Data storytelling for public institutions

How we relied on a data journalism approach to making sense of the Bruno Kessler Foundation’s transparency-data, toward a more inclusive and engaging informative-experience.

In Italy, the “Piano AntiCorruzione e Trasparenza” (Anti-corruption and transparency plan), with the reform of the Decree n.33/2013, requires all the public administrations to make their data (financial data, personnel, etc.) public and available, as a matter of transparency. Those requirements concern the online publication of data and documents on the budget, sources of funding, the composition of personnel and management, contracts must be published in a specific online section named amministrazione trasparente.
The lack of a standard shared format to present information is at the origin of the proliferation of solutions that don’t take the users’ perspective into account nor make a real sense of the published data. Such data sets, if properly presented and connected, would support the work of journalists, citizens, governors, as well as administration’s internal-members, such as directors and administrators.

In 2017 the Bruno Kessler Foundation decided to explore new ways to make sense of its amministrazione trasparente section, extending it toward the designing of a real tool to explore and analyze the institution through its data.

As Sheldon, we have vast expertise in data storytelling, but frankly, we never confronted with such data and requirements. We worked closely with FBK’s internal members in mutual support, to map the prospective users, to focus on their needs, to understand which data they would need, and finally to design the first online experience prototype. Since the beginning, during the first co-design workshop, we understood that the mediation between the delivering of a tool that responds to the administrative needs, and the designing of a new informative experience, would be an impossible task. Too many limits and constraints, especially on the Decree n.33/2013 explicitly forbids to rely on visual methods to communicate data. For this reason, we decided to deliver an in-between experience, a data storytelling platform that works ad entry point to FBK’s data. We called it FBK’s Explorer.

We tested, and then adopted a data journalism approach, combining data visualizations with traditional informative texts that introduce each section, and enable users in understanding how visualizations works and what data says. The core visualization, for instance, connects the employee’s data (age, gender) with their contractual form, ending in a sunburst diagram that reveals a series of valuable insights that otherwise it would difficult to highlight. Indeed, the Explorer allows the retrieval of time series, allowing a year-by-year comparison on multiple data variables at the same time.
Then the story moved to the people each FBK’s division hired in the last years, connected with the gender quota, highlighting the positive employment rate from one side, and the care to gender balance from the other hand. Then, very important, we relied on an alluvial diagram to reveal the yearly balance, with separated data for each FBK’s division, and income voice.

A few months ago we released the first online prototype. It means it is part of a longer design process characterized by a series of iterations aimed to improve the final product. The initial assessment relied on quantitative data from analytics and online user behaviors, as well as qualitative feedback from internal and external people. Surprisingly, we discovered Explorer is serving FBK’s administrators purpose more than expected. The platform is making sense of their data, showing pattern end the impact of strategical decisions that otherwise would be difficult to analyze, such as the impact of policies supporting the gender balance quota among employees. Currently, the first version will be soon redesigned and improved to be accessed on smartphones and small screens.