The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

May 07, 2013

What toys can teach us about the future of journalism

Posted by Elizabeth R. Miller

Above: “Employable?” a Data Toy designed by a team at The New School's PETLab

In recent years, data visualizations and infographics have become a common way to relay news and information - an addition or sometimes a replacement for the traditional written narrative.

The folks at The New School's PETLab, though, want to take storytelling a step further, by creating a new approach to expressing the news.

Enter Data Toys, a Knight-funded prototype, which allow people to play with information as a way to reveal the complex systems underlying news and trends. The toys also offer ways to help readers make sense of large data sets or changes in data over time.

We recently asked the Data Toys team, Colleen Macklin, John Sharp and Heather Chaplin, what kinds of toys they’re building and what the implications are for how people consume news and information.

Data Toys is doing something different from story-centric journalism. Can you describe what you've already created?

So far, we’ve developed seven toys around the immigrant experience in America for a project with Public Radio International. As we write this, we’re embarking on a new set of toys with Radiolab about decision-making and human nature.

A few examples:

  • Job Roll” explores the challenges immigrants have finding work in different cities by representing the data as a 3D topography. As players tilt a tablet to roll a marble on the surface, they begin to feel how some cities are more easily “settled in” than others by experiencing the bumps and valleys of a given urban job market. 
  • Another toy, “Employable?” (pictured above) uses reconfigurable dolls that represent different immigrant populations to activate an iPad app and show players how likely it is that immigrant will find work in different cities based on their experience.
  • Finally, “Balance of Power” is a city simulator that uses the metaphor of balance to describe how attractive a city is to immigrant populations. Players add pieces to a balancing platform representing positive influences such as jobs, funding programs, and other incentives as well as negative influences, from budget cuts to exclusionary policies, all the while attempting to keep the city in balance and retain the population. 

There’s more too on our website! In addition to the toys, we’ve created a set of open source tools for Data Toy makers, which can be found on our website and GitHub.

What are some of the possible implications for how people consume news and information?

We're trying to bring systems thinking into the realm of journalism. Systems thinking is when you look at any phenomenon as being the output of a set of elements and their relationships to one another. The investigative journalist, who, say, exposes the web of corruption that led to development contract being given to the friend of the mayor's wife is a systems thinker, whether she knows it or not.

Data Toys are predicated on the idea that behind every headline (phenomenon) there is a complex system at work. We want to give people models (toys) of these systems to play with, so that they can actually engage in a meaningful way with the complexity behind any given news event. The big stories of the day in a globalized world are complex by nature. Journalists need new approaches for helping people grapple with that complexity.

How have people reacted to the toys?

The response so far has been encouraging. When people get to play with the toys they form their own conclusions based on theories they create as they play. This is what we’re working toward: encouraging players to understand the systems underlying the news by experiencing them directly and forming their own conclusions. It may be disorienting at first, but once players dive in they usually get pulled into by the playfulness and start not only seeing the issues in a new way but actually having their own emotional responses.

You describe data toys as "play-centric experiences." What do you mean? How can play help people learn?

We mean an experience that is exploratory, actively engaged, and open to multiple outcomes. Orreries, those models of the solar system that we all played with in elementary school, are a great example here. You could listen to a lecture about the solar system, read about it, or you could play with an orrery. While all of these are useful learning tools, the orrery provides a hands-on experience where the learner can touch and engage with the subject in ways that makes it much more understandable in a fundamental way. Certainly, there is more to know about the solar system than is embodied in the orrery play experience, but it is a great way to “get” the basics in a quick amount of time.

Essential to this is play — the ability to move the planets around, to see how they orbit, to see their relationships to one another and the sun. By being able to interact with the orrery, the player is able to experiment as a means of developing understanding.

What have you learned as you build this project?

Though we are only a few months into the project, we have already learned a good deal on both the design side and the journalism side. From a design perspective, we have grappled with the challenges in differentiating between interactive information graphics, games and Data Toys. Interactive information graphics tend to provide a limited set of interactions that only let the user “scrub” through the vectors of interaction. But with Data Toys, we want to provide a more open experience. With games, the challenge is avoiding establishing goals that tell the player how to interact with the system. We want the player to establish their own goals in order to best come to an understanding of the underlying system.

From a journalistic perspective, we’re dealing with how to remain accurate in a journalistic sense when some level of abstraction is necessary. We’re also learning about new ways of staying true to old principles - we’ve been struck by how values like transparency match up with ethos of the open source movement, which emphasizes “showing your work.” It’s been fascinating to see how well the journalism students and design students in our class have learned to work together across their disciplines. Considering the need for journalists and designers to work together moving into the future, this has been heartening.

By Elizabeth R. Miller, communications associate at Knight Foundation

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