'School Choice Wizard' Shows How to Present Statistics for Mainstream Audience

This is my second day at the "Seminar on Innovative Approaches to Turn Statistics into Knowledge" at the U.S. Census Bureau headquarters outside of Washington, D.C. About 360 people are here to learn new ways of presenting statistical information to a mainstream audience, through maps, data visualizations and other online tools.

Pretty wonky, I'll admit -- but the projects here present clues to how we could do journalism in the future. Though most of these researchers and statisticians work for universities, governments and non-governmental organizations, they are also in the business of sharing information.

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Their goal, just like the journalist working with crime data or school test scores, is to figure out how to present important, complex sets of information in a meaningful and engaging way.

News organizations increasingly turn to online graphical and map-based tools to help answer questions such as "How bad is the crime in my neighborhood?" "How much does a house cost near me?" and "What school is best for my child?" The interfaces have advanced far beyond the lists of agate type that newspapers used to rely on, yet they take the same basic approach: present facts to readers in an effort to help them make decisions.

The "Colorado School Choice Wizard," presented Wednesday at the conference, seeks to help parents find the best school in a different way. With its simple interface, it doesn't rely on statistics, rankings and charts -- at least, not on the dashboard. That's all under the hood.

The approach, said Charles Naumer, who is developing the software, is to help parents determine what factors are important, then find the school that matches those priorities. As noted at the conference, this is how many news organizations framed tools to match people's political beliefs with a candidate's platform during the 2008 presidential election.

Three organizations are cooperating on the Colorado School Choice Wizard: CiviCore, a software development firm that Naumer founded; the Piton Foundation, a private nonprofit foundation that tries to help families move out of poverty and has researched educational policy; and KUSA-TV's 9News. It won't be fully functional until sometime this fall.

I spoke with and e-mailed Naumer about this project, and I also e-mailed Tim Dietz, vice president of interactive for KUSA-TV in Denver. This is an edited version of our exchange.

Steve Myers: What spurred you to create this tool?

Charles Naumer: The idea to create a school information site is an extension of the Piton Foundation's education policy work and their effort to make data and tools to support informed decision-making more widely available. The development of the tool coincided very well with my Ph.D. research at the University of Washington's Information School on the use of information and information systems to support sensemaking and decision-making.

How do you expect this site to be used?

Naumer: We expect the site as a whole to be used by parents to:

  • Become aware of their option to choose the school in which to enroll their child
  • Better understand the process and their role
  • Explore issues around school quality and choice
  • Ultimately to make the best decision for their child

You note in your presentation [PDF] that you took a "concept-centric" approach for this tool rather than than a "data-centric" approach. What does that mean and how does the School Choice Wizard demonstrate this approach?

Naumer: Many of the statistical-based applications on the Web take you straight into data analysis, including many of the applications we've developed [at Civicore]. The data-centric approach takes you straight into the numbers, and based on the numbers that are provided you might make some assumptions about what your decision criteria should be. 

For example, if you focus on student-teacher ratio or test scores, someone who is not familiar with that issue may make an inference that that's the way I should be judging school quality. And so they may not get the bigger picture that there are many other things to consider beforehand: the school climate, teaching philosophy, facilities, child's learning skills, child's learning style.

The concept-centric approach allows them to explore the concepts around issues of school choice and choosing the best educational environment for their child. It creates that bigger picture, that more holistic picture. ... From there, after you explore all these different ways of looking at school quality, it then matches information to your understanding. So that you are first answering the question, "What should I be considering and what is important to me?" and then finding information to support what you have identified as important. 

What kinds of issues are suited for this approach? What audiences?

Naumer: The research that has informed the development of this tool explores ways to improve people's ability to understand issues. Sensemaking research, and cognitive scaffolding research in particular, supports an approach to build a person's ability to better understand an issue regardless of their current state of knowledge.

I believe the tool is best suited to multifaceted, complex issues where there may be many different ways to understand a problem. I think it lends itself particularly well to data that is used to better understand a policy issue.

Where does the data come from? Did the data require any special preparation for your use?

Naumer: Considerable effort has gone into developing the data resource. In addition to statistical data that has come from federal, state and district sources, we have also studied the research on school choice and consulted with experts to develop information about each of the focus areas. There is endless data that could be compiled for these areas, so it is a daunting task in some ways.

We have also built the application to support multiple languages and the use of video. Plans are for the 9News education reporter to record the video clips that are currently embedded into the description of each of the focus areas. We think that communicating information through video clips recorded in English and Spanish may be an important way to reach different audiences. Eventually, we hope to embed multiple expert opinions in these areas.

Tell me about your media partner.

Naumer: There are not going to be many parents who go to the Piton Foundation Web site, whose primary audience is policymakers. We felt that if you really want to distribute it, you need to have a media partner that has a wide audience.

Originally, the media partner for this project was the Rocky Mountain News. We had intended to launch the platform at the end of 2008, before plans were put on hold due to the Rocky Mountain News' financial problems. The folks at the Rocky Mountain News were great partners, and we were disappointed when the announcement came that they were shutting down.

Our new media partner is local television news station 9News. 9News.com is the most-visited media Web site in the state ... averaging approximately 2 million unique users a month. We are excited to be working with 9News. They have made a significant commitment to promoting the site and integrating it into their education content.

How will this tool be used on 9News.com and KUSA-TV news programs?

Tim Dietz (vice president of interactive for KUSA-TV): It will be created as its own section front and be tied through our education page. The depth of content within this tool will give us a number of opportunities to reference it as we cover the education beat throughout our state.

How will you promote it, and how does it fit in with your news offerings?

Dietz: The plan is to promote it as a resource guide both in and out of our newscasts. We have an education reporter who will drive people to this site within the appropriate news stories he enterprises. This will have real value for our audience when CSAP [Colorado Student Assessment Program] test scores come out each year. We'll also find ways to shine a light on this valuable tool through in site and on-air marketing. ... We also have invested in a high school sports vertical to provide sports content to parents, students and families. This new wizard fits nicely into our attempt to broaden the scope of our educational offerings to the community we serve.

What role do you see for media organizations in developing tools like this?

Naumer: I think it would be an exciting way to enhance the reporting of policy issues in particular. In many ways it serves a similar purpose to data visualization techniques, tag clouds, content analysis and other innovations directed at exploring information.

Can you tell me some examples of what other types of decisions could be framed this way? How would it work?

Naumer: There may be multiple purposes for this type of technology. One purpose may be to simply bring about greater awareness of an issue and increase understanding. For example, we [at CiviCore] have been involved in other efforts to develop tools to help advocacy groups and think tanks communicate information around issues such as school finance reform, equity and community service.

We have also been involved in developing this type of model to support custom information needs similar to the school choice application. For example, we work with victim service agencies committed to supporting victims of crime. A customized information delivery approach serves this purpose: for victims of crime, their situation is unique. It lends itself to customizing the information to them. Just like school choice, it's unique to your child, your neighborhood -- it lends itself to custom information packaging. 

In a perfect world, a person might have exceptional analytic skills, the time to do a thorough analysis of an issue, and the skills to gather the information needed. ... This type of exercise would result in a comprehensive analysis of their choices according to their values and views. By creating a custom report using the wizard we are hoping to move them closer to that perfect world.

Editor's Note: Steve will Twitter periodically during the conference from his @myersnews account, using the hashtag #statknowledge.

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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