Tuesday, October 26, 2021

We Are Now Leaving NarraFirma (for a while)

As you may know, my husband and I started working together on NarraFirma, our open-source software for participatory narrative inquiry, in 2014. We put out our first release in October of 2015. Since then I have tried to work on the software for at least a month every year. All in all, I would estimate that we have put between four and five person-years into the project.

Over the past few weeks, as I drew my latest pulse of work on NarraFirma to a close, I found myself running out of low-hanging fruit. The last three things I tried to do were too hard and/or too system-breaking to finish. So I decided to put all of them off for a while, at least until I (or we) have enough time and/or funding to work on NF again next year. 

(Of course, if you find a bug in NarraFirma, please let me know right away.)

These are the three fruits I could not reach.

Not doing: ODF export

I wanted to give NarraFirma users the option to write catalysis reports directly to Open Document Format (ODT) files, because most word processors cannot process HTML files very well. 

I looked into this, and I even got a little way into implementing an ODT export function. However, when I converted one of NF's reports to ODT using pandoc, I realized that it was a waste of my time to reinvent the wheel. Pandoc is free and easy to use, and it converts NarraFirma's HTML reports to ODT or DOCX formats quite nicely. As long as pandoc exists, NF has no need to generate anything other than HTML.

I should have tried pandoc a long time ago. I can't imagine why I didn't. (Three-years-ago-me was so stupid.) Anyway, I recommended pandoc on the help page and moved on.

Not doing: Survey piping

I wanted to support conditional question asking (sometimes called "piping") in NarraFirma surveys. I spent quite a bit of time trying to get this to work. But in the end I decided to back out and abandon the effort because it was a bad fit with NF's surveying architecture. To implement it, I would have to make much larger and deeper changes than I am comfortable making right now. 

Also, I'm not sure that conditional questions are all that important to NF users. Or at least they are not important enough to risk destabilizing a part of the software that needs to be rock-solid. Maybe I'll revisit that decision someday, but right now it doesn't seem worth doing.

Not doing: Multiple sets of answers per story

If, back in 2014, we had thought of having multiple sets of answers per story, and we had worked that through the entire data structure, it would have been so easy to implement a survey that showed people stories (told by other people) and asked them to add their own interpretations. Sadly, we did not think of that possibility at the time. Or maybe we triaged it out, I don't remember. But in any case, NF expects there to be exactly one set of answers for each story.

I spent some time trying to find a workaround for this, because I really would like to support multiple interpretations of each story. However, I decided, again, to put it aside for now. Not only would I have to write a converter to transition legacy data into a new structure - that's doable - but I would have to change a lot of things about how graphs and statistics work. So that idea will have to stay on the back burner for a while longer.

Did: Better clustering

After failing to accomplish these three tasks, I wanted to do something to round out this pulse of work. So I looked around in NarraFirma for some ugly, unpleasant thing I could improve. 

I remembered that people have often had trouble with the clustering interface, where you group your interpretations or observations to create sections of your catalysis report. (The same interface is used in the planning part of the software as well.) 

I had drawn cluster names with very large bubbles. Reasonably, people tried to place their items into the bubbles, as if they were containers. But in fact, it was not necessary to do that, because NarraFirma determines clustering based on distances between center points, not boundaries. 

So I shrunk the cluster names (now they no longer look like containers) and drew lines that connect items to clusters. This should make the process more clear.

I also replaced the line of buttons below the clustering space with one of my "things you can do" lists, which (I think) are clearer and more compact. And I replaced the brute-force method of setting print orders by hand with a simpler method. Ugliness reduced; usability improved. You can read more about NF 1.5.2 on the NarraFirma blog.

If you have any wish-list items for NarraFirma, drop me a note to let me know. But as of now, NarraFirma will go back onto the back burner until next year.

Next stop: Narratopia

Now I plan to turn my attention to another long-neglected project: Narratopia. As you may remember, the last time I worked on "the conversational story game," I expanded it into a larger and better version. However, its price doubled, and, well, people have pretty much stopped buying it. 

