2017 — Year in Review

We (Catherine D’Ignazio and Rahul Bhargava) launched DataBasic.io2016; hoping to help other folks take a more creative, engaging and welcoming way to learn how to work with data. Why? Learn more in our blog posts about building a data cultureor building data literacy without complicated software. Hard to believe that was 2 years ago! We decided this January to share some of the ways we assess our impact. It is important to do this in public, to share our successes and own our weaknesses. So here is a quick review of some of the quantitative data about how people are using our online tools and activities.

This year we connected with new users, built out the tool suite, and helped people of all backgrounds work with data in fun and interesting ways. In addition to launching Connect the Dots, which helps you see how your data is connected, we led numerous workshops. These included nonprofits like the Maine Data Initiative and the World Food Program, more than a hundred journalism students in Greater Boston, librarians in Michigan and Massachusetts, arts-based organizations like Theater Communications Group, and even middle school girls at Greenwich Academy in Connecticut.

New users of made up over ⅔ of our total 2017 audience

In 2017, DataBasic had over 18,000 new users! These new folks made up ⅔ of the total uses of our tools online. That is a lot of growth over the last year, so we are excited that the outreach we are doing is working!

International visitors made up more than ½ of our total users

Surprisingly, just under half of new users came from the United States. We’ve built out our suite in Spanish and Portuguese, so we are trying to fill the need in other languages, but we still expected the majority of our users to be in the US. Over 50% of users in 2017 originated from countries like Spain, UK, and Taiwan. This suggests our audience is international, and perhaps that we should get some help translating our tools into French! We do this translation and localization work because we think it is super important to build tools for learners that are left out of the data hype right now, and our experience has taught us that non-English speakers make up a big chunk of that group. This data supports our approach and motivates us to continue to expand our multi-lingual approach.

People visiting the site are actually using it

Websites online typically measure “conversion” rates, to assess how many people are going from a homepage to some kind of results that indicate they did something. For us, conversion is about whether people try out one of our tools or not (i.e. do they get to a page showing results of analyzing some data.) Across all our tools this hovers around 40%. That might sound low, but for the web it is a surprisingly high number! That tells us that something is working about the way we have built We’ll be doing some more qualitative analysis to understand why, but it is a great start to understand whatis happening with the quantitative data.

WordCounter, our approachable tool for analyzing text, was most heavily utilized in terms of number of users, number of sessions, and session duration. This isn’t too surprising, because it is the tool we use most in workshops. It is also worth mentioning that this list of conversion rates matches the order of tool links on our homepage from left to right. Perhaps we should put in some code to randomize this and see if it impacts which tools folks try out.

Folks are using our learning-centered features

We wrote an academic paper a while back about how and why we built to support data literacy (read it in the Journal of Community Informatics). Now we have enough usage data to assess whether the design principles we describe are effective in practice or not. A quick and easy one to evaluate is the tool-tips feature we’ve included on vocabulary to be more inviting.

Tooltips saw healthy usage — more than two-thirds of of new users used at least one tooltip! Again, we have to do some qualitative interviews and such to understand why, but knowing that the engagement on these explanatory tooltips is so high suggests this particular feature is having an impact.

Coming Soon…

That’s it for now! If is new to you, check out the hands-on activities and focused tools to help you introduce a data culture to your organization in interesting ways. Thank you for being a part of our journey in 2017.

Up next? Over the last few months we’ve been testing out new ways to help organizations run these activities themselves. 30 brave organizations from around the world partnered with us, and we’ve learned loads from how they tailor the activities to their specific needs. We’re putting all that learning and experience together into a self-service curriculum for organizations trying to build their capacity to work with data. We’re calling it “Data Culture Project”, and it’ll launch with an introductory webinar online this March! Totally free. Available online. So stay tuned….

Many thanks to Connie Yee for her work analyzing all this data.

DataBasic at Harvard Law’s Systemic Justice Project

Rahul was invited again this year to join Professor Jon Hanson’s System Justice course at Harvard, to introduce law students to how to include data within their arguments. The DataBasic activities provided a perfect way to explore asking questions (with WTFcsv) and sketching stories (with WordCounter).

The students also got a chance to practice tailoring data-driven arguments to different audiences, using a new participatory activity that we’re still workshopping.

Here are the slides:

New DataBasic Tool Lets You “Connect the Dots” in Data

Catherine and I have launched a new DataBasic tool and activity, Connect the Dots, aimed at helping students and educators see how their data is connected with a visual network diagram.

