Filed under: Development Development 2.0 Social inclusion Social innovation

older woman standing in her house, north of Montenegro

What would she tell her grandkids about living in a protected area?
*This post is the latest in a series on micronarratives – a method we’re exploring for capturing stories to gain insight into real-time issues and changes in society.

Five UNDP project teams have collected thousands of stories over the past several weeks in an effort to test out whether storytelling could be a better method of, for example, detecting weak signals and building foresight into decision making.

We are definitely on to something very different with this methodology, but one question keeps creeping up:

How do you get a continuous stream of stories from people?

We’ll be linking with others who do similar work – Nominet Trust and Engineers for Change – and we’ve had the good fortune to brainstorm with Tony Quinlan of Cognitive Edge.

But in the meantime, we also learned a few things:

1. We collected thousands of stories from individuals and institutions not by paying them but by offering access to all the collected data and training people on how to analyze it.

So who has the incentive to do something like this?

  • Teaching assistants and graduate students: both have access to many story-tellers (students) and both need primary data (for research). Students get extra credit (and some are curious).

  • Service providers: employment bureaux, libraries, social welfare centres, chambers of commerce, internet cafes. Citizens come for a particular service, and these centers get a sense of who their clients are, and how they perceive the service delivery.

  • Citizen groups (NGOs, volunteer groups): they could use raw data for developing new projects and furthering their own mission.

triangle graph with coloured dots within different parts of the triangle - each of the three points has a description

Each dot within the triangle is one story, indexed by the person who told the story (about life in National Parks). In this case, we are particularly interested in a cluster of stories that sits between ‘prosperity’ and ‘traditional life-style’ as it may indicate opportunities where people view protected areas/environment as the basis for economic growth. If our project is successful, we’d like to see stories moving out of ‘survive’ corner.

2. We resorted to nudges to nudge people to get involved.

  • Competition: whether it is universities or social welfare centres in different cities, we turned the story collection into a competition on who captures more.

  • Curiosity factor: we will get edgy titles or provocative stories to elicit a response from others. Who wouldn’t want to open an e-mail message from a CEO with a subject line ‘Death by process’ (a story title to one of the stories on UNDP procedures).

  • Media: we haven’t tried this one yet, but the plan is to approach a few print and online media and ask them to run a weekly piece on the stories coming in, in the hopes that it nudges more stories from those who read.

different text boxes are linked

In this example, we wanted to see if there are any patterns among stories, especially focusing on who is the focus and who tends to lose out the most in the story. Thickness of the line indicates the strength of the correlation – a thicker line means stronger correlation. The color indicates direction – black for positive, red for negative correlation. It seems that in many stories where the individual is in focus, the individual also stands to lose the most, whereas the stronger the focus on community in the story, the less likely that story is about an individual losing out. So moving forward, we would want to understand what the stories about community mean, and whether those topics represent opportunities that we can explore with new initiatives.

3. A good prompting question or image can help ease people into a more continuous story collection. Imagine a day without any contact with local authorities? We couldn’t either, which is why this prompt is great for even daily storytelling: tell us about a recent experience with local administration that either frustrated or encouraged you.

Now, how about this question: Imagine talking to your grandkids about life in National Parks, what you would tell them? While it’s a great, subtle way of getting to real concerns and issues, it may not be the easiest prompt to come back to on daily even a weekly basis. Lastly, picture prompts seem to be a safe bet.

4. There are few things you can say upfront to ease people into sharing their experience:

  • Provide guidance: stories can be a few lines long; don’t worry about spelling, punctuation marks or pleasantries; it should take 10 minutes; and unlike surveys, we’d love to get stories on a weekly basis (better yet, having some people keeping daily journals); if you’re collecting a story from others, it is not OK to help them interpret their own story (don’t influence).

  • Say what the exercise is – we’ll use your experience to figure out what works in our projects and what doesn’t

  • What it is not – not a writing competition or success story publication; it’s not a place to resolve issues with any one person or institution.

So these are some of the tricks we picked up on getting thousands of people to write stories, but we’ve only scratched the surface.

We’d love to hear from you: Do you have other ideas and ways to improve our story collection?

  • Anvar

    Very interesting approach. Definitely, agree that stories can surface in
    much more candid data and trends, at least based from my own experience.

    Also, what comes in mind is that while collecting these stories, we may potentially track completely different views on issues, we as development agency have never thought about.

    Dear Milica, would it be possible, if you share one of these stories, so I can look at it just out of professional curiosity and I am sure, I will lots of questions.

    • millie

      Anvar, thanks so much for the comment. We didnt really know what to expect as we started using micro narratives, but with the data coming in, we’re realizing that we have only scratched the surface of what the data is telling us- and exactly along the lines of what you’re suggesting. I could take you through the analysis and data we’re getting, if you’re interested? I will be back from vacation the week of July 29th, my email is so we could connect sometime after that, when it suits you? Thanks for leaving the comment, and hope we touch base soon! Cheers, Millie

  • Chris Corrigan

    These strategies are great Millie Really appreciate the time you took to document them.

  • Chris Corrigan

    These strategies are great Millie Really appreciate the time you took to document them.

  • Sam

    I had some related concepts brewing in my head for quite a while. I think this approach is pretty cool and the sensemaker thing is going in the right direction.
    Of course you get a little bias if you do it like you described – but that is probably less problematic than that there’ll be some groups (or “less-clusterd” individuals) that are hard to get to in this way. Still you gotta start somewhere.
    My original idea was closer to dropping mp3-player-recorders over the place, which will have instructions on them and eventually “fall dead” after some time when they should be sent back (perhaps you get a little money in exchange). If people don’t have to read it, it might be possible be more inclusive, although it may be difficult to have them do the ternary diagram thing – which I would try to keep.
    You could also try to steer into/through which groups the device would propagate using different instructions.