Achieving data literacy through fun and games

by Chad Sansing | A spotlight on Data + Friends, a 2018 Global Sprint project

Data + Friends is a data literacy and game design project meant to help activists understand how to use data in their work to help their communities. Meag Doherty leads the project. She is a civic user researcher, designer, developer, and data wrangler. Currently, Meag is a Senior UX Designer and Researcher at Agency CHIEF in Washington, D.C. working on US-based government user experience. Meag and her contributors are researching and prototyping a paper-based game designed to help anyone use data.

I interviewed Meag Doherty to learn more about Data + Friends and how you can help at the Mozilla’s Global Sprint 2018.

What is Data + Friends?

Data + Friends is a collaborative paper-based game designed to spark a conversation among participants on how to best identify, analyze, and make decisions based on data.

Each participant is handed 5–7 cards (rules being refined during #MozSprint!) — every round each participant plays a pair of cards telling a story using data, and the group discusses which pairing has the most compelling story.

An example pairing could be something like…

“Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. One of the primary causes of heart disease is….”

“⅓ of Americans are overweight or obese.”

At this stage in the project, the goal is to create a set of diverse content.

Coming soon: localization and translation into other languages. A game like Data + Friends could serve as a collaborative off-the-shelf game, as well as hyper-localized to an issue area.

Why did you start Data + Friends?

Image courtesy of Meag Doherty

“I don’t do data.” This is something I hear often.

I live in Washington, DC, a town rife with issue-based organizations filled with incredibly smart, dedicated people tackling enormous public policy issues.

When it comes to identifying, collecting, and effectively using data, many advocates rely on the “data people” within their organizations to tell stories with data.

Before this project, this idea was based on my experience. As a person with a quantitative research background, I was the data person people came to in a pinch. Often the data question I would be answering required basic arithmetic — no fancy mathematics. But it was because of my comfort swimming through troves of data and finding a nicely packaged story that my peers came to me when they needed help. I wanted to capture and share that experience and knowledge in an educational experience.

How did you decide on a paper-based, game-design approach to data literacy for activists?

I learn by doing and collaborating. Employing game mechanics to spark conversations about data felt like a natural approach to this challenge. There are many wonderful curriculums, tutorials, and lectures to learn data (listed below!) that have complemented much of my thinking about this project.

From day one of this project, my mentor gave me the idea to begin with a paper-based prototype. Education and skills training can take place in rural areas without access to internet so an offline starting point made sense for accessibility, too.

What has surprised you about the work so far?

I’ve learned that incremental efforts bring an open source project to life.

I’ve been grateful to have mentorship under Mozilla’s Open Leadership training program leading up to the #mozsprint, and a welcoming and open community of peers who have contributed to the understanding of my own work.

Week after week, I’ve been chipping away, drafting markdown files, and promoting my ideas to strangers. At times, none of these efforts felt like progress. As soon as I hit the submit button to get published for the #mozsprint, I realized how far I’ve come from an idea in my head.

Where are your favorite data literacy and game design resources to share with newcomers to this project?

The two most inspiring projects I encountered in this project are the Data Culture Project and School of Data.

And for games design, there’s a fun and accessible Youtube channel called Shut Up & Sit Down where a duo reviews games of varying complexity.

What challenges have you faced working on this project?

Not Enough Time! And prioritization.

When I know I have a free 15 minutes to work on the project, I always jump to the top of my project tasks.

The most important task when building an open source project is to build your community. That priority quickly surfaced when I stopped doing *all* the tasks and started building out the project page to show people an open door.

What kind of skills do I need to help you?

  • Game Design: Can you help us play test and think through the various pitfalls in the gameplay right now? We want to make sure that the game is not just instructive but also engaging and fun. How do we improve aspects of co-operation or competition?
  • Content: We are looking for contributors who might be the eventual users of this game to help us with scenarios where they might use the game. We also need contributors who might share content (data/stories) that would make playing this game a meaningful exercise.
  • Web Development and UX design: We also need help to build out a simple web page to communicate and advocate for people to use this game to change how people work together on data and storytelling for advocacy.

How can others join your project at #mozsprint 2018?

Take this short survey:

Join the conversation on Gitter (, find me on Twitter @EmDohh, and, if you are participating in the NYC-area, join me in-person for the Global Sprint at The Trust for Public Land.

Register for that site here:

Join us wherever you are May 10–11 at Mozilla’s Global Sprint to work on many amazing open projects! Join a diverse network of scientists, educators, artists, engineers and others in person and online to hack and build projects for a health Internet. Register today

This post by Chad Sansing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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