The On Think Tanks interview: Eric Barrett of JumpStart Georgia

21 April 2015
SERIES Think tanks & data visualisation 12 items

We caught up with the winner of the first round of the On Think Tanks Data Visualization competition about their inspiration and experience creating the winning piece. Don’t limit HER possibilities, a static visualization by Eric Barrett at JumpStart Georgia, won round the judges with its original use of photography and creative manner of telling the story about STEM education for girls in Georgia. We wanted to unpack Eric’s motivation for the graphic, the origins behind its unusual style and some of the challenges they faced during the process.

OTT: The style of your infographic is fairly unusual. Why did you decide to use photographs as well as graphics? What was your inspiration?

EB: The inclusion of photography was a team decision, but was proposed by our designer who is also a photographer.

The idea stemmed from our discussion about how infographics are abstract and we didn’t want to portray, at least in this infographic, a woman as an abstract vector graphic. We wanted to show her as a real tangible individual that our target audience could relate to.

We do a bit of photography for our projects, such as our Toast to Georgian Women graphic and for us this was the next logical step.

OTT: What programme (or programmes) do you use to design your infographics? Why do you prefer these programmes?

EB: For our static infographics we mostly draw using pencil and paper, use spreadsheets (LibreOffice, Google)R Project, or QGIS for geography/maps based graphics. We also like to use TileMill, and Adobe CS (unfortunately, the professional standard). We once used (well, I did) Inkskape to develop the infographics. We also use vector graphic libraries and sketch our own illustrations when we need to. For interactive stuff, it really depends. D3js, of course and sometimes Highcharts. Again, sometimes we do it from scratch.

OTT: Do you think that this issue with girls and STEM education is a particular problem for Georgia? What prompted you to want to tackle this?

EB: It is a problem everywhere, but each society must develop a communications strategy, or advocacy programme, to try and improve gender bias in education in a way that works locally. We were prompted to tackle this story because it is an issue that few discuss and know about.

Few people in Georgia believe that the inequality exists and most see society in terms of gender roles and don’t understand why education shouldn’t support their view. Over half our staff are women, but that is unique for a tech organization anywhere, let alone Georgia. We feel we are sensitized to this and realize this is social issue. Women and men are socialized into their biased views of role-based employment and life activities. Our infographic is one small effort to reduce gender-based inequality in Georgia and beyond.

OTT: How big a team did it take to create the finished output, and how long?

EB: Our team is comprised of 10 members, but four worked on that project, with our entire staff’s feedback. We completed it in one week.

OTT: And do you think that using photographs rather than graphic design made the process easier or harder?

EB: It was more difficult, but necessary. It added another element to the workflow, which was photo production. Was it worth it? Yes. We often stick to the standard infographic workflow (if such a thing exists), but when time and flexibility permit, we use alternative approaches that more carefully take into account the audience.

OTT: Who were you hoping to influence with this infographic – did you have a specific measure of success?

EB: We were hoping to use data to target women to show them that they are just as capable as anyone else to work in STEM and that there was money in it if they chose to go into those sectors. We only used page views to measure reach, unfortunately.

OTT: One of the comments from our judges is that the graphic could have done more to target policy makers. What has the response to it been, and is there something you might do differently if you did it again?

EB: We were telling a news story, not leading, per se, an advocacy campaign. The Millennium Challenge Account Georgia, the organization that conducted some of the research for the infographic, did not do any interesting communications beyond the boring report they wrote.

They approached us after they saw our infographic, but there was no follow through. We see that a lot and agree with the judges; there was so much more they ought to have done for a better advocacy strategy.

OTT: JumpStart has produced quite a number of static visualisations. Why have you chosen to focus on creating this type of communication output? What key lessons have you learnt through their production? Whether it’s things to avoid, things to include, approach to the project, who to involve, what works for different audiences, etc?

EB: The answer to this question is lengthy. In short, we started with infographics because we wanted to challenge the status quo in Georgia. Too many organizations are lazy and don’t take their target audience into account. They just throw out content and say: “here, read this”.

We see a growing trend worldwide that audiences want more and as content producers we should oblige.

From an advocacy perspective, it just makes sense. Who is really going to read a 300-page report or even a 30-page report? Seriously, I think many NGOs and think tanks write for themselves, not for their audiences. And donors seem to be okay with that, though we see that changing.

Infographics are just one media format among many. Photography, interactive media, animated infographics, videography, street performance, etc. are all viable solutions to communications problems if they fit the bill. The point is to keep focused on the goal and ask: “is what I am doing really meeting my goals?” If engagement is the goal, or network saturation, then you have to explore and even sometimes experiment with different approaches, media, and technologies to achieve your goals.

However, the message should always be simple, even if the amount of work to make it that way is not. We have done complicated visuals and they just don’t work like simpler ones do. I don’t mean that you need to dumb it down, I just mean keep the message simple.

Management is key. These projects are creative and they have to be managed so they don’t get out of control, off budget, and over deadline. The hardest thing I have ever done and am doing is managing these technical, creative projects and ensuring my staff are still happy and excited, our partners are happy, and that we are all happy with the cost. Each project is different and there is no cookie cutter approach, but there are workflows that facilitate a better outcome.