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Revisiting a SenseMaker project boosts confidence

By Tony Quinlan  ·  January 21, 2011  ·  Data visualisation

I've spent the first part of this week (and the first few days of my guest-blogging - which I'd not put in the diary) at a fascinating event with Dave. There's nothing quite like a room of diverse perspectives and fierce minds for stimulating your thinking.

As part of the after-dinner entertainment on Monday, Dave talked and I supported with a snapshot of some previous SenseMaker projects - linked around the Children of the World pilots we've been running. I'd spent part of the day between sessions revisiting the material we'd gathered in Mexico in particular.

What was encouraging, in revisiting it a year on, was to realise that I've become more proficient not just at using SenseMaker itself, but also at digging deeper and interpreting the patterns and results I can see. It can be quite a learning curve and, at times, I've wondered whether I was making any progress.

(In the course of the past two years of SenseMaker projects, I've realised that looking at other people's datasets is a lot less illuminating than looking at one that you've put together - the signifiers make a lot more sense, you understand the overall context of the data you've captured and, eventually, interpretation of results becomes more intuitive and straightforward.)

This week, in the margins of a day full of excellent sessions, I managed to put together a pretty good initial look, along with some notable correlations and insights, taken mostly using Cluster, Distribute and Graph.

From Mexico last year, we had gathered over 1800 micro-narratives prompted by (mostly) ambiguous photographs. The data we'd gathered had been very interesting but of course the fragments were all in Spanish - a language of which I have no knowledge. Looking quickly at the materials, some things jump out as broad-brush conclusions, but it's also now easy to spot some interesting outliers within it.


For me, there was an added frisson on Monday evening. I've done a SenseMaker project on Mexico without ever having been to the country or even researched the country - we relied mostly on the culture-neutral anthropological signifiers that Beth and Dave had put together originally. (For the interested, there's an in-depth explanation of them here.)

That evening, there were some highly intelligent people in the room who knew Mexico intimately. And there was I, busy reporting back to them on what their culture was like, without ever having been.

It's a real testament to the power of SenseMaker that not only were there no criticisms, but some extremely passionate people the next day referred back to some of the elements I drew out of the data - elaborating on them, reinforcing the validity of the data and approach we'd taken.

The above picture should give you an example - "How do people deal with difference: Wait it out" dominates the cluster. It's not been a common response in other countries, so I was prepared for that to be criticised. In fact, people went much further, referring to "Ni modo" - a common Mexican expression/attitude that is difficult to translate into English. It combines elements of "oh well", a sense of resignation in the face of difficult or trying circumstances.


So - getting better with SenseMaker itself, but also learning even more to trust the results.