I went to the Metcalf Institute’s Data Visualization Workshop yesterday, and so did a bunch of other people: it was neat to be there with oceanographers, designers, marine biologists, people from the EPA and the Coastal Resources Management Council, and people like me doing independent projects. I got to see Kathie Florsheim, whose project Living on the Edge and whose conversation at the beginning of Climate Anxiety Counseling helped shape it. Lynsy Smithson-Stanley, who worked on the climate change campaign for the Audubon Society, and sculptor Nathalie Miebach, who makes sculptures out of data, helped me think about how to get information and ideas all the way from the world, through someone’s mind, into someone else’s mind and back out into the world.
But my major takeaway from this workshop is that listening to people, working together, and agreeing on a plan of action–just agreeing! Not even doing it!–is slow.
After some panels and talks and things, people formed groups to do an exercise:
1) Look at this information about climate change in Narragansett Bay.
2) Choose an element of it.
3) Decide who you want to understand it that element and what you want them to do in response.
4) Based on all of that, decide how to present the information to them.
Well. These were all people who acknowledge climate change and its effects as present, complex, far-reaching, and frightening; people who are already working to respond to it well, and were there because they want to be doing more. I had to leave after an hour to go teach my class, and my group still hadn’t decided what element of information they wanted to talk about to whom.
In a way, an hour–or two hours, which is how long the workshops were–is nothing, a tiny shard of time in which to get from “this complex thing, intertwined with a bunch of other complex things, is happening” to “here’s what I want you, specific group of people, to know and do about it.” But two hours were what we had.
I, at least, had a lot of trouble finding the sweet spot between “doing it right” and “doing it soon” that’s crucial when time is short. I also know that without listening to what somebody thinks is important, you don’t have a chance of adding anything to their list of important things. That was true within our group of real humans sitting there, as true as it was for the hypothetical humans to whom we would have presented our hypothetical data campaign.
As I move into the next phase of Climate Anxiety Counseling, I’ll build in what Kathie said about evidence being necessary to move beyond narrative, what Lynsy said about deciding what I want the people who talk to me to tell someone else, what Nathalie said about how presenting information changes it. I also want to build in what I learned about false starts, dead ends, ways to fail, and the need to listen through frustration in my group’s first hour. Maybe they came up with something amazing after I left. Maybe I was the problem.