Four lessons the COVID-19 crisis can teach us about data-driven storytelling

Artists perform in front of screens showing audience via the Zoom application during the first six-hour online music festival at a studio amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Bangkok, Thailand, June 7, 2020. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC2A4H9WY0SV
The pandemic is forcing us to communicate in completely new ways.
Image: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC2A4H9WY0SV
  • COVID-19 has shown that it's possible to communicate urgent health and hygiene information in ways that prompt people to take action.
  • The success of the iconic "Flatten the Curve” chart illustrates the power of data-driven storytelling.
  • We can use this approach to drive social change in other areas, but we must do so safely, responsibly and ethically.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed deep structural problems that go far beyond conventional ideas of public health, not least the impacts of pervasive inequality and racism. Civil society is mobilising to adapt and respond. Our ability to drive change will depend in part on our ability to communicate vital information in effective ways, harnessing the power of data and digital technology. The emergency has shown that the right information delivered in the right way can prompt people to change their individual behaviours and collectively save lives all over the world.

The iconic "Flatten the Curve" graph, which encouraged people everywhere to help contain the spread of COVID-19, is a case in point. It shows how measures such as hand-washing and social distancing can squash the expected peak of the pandemic, and keep infection numbers low enough for healthcare systems to manage. This simple public health chart, which originated in specialist journals and reports, was widely shared by traditional newspapers and magazines, then refined to clarify the message even further, translated into many languages, and creatively reworked into animations, cartoons and even cat videos.

Image: The Spinoff

The success of “Flatten the Curve” shows that it is possible to communicate urgent facts and instructions in a way that is compelling and emotionally resonant.

This aligns with research by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI) – a collaborative of funders supporting efforts worldwide to assure that people are informed and empowered and governments open and responsive. Through interviews and group discussions with civil society campaigners, community organizers and technology and media experts, TAI has gathered important lessons on how to communicate vital messages to build a better world as part of a broader World Economic Forum dialogue on the future of civil society. Here are some elements of what such crisis-informed, responsible communication and campaigning could look like:

1. Tap the power of data - but in an ethical way

As shown by the “Flatten the Curve” message, data can be a powerful tool to effect change in policy and attitudes. There is more data available than ever before, and civil society needs to take full advantage of this. We need to be savvy in data sourcing, analysis and presentation. Big data analytics should not be the preserve of governments or big corporates alone.

Yet, civil society groups also need to align data gathering and use with considerations of data rights and protections. Only last year, a health non-governmental organization suffered a data breach affecting the information of a million New Zealanders. Assuring adequate cyber security is one important element, but civil society groups need to be asking questions of how they gather and use data: Is the data legitimately sourced? Is it accurately presented? Is it truly anonymized?

Civil society then has credibility when critiquing the data governance failings of governments and corporates. This role is revealed as all the more important amid the pandemic. Campaigners and activists, but also scientists, educators and anyone with an interest in safeguarding their data can get involved. To take one example, Germany’s change in approach to using personal data for contact tracing was encouraged by a letter from hundreds of researchers.

2. Data alone is not enough

To be both comprehensible and compelling, data needs an effective message to support it. That means selecting the right data points and format for your audience, and using the power of story to engage the heart and the gut as well as the brain. Storytelling involves structuring information like a narrative, with a beginning, middle and end, interesting real-life characters and surprising twists, and a problem or struggle at the core that is somehow changed or resolved at the end. “Flatten the Curve”, for example, visually conveys the existential threat of an epidemic peak overwhelming healthcare systems, then offers the solution of everyone working together to squash that spike and save themselves and their fellow humans.

Policy experts and communications experts often argue over what is "too much information," but in recent workshops and interviews public interest research and advocacy groups told us that the choice between rigor and inspiration is false. The two are mutually supportive. “No numbers without stories," David Devlin Foltz of the Aspen Institute, a non-profit think tank, advised, "and no stories without numbers.”

The importance of data and storytelling needs to be embedded in the culture of organizations and used by all staff, not just the communications team. This means teaching people how to find and use meaningful data in their field, and craft it into messages and compelling stories that elicit action. Funders in turn should be supportive of those investments. They should also be reflecting on their own messaging and how they can add their voice constructively or “pass the microphone” to others.

coronavirus, health, COVID19, pandemic

What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.

As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.

To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications - a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

The report reveals that the economic impact of COVID-19 is dominating companies’ risks perceptions.

Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.

3. Be ready to change the script

To infuse data-driven approaches with the human dimension, we must strive to avoid jargon and policy details that are only comprehensible to specialists. We must also think about the deeper beliefs and preconceptions that shape our societies, including how we view the past, how we tell our history and present our heritage, and how we may be justifying certain injustices and inequalities that it would be better to question and address.

As Michael Silberman of MobLab, a non-profit group that coaches organizations in effective campaigning for social and environmental causes, notes: "We're well trained to think about what kind of laws and policies we need to change, but we forget this equally important work [needed] to change the stories that define our society."

One example of the power of the human aspect is the Integrity Icon campaign of Accountability Lab. This award names and celebrates honest government officials all over the world. It has flipped the paradigm of anti-corruption efforts, which was previously dominated by negative statistics. By showcasing the stories of individuals who are displaying integrity in their public service every day, combined with a public vote and use of mass media (reminiscent of reality TV shows), the Integrity Icon has become a symbol of positive, joyful change. It has resonated widely and has spread to a dozen countries as far afield as Liberia, Ukraine, Pakistan and Mexico.

4. Be clear, honest – and listen

Stories can be an effective and captivating way of delivering information, but they also have to be authentic. This goes beyond factual accuracy, and means those represented should recognise their own reality in that story. As one civil society organization complained, to make a story “presentable” often “takes reality away.” Civil society organizations may feel pressure to simplify stories from their work, to better persuade policy makers, or to meet the expectations of supporting donors. The risk is that the stories we tell will become unmoored from the facts, and end up being inaccurate.

That risk can be exacerbated when stories from local communities are shared on their behalf by international organizations. Cheri-Leigh Erasmus from Accountability Lab warned organizations to avoid “extractive” messaging, for example by collecting local stories that are then repackaged and retold to donors and funders. We need to find ways for people to tell their own stories on their own terms - reinforce their platforms, rather than showcase them on others.

What can that look like in the digital age? Firstly, our capacity to listen may need to evolve along with our technologies. Creativity may unlock new ways of bridging worlds and having messages resonate. For example, bringing virtual reality technology to women entrepreneurs in Nepali villages helped them to tell their stories more engagingly and make the case for access to solar power. The pandemic makes such active listening even more important. It has highlighted the critical role that community leaders and local level activists play as trusted sources, especially when misinformation is on the rise. How are they spreading the word? Through traditional means for sure, but also through hip hop, hipco and graphic art.

Storytelling for a better future

Woven together, data and storytelling can transform communication in the digital age. We face a renewed obligation to combine them not only effectively but responsibly, listening to those whose stories we tell, and using appropriate ways to disseminate the information.

This can involve simple, practical steps such as ensuring every member of an organization is trained to deliver messages in the most compelling way. But it also requires a deeper reckoning among communicators and campaigners, who must ask themselves whether the stories they tell are accurate, authentic and representative, and whether they truly reach those who should hear them. Those efforts won’t be easy, but they will pay off ahead of the next crisis. We need more equivalents of “Flatten the curve” to mobilize popular attention and policy action in support of a recovery that is not only sustainable, but just.