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Data Drama

Data Drama

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Two autumns ago, Chevron, working with the Economist Group, launched Energyville as part of its "Will You Join Us" campaign.

Not surprisingly, the campaign, the site, and the game drew a lot of criticism and vitriol for alleged greenwashing and hypocrisy.  By posing a question the way it did, Chevron also invited negative answers (“No, I will not join you” on the blog) and word play that twisted the URL (Will you join us in protesting Chevron?).  Despite all this, Chevron has persisted.

I’m reminded of their effort because a recent Financial Times supplement on the subject of “Modern Energy” had an article about oil company adaptation on the top of the fold and an ad for Energyville on the bottom.  An interesting contrast, especially as the article began with an oil man who suggested the oil industry “should be fighting for its survival, rather than the carmakers.”  In that context, I took another look at the "Will You Join Us" site and Energyville – was it actually telling a story about survival?

Turns out that in 2009, this particular endeavor may tell a bigger story about the new demands of data-based storytelling than about environmental efforts and a repositioning of the oil titans.

Seems just a few moments ago, corporations were trying to get their arms around the fact that they had to be content and media companies - simultaneously in business and in the business of starting conversations with consumers.  Many early content attempts went spectacularly awry.

Now it has officially gotten harder.  Today, not only do you have to be a content company, in dialogue with your consumers, you also have the imperative of trafficking in data – leveraging real data to tell a story – either internally or to your customers.

This month, Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle wrote a white paper in conjunction with the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco in which they called out, among other things:

  • A key competency of the web 2.0 era is discovering implied metadata, and then building a database to capture that metadata and/or foster an ecosystem around it.
  • Data analysis, visualization, and other techniques for seeing patterns in data are going to be an increasingly valuable skillset.

Grab your umbrella - the deluge of data is just beginning.  But very few companies truly understand and leverage their data assets effectively in the marketing and communications area.

Good use of data uses context and tells a story – and, like in all storytelling, clarity is paramount.

As data visualization expert Ben Fry, in his book Visualizing Data, writes:

“We’re getting better and better at collecting data, but we lag in what we can do with it…It’s easy to collect data and some people have become preoccupied with simply accumulating more complex data or data in mass quantities.  But more data is not implicitly better, and often serves to confuse the situation…Find the smallest amount of data that can still convey something meaningful about the contents of the data set.”

In other words, what’s the simplest way to provide insight for your audience?  If we are drowning in data, more data is not a lifeboat.  The display of data in an insightful way, is.

To go back to my original inquiry, when you look at the "Will You Join Us" site, the facts are random, seemingly disconnected and/or devoid of insight or meaning.

At one point I am advised to “skip using the blow dryer 6 days a month and save enough energy to read 748 emails.”  At another point, I am asked to commit to “carpool to work 5 days this year and save enough energy to read 3,888 emails.”

Now, as I don’t know how long it takes me to read EITHER 748 or 3888 emails, these data statements are fairly meaningless to me.  Frankly, I would rather read less emails overall– especially if it means I can have guilt-free dry hair and not ride in the back seat.

On the site there are also cartoons to send to friends, a ticker that counts barrel consumption and MPG calculators.  It’s a cacophony of data and interaction and no real story – of survival or otherwise.  Think of it more like a giant New Year’s resolution list with no prioritization or throughline beyond good intentions and profit margins.  As this well-known, but still compelling Little Red Riding Hood story demonstrates, random facts can cloud both the journey and the truth.

In the game Energyville, you can make some limited choices  – but the ramifications of those decisions are out of your control.  It’s extremely text reliant – like an annotated map.  And while it tries to portray a “system” – the drag and drop interface provides less insight than expected.  Worst of all, the final energy management score (this is a game after all) is impenetrable.  I have no idea what a good score looks like.

No doubt with the Economist Group this game is well-researched and the data is impeccable.  But that’s not enough.

With regards to the Chevron story - it’s hard to come away with anything other than a sense that everything is about tradeoffs –  but we knew that already, right?

If your data doesn’t take me somewhere, you can keep it to yourself.

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