important element, but civil society groups need to be asking questions of how they gather and use data: Is the data legitimately sourced? Is it accurately presented? Is it truly anonymized?

Civil society then has credibility when critiquing the data governance failings of governments and corporates. This role is revealed as all the more important amid the pandemic. Campaigners and activists, but also scientists, educators and anyone with an interest in safeguarding their data can get involved.

Read the full article from the World Economic Forum: Four lessons the COVID-19 crisis can teach us about data-driven storytelling

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