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Touring Top Colleges with the Peace Corps

I wanted to share our first dabble with data storytelling, a visualization supporting the Peace Corps Top Colleges initiative led by our awesome press team. Our goal was to enhance and expand the experience of the Top Colleges campaign and use of the data beyond the usual suspects like infographics, and other assets to show the reach of colleges and universities. We also wanted to connect all the earned media it receives to an overarching Peace Corps goal that is measurable (in this case lead generation) on the back end.

The Peace Corps first established the current system, known as the Top Colleges Initiative, of classifying schools by large, medium and small categories and honoring the top 25 schools in each category in 2003. Prior to 2003, the rankings were broken down by large (more than 5,000 undergraduates), and small (more than 5,000 undergraduates) categories only. Some form of the rankings dates back to 1976. This year’s rankings are calculated based on fiscal year 2015 data as of September 30, 2015, self-reported by Peace Corps volunteers. The enrollment numbers used to designate school size are reported by the universities.

Data storytelling has been a tactic our leadership has wanted to incorporate into our marketing and communications repertoire for a while, so having the support of our Director of Communications, Melissa Silverman, and Head of Marketing, Christine Dobday, made it all possible. We are a testing culture, so we ultimately decided to go this route because we wanted to test out how this type of storytelling plays out in relation to our goals.

The data is fairly simple, we have a cross-sectional data set in an excel spreadsheet that feeds the visualization. But the most important piece of this was to bring all the key players together and on the same page. This campaign is led by our awesome press team – Press Director Erin Durney and Public Affairs Specialists Jenna Bushnell and Sarah Reichle – and they wanted to do more with the data. We worked together to determine what the key functionality should be, the design, and the overall narrative we wanted to share. After that was laid out, we worked in an agile way with a developer to build it out, reprioritizing what we wanted against the timeline and other constraints.

The technical implementation and design was straightforward, we brought on an experienced JavaScript developer for the development piece. This was important for us because we didn’t want to rely on third-party tools and deal with the process of creating and approving a Peace Corps-specific terms of service, which would have delayed the process. The technical piece took about a month but the planning started much earlier.

If other agencies want to embark on this journey and incorporate data storytelling, I recommend laying out the strategy and technical requirements early and give enough time for design, development and quality assurance. The data is obviously the key ingredient to these types of projects, so it’s important to understand what it represents and what it doesn’t, and then designing a visualization that corresponds with the narrative and goals of your campaign. We hope to incorporate this tactic more into our content marketing repertoire where appropriate.

We’re really happy how it turned out. Take the Tour and let us know what you think.

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