By showing the relationships between things, networks are useful for finding answers that aren’t readily apparent through spreadsheet data alone. To that end, we’ve built Connect the Dots to help teach how analyzing the connections between the “dots” in data is a fundamentally different approach to understanding it.

The new tool gives users a network diagram to reveal links as well as a high level report about what the network looks like. Using network analysis helped Google revolutionize search technology and was used by journalists who investigated the connections between people and banks during the Panama Papers Leak.

Connect the Dots is the fourth and most recent addition to DataBasic, a growing suite of easy-to-use web tools designed to make data analysis and storytelling more accessible to a general and non-technical audience launched last year.

As with the previous three tools released in the DataBasic suite, Connect the Dots was designed so that its lessons can be easily planned to help students learn how to use data to tell a story. Connect the Dots comes with a learning guide and introductory video made for classes and workshops for participants from middle school through higher education. The learning guide has a 45-minute activity that walks people through an exercise in naming their favorite local restaurants and seeking patterns in the networks that result. To get started using the tool, sample data sets such as Donald Trump’s inside connections and characters from the play Les Miserables have also been included to help introduce users to vocabulary terms and the algorithms at work behind the scenes. Like the other DataBasic tools, Connect the Dots is available in English, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Learn more about Connect the Dots and all the DataBasic tools here.

Have you used DataBasic tools in your classroom, organization, or personal projects? If so, we’d love to hear your story! Write to [email protected] and tell us about your experience.

Workshopping a New Tool

DataBasic is constantly developing, driven by the needs we see in the communities around us; and our ability to get funding to support development and testing.  Over the summer we’ve been designing and developing a new tool we’re calling “Connect the Dots“.  The goal is to help introduce the language and approach of network analysis, and how it can let you ask different kinds of questions.

Since we don’t build new tools in isolation, we brought together a bunch of educators, journalists, students, visualization folks, and designers to give us feedback on our first design.  Here’s a “behind the scenes” video of that first workshop, where we tried out the technology and the activity.

Looks like fun, doesn’t it? So keep your eyes peeled – we expect to launch Connect the Dots as the latest member of the DataBasic suite later this fall!

Workshop at the Data Literacy Conference

We hosted a “Making Data Fun with an Arts-Based Approach” workshop for attendees at the Data Literacy Conference on making data fun using an arts-based approach. Participants used WTFcsv and WordCounter to learn how to ask questions and sketch out a story.  The audience included government agencies, journalists, educators, and others.  This diversity generated a really good conversation about how the could use these tools and approaches in their own work.

One of the groups made a fun image about how when they looked at a heavy metal band’s lyrics with Wordcounter, they found them to be much more lovey-dovey than they had expected!

Here’s the abstract describing the workshop:

Looking for creative ways to present data, empower community, and create art? We will share hands-on techniques for bringing people together to find and tell stories with data. Our activities can help you run workshops that lead a group through finding stories in data, picking a story to tell, and sketching or building something to tell that story. You will walk away with skills to facilitate capacity building and critical data literacy activities with youth and adults.

DataBasic at Boston Civic Media

Rahul recently led a short workshop on DataBasic at the Boston Civic Media annual meeting.  The 1 hour hands-on session focused on how to use the arts to tell your civic data story.

Curious about how to use the arts to tell your civic data story? Wondering how to use the arts to help learn how to work with data?  We will introduce a suite of free easy-to-use web tools for beginners that introduce how to work with data through arts-based activities.  Finding and telling data-driven stories can help you streamline operations, spread your message, and bring people together for creative activities.  You’ll walk away with new skills for yourself, fun techniques for helping others learning to work with data, and inspirations for how to combine civic data and the arts.


Participants used WordCounter to try sketching out stories based on lyrics from popular musicians.

The workshop brought together a diverse set of people interested in using the arts to engage people with data.  Reaching these non-traditional consumers of data is super important to us, so it was a joy to be able to engage with them.

v1.2.0: New Features and Bug Fixes

We just released a new version of DataBasic – version 1.2.0!  Yeah, it doesn’t sound that exciting but trust us, there is some good stuff here 🙂

The highlights:

  • CSV parsing is now much more robust
  • We’ve added the idea of “normalization” to SameDiff
  • We cleaned up some of our sample data
  • We sped up everything
  • We show you when your results are going to expire soon (they last for 60 days and then we delete them)

You can browse our GitHub Issue tracker to see all the bug fixes in this release.

Go try it out now at!

