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Leadership and (re)presentations of data

A few days ago, Gary Stager sent out a bunch of tweets (on Twitter, for the uninitiated) about an Edward Tufte seminar he had attended.  In responding to my response to one of his tweets, Stager wrote: any info lit pundit/keynote without a thorough understanding of Tufte’s work is a Ginsu Knife salesman not a serious educator!”  I told him that I agreed and that he should add the word “leader” to his list of info. lit pundit/keynote.  In other words, as I continue to explore what it means to be an educational leader in the 21st century, one set of competencies that, to me, is clearly more important than ever before is the ability to speak and persuade with the aid of visual presentations.  However, that doesn’t mean supporting a speech/presentation with the standard (typically awful) PowerPoint presentation.  In the technologically-advanced world in which we now live, if you combine the brilliant ideas of someone like Tufte with Web 2.0 tools, the ability to craft incredibly appealing and powerful presentations is easier than ever.  Furthermore, in the information age, where data and information are more available than ever, the possibilities of representing data in aesthetically-pleasing and meaningful ways are nearly endless.

As one example, I point you to a website I’ve been touting via Twitter for about a week now.  Fivethirtyeight.com is a blog developed by a couple of data analysts who originally worked as baseball analysts.  They’ve taken many of the analyses and approaches they used to analyze data from baseball games and used them to make projections of the presidential election (and other federal elections).  In a nutshell, as I understand it, the projections are based on a sort of meta-analysis of polling data from various polls.

The formulae or algorithms they use are certainly complicated, but the way they present the data is what is so interesting…and SO simple!  First of all, believe it or not, the site is built on a basic Blogger.com template (free!).  Second, they write that the graphs are designed in MS-EXCEL 2007.  I don’t know what they use to create the maps like the one below, but it’s not that difficult to get an outline map of the U.S. and color in some states.  You could probably do it with something as basic as MS-Paint.

I create a lot of images in PowerPoint these days (just insert an image or clipart into a blank slide and save it as a picture file; that’s it).  The graphic design capabilities added to PowerPoint 2007 are excellent.  You don’t have to be a trained graphic artist to create powerful digital images anymore!

I know a bunch of folks decry or bemoan the use of tag or text clouds, but that’s mostly because it’s hard to find real pedagogical value in them.  But, as visual representations of data, I think they can be very powerful.  For example, in keeping with the presidential election theme, here’s a text cloud representing Michelle Obama’s speech from the DNC last night.  From this picture of the text, you get a really good sense of the foci of her speech.

How did I do that?  Not exactly magic.  I found the text of her speech on the Internet.  Then, I copied and pasted it into a free service called TagCrowd.  TagCrowd generates the HTML code for you to use in your own website (NOTE: it didn’t work for me and I had to do a quick workaround, but nothing fancy).  That’s it.

For our new Ed.D. program in educational leadership, I’m going to insist that we work with our students on presenting or representing data.  Next time you have to make a presentation to your school board or your superintendent, please consider the power of visual imagery and the free and easy ways we now have to (re)present data.

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