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Practical Experiments in Policy Storytelling

As a student at TU Delft, I had the opportunity to work under Erik Pruyt as part of the (short-lived) TU Delft Policy Modeling Lab. Though the lab in that specific version is not continuing, the work that we did survives in form and spirit. 

The first project was a pure storytelling effort, where I worked with Erik and another researcher to develop a series of fictional short stories based around specific policies. One example, a favorite of mine, is below. It is an homage to the workers in my village, and many others like it across rural America. 

The second project was an attempt to merge storytelling, data analytics and real-world policy with the Dutch National Police and the Immigration Service. 



A Policy Fable

Robert Johnson strums over the stereo, and for a minute, time slips out the open door as he takes the music and stands it on his head. Chaotic jumps and rattles, the notes all sharp or flat. Everything flutters at the banging of unsteady hands. It breaks every rule in music. It's perfect. Sparky lifts his head and wipes a grimy hand across his grimy face. Even in the shadow of the steel building the heat reaches in to get at them, pouring sweat out from under greasy trucker caps and soaking their ripped pearl-snap shirts. Another shower of sparks rains as one of the others turns his torch back to steel. Sparky turns away from the fiery hail and side-eyes his latest task. 

The back end of the truck plays host a to massive set of hinges, used to hoist all the necessary equipment twenty meters in the air over an oil well to haul out the kilometer of pipe and tubing that burrow into the earth to access the black blood of the earth. The workover unit is covered in three decades worth of the stuff, splattered in everyone nook and crevasse from the last round of blowouts on the job site. The whole rig bucked as the pressure in the pipe below pushed back agains the monstrous contraption, snapping cables and sending men running for cover. A ten meter rod shot clean through the pump house and another crashed through a windshield, fortunately both seats happened to be empty at the time. The rig was not so, the force had wrenched to equipment around the backside of truck, twisting aged metal into a mangled shape, one Sparky had to unfuck before the end of the week. He fires up another cigarette, eying the fist-sized bolt on the edge of the machine, this is a two-man job.

Sparky turns his back to the sparks and eyes one of the shop hands slowly shuffling across the yard. He looks up to see Sparky eyeing him, and knows it’s too late. He turns and starts his slow march toward the scraggly old man. “Gadd dammitt boy, I ain’t got all fucking day, git.” One foot turns over slightly faster than the other, the boy resigning to his fate as he works his way towards the roustabout. “Heelp me poosh this fucker outta here.” 

Sparky motions with his cigarette back to the apple-sized nut stubbornly holding onto it’s place on the line. The boy nods wordlessly as Sparky flicks his cigarette into the yard and grabs a sledgehammer propped in the corner. “You whack it while I hold onto the wrench,” Sparky side-longs the boy through his good eye, “don’t you miss now son.”

The boy hauls the hammer onto his shoulder. The thing has to be at least as old as him, the wooden handle long ago worn smooth from years of bludgeoning metal into shape. At some point a pair of steel beards were welded to the head, offering protection from errant blows and adding another pound to the already heavy load. Sparky flicks his wrist around the business end of the crescent, expertly wrenching it down onto the obstinate chunk of metal. He looks up, another already cigarette hanging from the gap left by a missing eye tooth, “give ‘er a go.”

The boy lifts the hammer and smoothly guides it’s gravity-driven fall, landing square onto the nut with a sharp ping that runs through his arms into the back of his clenched teeth. Sparky lifts his head and puffs at the cigarette, leaning against the wrench half his size to no avail. He turns to change sides, wrapping seven knot-knuckled fingers around the greasy steel handle, his fingers plying for traction over the embossed letters. “Made in U.S.A.” 

He looks back to the boy as a second blow falls onto the nut. Sparky tugs at the wrench and watches as it teeth slowly slip around the edge of the nut, furrowing a sliver of fresh steel from the rusty face. He grabs the wrench and jerks it from nut and sucks another blast of Marlboro through his raspy throat. He flicks the ash down and looks back up to the boy, a serious tone emerging from underneath the smoky cloud. “Now, I’m gonna fix this back up here. You stop playing with it like it’s your pecker and fucking hit this sonabitch.”

The boy rocks back on his heels as he watches the sinewy man work the wrench back onto the misshapen piece of metal. Thirty years of work looked like fifty when you’re out here. The missing finger, missing teeth, callous skin. Good money Sparky always said, at least when the oil price was right. Sparky slides his hands back to the edge of the wrench, arms locked and feet wide, ready to bear the brunt of the impact. The boy looks back to Sparky, a tuft of hair flops out the back of his cap, the man only nods, and turns away from the coming impact.

