Is your organization trying to figure out how best visualize program or organizational data? Perhaps struggling to find the best tools to tell your stories better?

After two years of offering our most popular course Technology for Data Visualization, TechChange has decided to go off-line and create an in-person workshop on the topic. For those of you who are in the DC area, this in-person workshop offers a social, hands-on way to better understand data visualization.


Participants participate in a human likert scale exercise called “Agree-Disagree.”


The workshop is composed of three fundamental building blocks:

  • Part 1: Building a foundation: Participants learn how to identify elements of successful (and unsuccessful) visualizations and are taught tips and best practices for designing effective products. Participants also explore popular theorists and practitioners of data visualization like Edward Tufte, Jonathan Schwabish, David McCandless and more.
  • Part 2: Telling your story: Participants engage in a guided design workshop using their existing datasets & visualization ideas. Building a dashboard? Working on a donor report? Need to convince an audience of something? This interactive exercise helps refine and stage the story that you want to tell.
  • Part 3: Learning new tech skills: Participants learn how to visualize their data in different platforms: Excel, PicktoChart, Canva and Facilitators stage a series of mini-demos and exercises to do everything from cleaning and formatting data to building both static and interactive visualizations. This component includes basic exposure to additional tools like Tableau, CartoDB, and PowerBI for further exploration.  

Workshops can be tailored to feature a variety of mapping tools and software.

The workshops can be tailored with custom content and designed for a half-day up to a full week.

As part of the workshops we’ve included a number of hands-on interactive activities using human likert scales, balloons, ping-pong balls, stickers galore, emojis, neon hats and more. Plus, if you’re someone who likes to have someone to coach you through navigating a new software, we can provide you with that guidance in real time.

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So far this year we’ve been busy facilitating workshops for Georgetown University, Jhpiego, Arabella Advisors, and more. Case studies and exercises have focused explicitly on examples like public health, water & sanitation, climate change, financial services for the poor, human disaster response but can be tailored to any sector or industry.

Sign up for one of our monthly in-person workshops at our new training space on 13th and U. St NW Washington DC, or write to us about doing a custom training at your organization on Tech for Data Visualization today. Workshops are offered on the following dates:

  • Friday April 28, 2017
  • Friday May 26, 2017
  • Friday June 16, 2017

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Nick Martin, the founder and CEO of TechChange and Swarthmore alumnus recently had the exciting opportunity to MC the 2017 SwatTank competition at Swarthmore College! SwatTank is a business competition much like the popular show Shark Tank in which groups of students compete for startup funding from a group of seasoned business leaders as judges. Nick was in charge of keeping the energy of the room up, taking breaks to talk to the person next to you about the presentations, engaging in counting improv games, and asking the contestants about the most difficult parts of their design process while the judges left the room to deliberate.

This year, there were four groups competing for the $3,000 First Place prize: New Dae Farms, Collab, Switchboard, and Zing. Each group of 2-3 students had to pitch their idea in 4 minutes or less, take questions from the judges and the audience about their idea, create a business plan, and provide an informational poster. Each group is assigned an alumni mentor who works in the field each new business is trying to break into, to fill knowledge gaps and provide insight. Both this year and last year, Nick mentored a team.


The winner of SwatTank, with a high-impact proposal and an impressive amount of preparation, was Switchboard. Switchboard is a project which co-founders Michael Piazza and Eric Wang have been working on for two years, though the project has gone through multiple iterations. The app was originally a text messaging service, where users could text the Switchboard number and they would be paired with another anonymous user using a series of ‘tags’ to enter a ‘room.’ For example, if you were interested in finding somebody else in your linguistics class to help you out with your homework, you could add #ling001 to the end of your text message to Switchboard.

Their next iteration of Switchboard was a mobile app. Surprisingly, this tactic was not as successful for them because as it turns out, the average smartphone owner downloads 0 apps a month on average, and they had trouble getting users to download their app. For comparison, users sent 6,000 messages in the iOS app over the course of 2 months compared to 17,000 messages sent in one week during the first iteration when the platform was SMS-based. So in this round, they returned to the texting model and over the 6 days since their most recent launch, they have had 65 users who have sent over 1,600 messages.

The judges also asked about a potential business model: how were they going to make Switchboard profitable? They decided to go with a freemium model, in which the vast majority of users were able to use the service for free, whereas members who paid $5 would get access to exclusive features and content. Ultimately, they said they were not concerned with making this a super profitable business; their strategy was to keep the service as inexpensive as possible until they could get a larger company to buy them up.

Currently, their product is only available to current Swarthmore students, where graduating seniors would need to get kicked off the platform as soon as the Swarthmore emails that they used to register for Switchboard expired. Down the road, they plan to allow Swarthmore alumni to sign up for an account but those kinds of add-ons are still far in the future.

The second place winner, New Dae Farms, had one of the more zany ideas of the bunch: cricket farming. They proposed using shipping crates to grow and harvest over 3.5 million crickets on Swarthmore and Haverford college campuses, selling them to local restaurants and using them in the dining halls. Though there are other cricket farms, their value proposition was to use these crickets for R&D, since it is difficult for most farms to do controlled experiments, whereas college campuses typically have well-resourced biology labs suited for controlled testing.