To be clear, I have never made any money on Narratopia sales. My "profit" has always been less than a dollar per game. However, I do want people to be able to afford to buy the game, even if I make nothing (or very little) on it. So I plan to go back and redesign the game to fit into a smaller box and cost less. TheGameCrafter.com, the print-on-demand service I use to publish Narratopia, has some new options, and I have some new ideas for slimming down the materials while keeping the gameplay intact.

The second thing that has happened with Narratopia over the past few years is that several people have written to me about creating translations of it. As I recall, the proposed languages have included Russian, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Italian. However, nobody has yet finished any of these translations. That is mostly because in Narratopia's current state, it takes a very long time for both contributors (the translator and myself) to change the relevant files. Sometimes people have not had time to do the translations, and sometimes I have not had time to deal with translations.

So I intend to transition the files that make up Narratopia to a different format in which I can easily put together a new translation, based on something like a spreadsheet of alternate texts, in an hour or two. I might use squib, or I might write my own scripts. I'll see how it goes.

If you have played Narratopia, ever, and you have not told me about your experience, please tell me what the game was like for you.

I played Narratopia just a few weeks ago with some visiting relatives, and I was pleased to see that I did not feel the need to make any major changes to it. (Maybe a few tweaks to the instructions.) However, having said that, I would love to hear your recommendations for improving it as I begin to work on it again.






Friday, September 24, 2021

NarraFirma 1.5.0 is out

All righty then. I've been working on the latest pulse of NarraFirma development for about two months, and I've got some things to show you. I'll just show you a few of my favorite changes here. For more detail (than you could ever want), visit the NarraFirma blog.

Better surveys

The surveying part of NarraFirma has always been its weakest part. It's a little stronger now. Here are a few of the biggest changes.

You can now create surveys that accept write-in answers for every type of survey question. You can use these for "other" answers below a fixed list, or you can use them for follow-up questions (which are especially useful in pilot projects). Write-in answers are treated in the same way as answers to free-text questions (they have a special "graph type" in catalysis, and you can write observations based on them).

New write-in field example

You can now create multi-lingual surveys. Participants can choose a language at the start of the survey, and their choice is saved for graphing. You can enter and edit translations within NarraFirma or using CSV import.

New multi-language surveys

There are also several smaller surveying improvements, which you can read about in the blog post.
 

Better qualitative analysis

Another weak spot in NarraFirma has been its annotation system. I meant it to support qualitative analysis, but I didn't have time to finish it properly. So this time I went back and improved it. You can now create annotation questions whose answers emerge as you read through your stories. 

Improved annotation
 

This should improve the qualitative half of NarraFirma's mixed-methods support tremendously.

Better data lumping

This version of NarraFirma adds display lumping: treating similar answers to choice questions as if they were the same. Like story filtering, display lumping massages your data on its way to being graphed and tested.

New display lumping feature

You could always do data lumping in NarraFirma by exporting and re-importing your data, but that took time, and doing it over and over while you worked out your lumping schemes could be annoying. Now you can try out a lumping scheme in seconds by filling in a field. This improvement means that the integrity-checking and data-massaging step of the catalysis process should be over and done with much more quickly.

Usability

I also made many little usability improvements to parts of the application that were ugly or difficult to use. For example, here's a better way to choose and arrange questions on a story form:

New questions chooser

Please send bug reports!

If you are using NarraFirma and you find a bug, please visit the GitHub issues list and tell me what happened. You can also send me an email at cfkurtz@cfkurtz.com.

What's next

I have one more to-do item on my list for this pulse of work. It is to export catalysis reports in ODT (Open Document Text) format, which can be read by most word processors. This is another longstanding limitation of NarraFirma that I think I can remove. I hope to have that done within the next month or so.

If you would like to suggest any new features you think would make NarraFirma work better for you, please send me a note. I would love to hear what you would like to see.


Wednesday, July 28, 2021

A New Journey to NarraFirma

Hello everybody. After nearly two years, it's finally time to go back to work on NarraFirma. I am now beginning a new development pulse. Hooray!

In fact, I have already released a new minor version. You can read about the changes in version 1.4.2 in the narrafirma.com blog post announcing the release

Now here's my wish list for this next pulse of work, which will take place over the next 3-6 months (how long it lasts depends on what else happens during that time). The big-ticket items are as follows.

Display-only lumping

When you ask people a question and give them several answers they can choose from, some of the answers might not be chosen very often. For example, if I say, "How do you feel about this story?" People might respond with a distribution of answers like this:

  • satisfied (12)
  • frustrated (18)
  • relieved (13)
  • angry (14)

Most statistical tests can't compare counts less than twenty. Also, the more ways you slice and dice your data (by province, by age, etc), the smaller your counts get. So, catalysis almost always involves a time-consuming step where you lump similar answers together to get larger counts. 

You can lump answers in NarraFirma right now using the import system. In the above example, you can tell NarraFirma that it should read the answers in your data file thus:

  • satisfied (12) or relieved (13) -> positive (25)
  • frustrated (18) or angry (14) -> negative (32)

Lumping via import works now. But it's a pain to keep re-importing your data over and over as you make lumping decisions. This is an aspect of the NF catalysis process that I have always found to be particularly annoying.

I am fairly certain that if I tread very carefully, I can add display-only lumping to NarraFirma. That is, you will be able to enter a series of commands into a field on the "Configure catalysis report" page, and NarraFirma will draw lumped graphs without changing your data. That means you'll be able to change your lumping scheme without re-importing anything. This could speed up the catalysis process considerably.

The system will probably work like the filter system does. The commands will look something like this:

  • Feel about == satisfied || relieved == positive

Meaning, when NF gets to the question "Feel about," it will pretend that the answer "satisfied" is the answer "positive." And it will do the same thing for the answer "relieved."

Survey improvements

Originally we wanted to build a strong story-gathering capacity into NarraFirma. However, we ran out of money before we could get to it. As a result, gathering stories using NF is very simple and plain. 

As far as I know, most of the people who are using NF today are not using it to gather stories. They are using SurveyMonkey, Google Forms, Open Data Toolkit, LimeSurvey, and many other options. That's why I improved the import functionality of NF in the last pulse of work on it.

However, in this pulse of work, I would like to improve how NF collects stories.

I have done a few things already. I added a "maximum number of answers" field to keep people from ticking off every possible answer to multi-choice questions. And I spent a little time improving the accessibility of NF surveys. 

But there's much more I would like to do, if I can. Specifically:

  1. I would like to make it possible to display images and videos (via web links) as introductory, question-asking, and answer-representing elements in a survey. 
  2. I would like to make it possible to specify multiple language versions for all text elements of story forms, to be selected via a language-choice question at the start of the form.
  3. I would like to see if NF can support uploading of images and recording of audio stories during the survey.
  4. I would like to support an "other" write-in text box on single or multi-choice questions.

I cannot promise any of these things, because a lot of them have to do with legacy infrastructure decisions we made several years ago. But I do at least want to see what is possible.

Theming

Another feature I had wanted to have in NarraFirma back in the day, but had to put off for lack of time and funding, was a theming page. 

This would be in the catalysis section. You would read each story, write a few brief themes to describe it, and then merge your themes into a short list. The list would become answers to a question with counts you could graph.

You can actually do this in NF now, using the annotation system. But it's such a pain to do it that way that I usually do my theming in a spreadsheet. I would like to see if I can make an interface within NF that makes theming simpler and more intuitive.

Reporting

The last big-ticket item on my wish list for this pulse is the ability to export a catalysis report in ODT format, which can be read by most word processors. Writing reports only to HTML is a big limitation, and it has bothered me for a long time. I believe that this task is doable; it just requires a lot of time and careful attention.

Little things

There are many small suggestions I would like to work on, most of them submitted by NF users. I will be attending to everything listed on the GitHub issues page, and I have many other little things to look at that people told me about in emails. 

If there is something you would like me to change in (or add to) NarraFirma, now is the time to speak up. Add an issue on the GitHub issues page, or send me an email at cfkurtz@cfkurtz.com. I would love to hear from you.

And as always, I want to say a big thank you to everyone who has helped with NarraFirma, recently and in the past. Every donation, commission, suggestion, and encouraging email has helped me to keep working on the software and making it better and better.