The first two swings has been little more than guided drops, the weight of the hammer and universal pull of gravity doing most of this work. Not this time. This time the full power the boy went into the swing. Mornings of weight lifting and running preparations for this year’s football season, stacked upon years and years of training and working in the fields. Twisting binding of muscles all unwinding in unison, accelerating the steel onto the unyielding piece of metal. The two meet with an unmistakable ring, the vibrations coursing all the way through the bones this time, reaching out and running through the tips of his toes. The force runs through the metal too, spiraling up the inside of the nut and coursing through the entire structure. The ping echos in their ears and rings for longer than either of them expected. Sparky looks down to see his wrench still firmly wedge in place, quickly he rolls his shoulders and digs in against the stubborn steel.

Every fiber in his forearms strains against the tool, frozen by time exactly where he does want it. He leans his full weight against the wrench and nods to the boy, “Hit that bitch again.” The boy winds up a second time, for the first time he could ever remember Sparky didn’t snap at him for not following his unspoken code of work. A warm pride courses from his gut into his aching arms as he drives the hammer onto the bold. Another sharp ping rings through his ears as the vibration shoots up his hands. The shock immediately pulses through his hands, cutting through the gloves, soft skin and tired muscles into every bone and never ending in his arms. The intense thrumming forces his hands open by reflex, loosening his grip enough to send the hammer clattering to the ground. Sparky flashes a dark look from over his yellowed spectacles that drains all the new-found confidence right out of the boy once, “Gimme that, Imma show you how it’s done.”

Sparky sends the boy over to the wrench, a chunk of metal almost half his size, and climbs up to get a better angle on the swing. He slings the hammer low and tight against his lap, winding his whole body around the handle. He glances back to the boy, himself halfway wound around the wrench, already putting his weight into the massive tool. Sparky nods again, and cat-arches his back high into the air.  His hips slinks down, whirling the hammer into a graceful arch over his shoulders, rocketing down to the target below. A resounding ca-ching erupts as the hammer strikes dead center against the bolt, firing a heavy strum throughout the structure.

The boys feels it slipping. He looks up, guessing it to be the wrench, only to see too late that it’s the big nut itself, finally turning on its the rusty axis. His eyes widen as the wrench and nut spin together, pushing him back chest over heels  onto the cold concrete. He stumbles, the wrench now the unyielding object, releasing years of pent of energy all at once in a crushing arch. His feet catch, at a wrong angle flopping his ass down onto the floor in a plume of dust. As he drops, he catches glimpse of the tool in the afternoon sun. The cast surface was rough once. Bristled like Sparky’s beard, unquenched and untrimmed. That’s at least how it was when it was made. That was then. Now? Now it’s silver smooth. Pits filled in with pure black, a dull contrast to the cold metallic sheen. The letters look even bigger up close. “Made in the U.S.A.” It’s so smooth he thought. Hands did that. Hands made metal smooth. The boy’s head did little to slow the hurtling wrench. 

Sparky walks. Mouth open, cigarette dangling, back across the yard, shovel full of dirt saddled across his waist. Damn boy bled like a stuck pig. Damn shame. Fucking rookies, coming out here and getting themselves killed. Damn same. He trudges back up over the ledge and onto the concrete towards his corner. He stops above the bolt, where it clattered to a stop as chaos erupted around it. Sparky stops to puff his cigarette, looking down to watch the oil and blood slowly mix on the concrete below. He tips is shovel out over the pool, soaking the blood of earth and man into the dirt. A strange thought rushes through his mind, fluttering there between ragged cigarette drags. Something the priest said about dust.  Damn shame. He scoops up the mess and heads out to put them both back into the ground. 


A Storytelling Approach


This project started a little different than the rest, I joined the Policy Modeling Lab Hackathon with the Dutch National Police and Immigration Service. While most everyone else there, clients included, was focused on data and modeling, I took a storytelling approach.

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The authorities collect large amounts of data from anyone who comes into the Netherlands, and even more so from someone wanting to declare refugee status. So we asked the question, is there a better way to share this information with each other than just leaving it in a spreadsheet? Mikhail Sirenko and I developed an idea to turn this data into pictures, to better tell the migrant's story.

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The next step was to develop a further refined idea of how the data should be displayed, who will use it, and what it all means for the big picture. Several ideas from gaming and storytelling were introduced during the discussions, and a full set of conceptual designs were to help tell different facets of the migrant's story to different stakeholders.

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Unfinished Business

The problem with student projects is they get pushed to the back burner when studies pick up. This project was one of those, though it remains unfinished the lessons learned about abstraction, creating a clear narrative, and visual storytelling.

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