The third place winner, Collab, came up with an idea to try to bring more women with children into the workforce: partner with coworking spaces like WeWork to provide daycare services at all of the WeWork locations. Modelled after spaces like CoHatchery in NYC, some of the main challenges were finding competent childcare professionals to keep up with the demand for childcare, as well as coordinating with pre-existing coworking organizations.

In fourth place came Zing, an all-freshman team with the idea to bring solar-powered cell phone charging stations to campuses.They chose to lease these charging stations to colleges to mitigate the upfront cost of the charging stations, with a lease-to-own plan for colleges who chose to buy the charging stations in the future.

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SwatTank has been part of a larger effort at Swarthmore to promote opportunities for student entrepreneurship. Hosted by the Center for Innovation and Leadership, there have been more efforts to go on trips to Silicon Valley, as well as business and entreprenurial workshops called Innovation Incubators.

Just last year, Swarthmore Visiting Professor Denise Crossan began offering a new social entrepreneurship class through the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility called Social Entrepreneurship in Principle and Practice. Not every student who participated in this year’s SwatTank took the class, but many who did felt as if the class gave them a leg up in thinking entrepreneurially.

TechChange looks forward to supporting Swarthmore’s rising entrepreneurs in the future and helping merge the ideas of the liberal arts and social entrepreneurship by thinking intentionally about how to innovate in new markets and solve problems creatively. Understanding how to merge passion and profit from a liberal arts perspective is only going to become more and more important in our increasingly technological world where new challenges crop up every day.

To read more about Switchboard, you can do so here. You can also read more about SwatTank here.

Photos courtesy of Laurence Kesterson.

Why do the newest online courses still feel like the same video lectures?

Six years ago, Moody’s declared the MOOC revolution in higher education officially started in Autumn 2011 after Sebastian Thrun released his Stanford class on Artificial Intelligence to over 180,000 students. Based on that assessment of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses), Coursera, Udacity, and dozens of other businesses launched to provide free access to university content, soon attracting over 8 million students to register for their courses.

And three years ago, TechCrunch (among others), declared MOOC revolution over after noticing that only half of registered users had watched even one lecture, and only 4 percent stayed long enough to complete a course. Worse, researched showed that rather than disrupting an customer base of students seeking an alternative to college, the majority of MOOC students already had university degrees, while those without access to higher education in developing countries were underrepresented among the early adopters.

While some online education providers have adjusted their model, such as nanodegrees with Udacity, or celebrity lecturers with MasterClassthe fundamental approach hasn’t changed since the early days of and Khan Academy: Students watch a video and take a quiz.

This, we are told, is comparable to a university experience. And, for those who have sat through 200+ student lecture halls, it very well may recreate that experience on topics that they are curious about. But not only is this massive, passive consumption of information boring, but lectures are also far less effective than other, more active forms of learning. And since active learning can as much as a 6% improvement in students grades by including such activities as call and response, or student discussions, the question has to be asked:

Why are we spending so much time and effort moving an ineffective model of learning online?

The most obvious explanation is that these platforms are being built for scale by producing content and then distributing to the widest possible audience, and then learning from that experience what to produce next. This is a Netflix-style approach to education, which may indeed be sufficient for an online audience already educated and looking to satisfy curiosity or acquire new skills. But there is no evidence that we can leverage more entertaining content to produce a superior online learning experience to anything that can be achieved in person.

That’s because educators know to value something that programmers may not: Online education is not best understood as a method by which content is pushed to the largest possible audience through a scalable platform (we already have YouTube), but rather as a constant cycle of facilitated, active learning, which combines platform and content to best suit student needs through regular feedback. 

When I taught a course on Technology for Crisis Response at GWU last semester, it was not the short lecture sessions that the students remembered on course evaluations, but rather the interactive group projects on Text-It where groups had to quickly assemble SMS workflows in a simulated response. And universities already know this is a more effective method of instruction, which is why when they seek to reach mid-career professionals in graduate programs, they quickly discard any lecture-based approach to learning.

But….it’s not easy to take a MOOC-model and simply add forums, or Q&A sessions. Coursera learned that the hard way during the MOOC Mess of 2013, when their attempt to integrate Google Spreadsheets (which has a limit of 50 simultaneous editors) for a class of 41,000 students resulted in an unfixable disaster that led to the course being temporarily suspended. Oh, the Coursera course that was suspended? Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application.

There’s nothing wrong with trying a new approach (and failing) when it comes to better reaching students online. And online platforms should be commended for regular experimentation. But attempting to apply a facilitated approach to a Netflix-style platform is like putting racing stripes on a four-door sedan: It will look terrible and you won’t fool anyone.

And until there is acceptance that the method of online facilitation is at least as important as the scalability of the content, there will never be substantial improvements in the learning experience, only more entertaining videos nobody has time to watch.


Image: By Discott (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons