Making Data Mean More Through Storytelling: Ben Wellington at TEDxBroadway (Transcript)

Ben Wellington

Here is the full transcript of data scientist Ben Wellington’s TEDx Talk: Making Data Mean More Through Storytelling at TEDxBroadway conference. This event occurred on February 23, 2015 in New York.

Ben Wellington – TRANSCRIPT

Hi everyone, as it says, I am Ben Wellington, and I am a data story teller. A data story teller.

If you had asked me a year ago what a data story teller was, I would probably say I have no idea. So today, I am going to tell you about my journey over the last year, where I have accidentally became a data story teller. I’ll tell you about what I learned along the way, and maybe convince some of you that you too can be data story tellers if you are curious and want to.

A little about my background. First, I work at an investment and tech company called Two Sigma where I do data science. So that is sort of one part of my world. But I also married an urban planner, so I’ve got my computer science and the urban planning world, and for most of the time, these two sections of my life have been pretty separate, and that was just the way it was.

Until something interesting happened here in NYC, in 2011, then Mayor Bloomberg signed this legislation called the Open Data Laws in New York. The Open Data Laws are really exciting for people like me because it takes data that is inside City Government, and suddenly allows anyone to look at it. Whereas before the government would analyze something and tell us, “Hey, this neighborhood has this many accidents,” now we can see data point by data point what is happening at a very local level.

When these two things came together, they ended up – by the way, there was an open data portal I should point out, that anyone can go to, it is the NYC open data portal, and there are data sets on all sorts of things. In fact, there is one on the size of the televisions in Times Square and their locations. I don’t know what to do with that, but it’s really cool. There are data sets of all different types, in fact over 1,200 data sets so far. And it is growing all the time.

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I kind of took this data science work, and my interest in urban planning from discussions with my wife and put it together in this blog, called I QUANT NY. Awesome, thank you. One of the first things I did was this map. And this is a map of cycling injuries in New York City. Hilarious injuries – Red areas are areas where people were getting in more cyclists accidents.

Then I found this through some public data and mapped it all. I notice a few things: one, that on the East Side of Manhattan is there were more cycling accidents, more injuries, because that’s where there are more cyclists coming off the bridges. But also there were some other hot spots, like Williamsburg in Brooklyn, or Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. I wrote about that and posted it on the blog – and it was more just for me to learn how to do mapping; it was this open source software called QGIS, I wanted to learn it – and when I did, something interesting happened, people started to write about it. Gothamist covered it, and Brokelyn claimed that it was a “death trap”, which is not exactly what I said. Streets Blog, and then, even in The Atlantic. This is just sort of from a blog that I put on Tumblr, and it had no followers, and that was really interesting.

Over the time from there I started to say, “Why did people write about that? I’m not the first one to analyze cyclists accidents or to make maps like this.” What I did wasn’t that complicated, what was it that made it spread? And I thought about it, and I worked over the next few posts, I got to see what was moving around, and I realized that there was a third part to this that was really, really important. That is, you probably are not going to see it coming: improv comedy.

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