Thursday, May 20, 2021

Confluence: The Book

It's done. The new book is ready for you to read. It has an Amazon page with print and Kindle versions, plus a web site (at cfkurtz.com/confluence) with downloadable excerpts and exercise materials. You should also be able to order the book at your local book store (ISBN: 978-0-9913694-1-6).

Confluence is about the ways in which organized plans (like roads) and self-organized patterns (like traffic) intermingle and interact in our lives, families, communities, and organizations. It's about complexity, but it's not just about complexity. It's about how the structures and procedures we design and the spontaneous patterns that emerge as we interact co-occur, intersect, and press on each other.

The book revolves around the use of seven "thinking spaces," blank canvases you can use to explore organization and self-organization in situations and from perspectives that matter to you. Each space explores a different aspect of confluence. A group exercise helps you use the spaces to make sense of things together.

Aside from the first chapter (which introduces the book) and the third chapter (which explains the group exercise), most of the book uses the seven thinking spaces to explore a variety of situations, from ghost towns to factories to folk tales to mirages. I wrote these explorations for two reasons. First, I wrote them to use the spaces in front of you, so you can see how you can use the spaces yourself. And second, I wrote the examples to help you practice using the spaces as you read and think about my explorations.

Thank you

I would like to say a great big thank you to my wonderful group of 25 "early readers," who sent me feedback on the book and helped me improve it tremendously. Some people sent just a few bits of feedback, and some sent extensive notes. Every bit of it was helpful.

The journey so far

I developed the first of the book's seven thinking spaces in 2001 at IBM. For a time it was part of the Cynefin sensemaking framework. In 2010 I renamed the space the Confluence sensemaking framework and posted it here on my blog. At that time I added three more spaces. But then I got busy with other matters (mainly Working with Stories and NarraFirma) and put the whole thing aside. 

Two summers ago, I finally decided that it was time to go back to Confluence and see what it wanted to be next. At first I thought it should be a game, but it quickly morphed into a book. I wrote the first chapter in two weeks, so I thought the book might flow out in a matter of months. It did, but the number of months was close to twenty-four. 

Some of the spaces were fine the way I had them, but some were embarrassingly awful, and I threw them out and started over from scratch. Most of the chapters took two or three months to work out and write. A few took four or six or even eight months.

I finished the writing in January of this year. Since then I've been busy getting feedback, improving usability, and getting the book ready for publication. Finally it is published and ready to read.

What comes next

I have no idea. 

I've been thinking about this topic since roughly 1989, and I will probably continue to think about it as long as I can think about anything. I don't know what anyone will do with what I have created. I know that people have used some of these thinking tools in the past and found them useful. I have a sense that more people might find them useful in the future. That sense has carried me through the past two years, even through the months when it seemed like I was wasting my time writing this book. So I'll see what people do with what I have created this time, on this pass over the idea.

I do have a few plans. I'm not big on promotion -- I usually want to move on to the next project on my list -- but I have been asked to talk about the book by something like three or four people who have podcasts, newsletters, interviews, that sort of thing. So I'll do those. If you have a podcast or interview series and want to have me talk about the book on it, drop me an email.

It is possible that I'll end up doing some consulting or coaching related to helping groups use the confluence thinking spaces in their projects. I don't know. What I do know is that this book wanted me to write it. So I did. And I'll see what happens next.

If you have a comment on the book, or advice, suggestions, or anything, feel free to let me know.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Introducing the Participatory Narrative Practitioner Network

Today I want to talk to you about the PNI Institute, its history, its ending, and its successor.

(Book update: I am still working on the last chapter. It is shaping up well, though more slowly than expected. I hope to be ready to send the book to my early readers in the next 3-4 weeks. If you are not on the early reader list and want to be, send me an email.)

The rise and fall of the PNI Institute

The PNI Institute was created by myself and three colleagues in the fall of 2014. Our goal was to support and advance participatory narrative inquiry. Over the past six years, our main activity has been a monthly Zoom call. We have had about sixty Zoom calls. Many have been excellent conversations, with lots of attendees, lively discussions, surprising insights, and plenty of camaraderie.