Learning with the Knight Foundation

DataBasic’s development was generously supported by a grant from the Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund.  The key hypothesis they funded us to test? That building online tools for working with data for learners is different than building for users. While the output is available here at, sadly our grant has ended 🙁  We wanted to take this opportunity to share some of our experience from the close-out event Knight just hosted with Maya Design.

Wrap-Up and Reflection

The event began with some scaffolded reflection on the 6-month grant cycle.  We spoke with other grantees in small groups about goals, pivots, successes, failures, learnings, and next steps.  Many sticky notes were used!


One aspect of the event was the amazing set of short 5 minute talks describing the wide variety of projects.  Here’s Rahul speaking about what we’ve learned so far:

The key here was the focus on learnings.  All these small projects Knight funded create an aggregate picture of learnings from prototyping, a methodology we deeply believe in.


With prototypes built, how do you get folks to use them? Our approach with DataBasic involved our audiences in the development of the tools, via multiple workshops, so we had investment from them already.  The focus of this Knight event was to explore the answer to this question more, to help grantees refocus on outreach and marketing.

The folks from Maya led us in an exploration of stakeholders, their needs, and the benefits we provide.  While we had done much of that thinking before, formalizing it on paper was incredibly helpful to think about holes in the outreach we are doing post-launch.

Then they led some great hands-on exercises to help develop elevator pitches from a template.  Here’s one we wrote about why DataBasic is useful for community activists:

For community activists, who need friendlier tools that help them learn how to work with data, is a suite of online tools for working with data that provide playful and focused, on- and off-screen activities unlike other online tools for finding stories in data, because we have designed and built them with and for learners.

These pitches are a great way to clearly describe what your project brings to its intended audiences, even if you have already thought about it a ton.

Next Steps

As we’ve written before, this type of work is more like a marathon than a sprint.  While we are excited about the enthusiastic response after our launch, we realize that we have to pay close attention to feedback from our various audiences to keep iterating.  We of course hope DataBasic can be useful tools and activities, but we also want it to evolve into a model for how to build data-centric tools for the huge population of learners starting to work with data.  Many thanks to Knight for helping us start down this road, and we look forward to getting their, and your, feedback!


One Week of

We launched just one week ago and would love to share some of how our first week went.  More than 4000 people tried out in just our first week 🙂

Some Press

First up, we got some great press online; from Matt Carroll’s review, to the MIT Media Lab to the UN in Jakarta!

That really helped drive some attention and traffic, and spread the message to folks that we otherwise aren’t connected to!

Some Stats

As we mentioned earlier, more than 4000 visited the site.  That’s great, but we really care about what they did when they were there.  Here are some stats we were excited about:

  • More than 1000 people watched our introductory videos.  This is great, because that’s one of the ways we are trying to make this type of stuff fun and not-intimidating.  Watch them all on our DataBasic Vimeo channel.
  • More than 1/3 of the people who came to one of our tools actually used it to analyze some data.  In the world of web analytics this counts as one of our main “conversion” rates – how many people did the thing we want them to.  This is really high! Most people looked at the sample data for about the Titanic survivors.
  • Almost 50% of visitors rolled over a technical term and read a popup defining what it means.  We are hyper focused on people as learners, and it is great to see this learning feature being used so much.
  • Over 200 people downloaded our activity guides.  One of our core goals is to make these fun activities easier for other people to run, so this is great news to us.  Check out the activity guides for WordCounter, SameDiff, and WTFcsv.

That’s just a quick summary of the impact and use we are seeing so far.  Definitely a success so far!

What’s Next?

These types of projects are much more like marathons than sprints, so as people start to use our DataBasic tools in the real world we look forward to learning more from their feedback.  For instance, we’ve already had a number of suggestions, and an offer to translate in Hungarian.  We’ve also secured funding to add another tool to the suite. Let us know how these tools work for you, and send in any ideas you have about them.

Announcing! is live!!!  After 6 months of planning, building, trying things out with folks, and rebuilding, we’re open to the public 🙂

We’ve got three tools for you to start playing with – WTFcsv, WordCounter, and SameDiff.  Pop on over to and give them a try.  Right now we’re supporting Spanish or English, and it is accessible to visually impaired via screen-readering software.

Don’t forget to watch the short intro videos on each homepage, and check out the activity guides.

Big thanks to the Emerson Engagement Lab team for helping us get these done – specifically Jay and Jordan!  And of course this wouldn’t have been possible without the support of our sponsor, the amazing Knight Foundation.