The Luxury of Contemplation by Beck Tench, with inspiration and encouragement from Anton Zuiker.
To give you some context, my work at the Museum is in the “Innovation and Learning” department and a large part of my work is focused around institutional culture. Part of my funding comes from a grant that studies how our museum’s culture has changed as a result of technology that I’ve introduced, so I have to take good notes and am given the luxury to spend time exploring data and better understanding what’s going on. Because of this, I’ve learned the value of this activity and can’t imagine not taking this sort of time in future positions.
Before I explain what’s so great and easy about my own reflections, it’s only fair to acknowledge the scary and hard parts, too. Another name for this talk could have been “Why You Should Share Your Half Baked Thoughts with The World.”
Because the questions I’ve asked myself and the answers I’ve found in this reflection time were half-baked, for each of them initially and some that I’ll share later in the presentation still are.
Some of the very real fears I faced in sharing these thoughts with the world were: I do not have anything valuable to say.
I’m not smart, creative or insightful enough.
People will see right through me.
But the good news is that through actually sharing, I realized that those fears were not realistic. They just lived inside me. They’re acting up right now, actually, as I give this half-baked idea of a talk to you, but they’re surmountable. Don’t let them stop you.
So, the meat of the presentation. How to contemplate. Well, what I did to figure this out was to look at some of the things I’ve published over the last couple years as a result of my reflections, and to look for patterns. I found six. Here they are.
Ask questions. For example, I wanted to know how much of our traffic comes from mommy bloggers, who a particular twitter user was who tweeted about visiting us, why comments on a blog we have get so nonsensical, and what participation really looks like during the frenzy of our #namethatzoom contests.
In order to answer the question, you’ve got to have data. So the next pattern I’ve identified is to “Identify (re)sources.” For the mommy bloggers, my data came from Google Analytics and an institutional database of social networking activity I maintain on delicious. For the twitter user, my data source was Twitter and for the blog, just the blog comments themselves. For name that zoom, I used Twitter, Flickr and a backup from Tweetscan since the zoom I was curious about was more than 10 days old.
Once you have data, put it in a system that you know how to use. Reflection is a generative thing, don’t make it “work” – take the tools you know and love and use them to explore your question and data.
In the same vein, play to your strengths. I don’t create interactives or fancy queries of data because those aren’t things I do well. I am good at design, at sketching, at search and those are the skills I depend on to turn my insights into something tangible.
Most importantly, I’ve shared those insights with colleagues, on social networks and in blogs.
My mommy blogger visualization was shared on Flickr, where several people commented and asked questions and resulted in the entire graphic changing.
This graphic, which is what my original developed into based on feedback, encouraged me to explore what blogger traffic looked like over time.
So I created this graphic of all the blog posts and press that the museum has seen online over a year’s time.
The twitter conversation I was curious about turned a few random asynchronous tweets into a shareable lesson about how parents decide where to take their kids on a rainy day. I was able to share this graphic with other staff to show them how Twitter works.
My question exploring the nonsense on a blog started out as an exploration of different methods for visualizing. I was toying with the idea of racquetball and tennis and using that as a method for visualizing the interaction on posts.
What I ended up with was several concept-map like nodes where different symbols represent different users. From the few I sketched, can you tell which were the nonsensical posts?
For name that zoom, I started with a manually created database that combined Flickr and Twitter contributions and also included the context of the contribution (reply, guess, question, banter).
Then I took that data and made some notes as to how many people were participating and how many contributions they made.
And then I used photoshop, illustrator and omnigraph sketcher to visualize those data points and share them on Flickr.
The last pattern I’ve noticed is that with each of my reflections, I kept going. For the mommy bloggers, I revised my original viz and created another one related to all blogger traffic. For my twitter question, I’ve paid more attention to those particular users and have even met a couple of them in real life now. I’m still thinking on the blog viz as to what the significance is to the nonsense, but I’m closer than I would have been without having spent the time. And for #namethatzoom, I’d like to take each of our zooms and create a visualization for them so I can see how they compare to one another, particular in terms of time of day, and type of object zoomed in on.
So, we’ve covered the fears I had to face and the patterns I’ve discovered in my process, but what’s the real value in this activity?
I feel like I do better work. As ironic as the fear of “I’m not creative or insightful enough” was, I feel more creative and more insightful for having gone through the process.
I am more prolific. And even though some of the thoughts are half-baked, they are all intentional and thoughtful.
I’m happy with my work. I think that a part of that is because the Museum is an awesome place to be, but I think another part of that is because spending this time buffers nicely the tendency I have to get burn out. We are all passionate about our work, and you can burn out on things you love, so it’s nice to have down time that feels nutritive and gives you energy. There’s a lot of freedom in having the ability to choose the questions you ask, the methods you use and the form of the output you create.
And last, I feel like I am part of something bigger than myself. My community has thoughtfully and generously come to my aid over and over again, and that’s made me more aware of it and grateful to it.
So, I want to leave you with one last thought, and it’s related to the kinds of questions you ask yourself. Earlier this week I read an article by Richard Hamming, who is a famous CS guy I’d never heard of. The article, “You and Your Research” is almost impossibly long and arrogant, but there are some real points of truth in it that make it worth the time and effort. He asks “What are the most important problems in your field? Are you working on one of them? Why not? And by way of Dr. Hamming, I propose the same to myself and to each of you. Let’s be sure that the questions we ask in this process are important ones so that when we share them with our community, we advance our field.
Thank you. Join me any Friday from 5-7 at the Pinhook for office hours. See links to all of the projects I’ve mentioned in this talk on http://delicious.com/tag/refreshthetriangle/