However, the original energy of the group has waned. Two of the four founders dropped out almost immediately (for reasons they could not foresee or change). Myself and the other remaining founder kept the group going for about five years. For the past year or so, it has been mostly me keeping the group going. In collaborative efforts, I believe, whoever does the work should get to say what happens. At this point, I think I have earned the right to decide what happens to the PNI Institute. And I think it's time for a change. 

To start, I never liked the name. It has been a thorn in my side all along. It seemed, and still seems, pretentious to call a bunch of people chatting an "Institute." Also, call attendance has been dropping off over the past year or two. Often it is just me and one other person on the call. The calls I looked forward to six years ago have slowly descended into obligations I would rather do without. 

None of this is anybody's fault. It's just the normal ebb and flow of a social group.

What should come next?

This fall, I put out a survey to ask people what they thought the PNI Institute should do next. Out of over 130 people "registered" on the site (all of whom got a pleading email), there were 11 responses. From the low response rate, and from the responses themselves, I got the sense that there is only weak interest in the PNI Institute continuing and growing into something bigger.

This lack of interest dovetailed with a concern that has been growing in my mind for the past year or two. I keep seeing people mention PNI as though it belongs to me. As though it is my thing, as though people can use it but can't change it. That was not what I wanted. 

I wrote a book about PNI, but I never wanted to own it. I still don't. I want to share it. I want people to join me inside PNI, to work on it with me, to improve it and enlarge it. Of course it will change somewhat as people do that; but I've always been okay with that. I've been hoping to see more books come out about PNI, or at least some book chapters. A few articles and a few Ph.D. dissertations have mentioned PNI. But I had hoped for much more.

One way I can counter the PNI-is-me trend, I think, is to stop talking only about PNI. Having a group that talks only about PNI keeps it separated from other approaches. But the truth is, most of the people who use PNI use it alongside other approaches. Hardly anyone uses it all by itself. I see that as a good thing, and I would like to explore it.

So I have decided that I no longer want to run a group that talks only about PNI. I want to talk about bigger things, wider things, of which PNI is just one part. I think that might be the best way to help the approach survive and grow -- as part of a family of approaches.

A wider view

What should a group that goes beyond PNI talk about? Should we drop the participatory part of it, and open the door to non-participatory, extractive methods? No. I would not want to join such a group. It would suck all the joy out of it for me. Helping ordinary people make sense of their lives, families, communities, and organizations is why I do what I do. 

What about a group that discusses participation but without the narrative aspect? Again, I would not be interested in joining such a group. I have a special fondness for stories. And, I believe, they are being used too little to help people and too much to manipulate them. I want to keep talking about helping people work with their own stories.

What about inquiry? Could we talk about participatory story work that does not (necessarily) focus on finding things out? 

Of the three possibilities, I am most open to this one. I care about people and I care about stories. I don't care as much about data and trends and proof. Besides, the sensemaking that is at the core of PNI happens whether or not you gather reams of data. I have always seen that part of the work as optional, nice to have, supportive but not central.

Introducing the Participatory Narrative Practitioner Network

I would like to invite you to join a new discussion group: the Participatory Narrative Practitioner Network (PNpn). 

In this group we will talk about many approaches to participatory narrative, including: narrative therapy, narrative medicine, narrative coaching, appreciative inquiry, participatory narrative inquiry, oral history, action research, and participatory theatre. (We may change this list as we talk, but that's what we have right now.)

If you are a practitioner or a fan of any of these approaches, we would love to talk to you. Whether participatory narrative is the only thing you do, or whether it is one of many tools in your toolbox, we invite you to join us. You can read more at the group's new web site, pnpnet.org, which I encourage you to look at.

We will continue the same Zoom calls as we had for the PNI Institute, but our topics will range much more broadly than they did before.

What are we not going to talk about? Story work whose primary goal is persuasion, promotion,  influence, self-expression, performance, or entertainment. There is nothing wrong with any of those goals. They are just not what we plan to talk about.

To join us, send an email to the address on the PNpn web site (it comes to me) and tell us why you want to join. I will send you an invitation to join our Zulip chat server, which we are using to talk between our Zoom calls. All details of the calls (dates, times, topics) are on the chat server. If you have any questions, send them to me via email.