Tuesday, October 13, 2015

We have made NarraFirma

We went now away with a fair wind for Brazil; and in about twelve days’ time we made land....  We kept on S. by E., in sight of the shore... and in three days came to an anchor off the bay of All Saints, the old place of my deliverance, from whence came both my good and evil fate. (The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe)
I am proud and excited to announce the first beta release of NarraFirma open source software for participatory narrative inquiry.

Solid ground

The NarraFirma software is a companion to my textbook Working with Stories in Your Community Or Organization. The software takes you through the six phases of PNI, from planning to return. The basic idea is to give people who've read the book a set of tools to bring the book's ideas into reality.

If you already know how to do PNI, NarraFirma can support you too, and probably in a way you've never been supported before. I know I'm eager to use it on my own projects for clients.

What's behind the name? "Terra Firma" means solid ground. The NarraFirma software provides solid ground for story work, in the same way that stories provide solid ground for decision making.  

NarraFirma has four major functions.
  1. It's a checklist. NarraFirma provides practical guidance as you work, with questions for you to answer, recommendations based on the conditions you describe, activities that help you make decisions, and just-in-time advice. 
  2. It's a journal. NarraFirma helps you keep careful records of what happened in your project along with your reflections about what it all means. There are two reasons to do this. First, you will thank yourself for it in future projects. Second, taking notes as you go helps you to remember to reflect as you go. You could say that NarraFirma tugs at your sleeve to remind you to keep learning and improving.
  3. It's a kiosk. NarraFirma helps you collect stories, on-line and/or off-line, based on story forms you design (with sample questions you can copy). Of course you can already collect stories using any of the many survey systems available. But collecting stories in NarraFirma means you never have to metaphorically take your clothes out of the washer and put them into the dryer. It's all in one package.
  4. It's a workstation. NarraFirma helps you discover, consider, explore, and interpret patterns in your data (stories and answers to questions about stories), creating catalytic material you can use in your sensemaking sessions. This is the same basic functionality I have designed before (lists, graphs, statistics), but in a new way that — I believe — makes the catalysis process easier to carry out, especially for a beginner.
Why would you want to use NarraFirma? Here are some features I think are most appealing.
  1. It's portable. NarraFirma is a web application that can be installed as a WordPress plugin or on a Node.js server. This means you can install the software wherever you want to use it, and you can control every aspect of its installation. You can even install NarraFirma on your local computer and use it without connecting to the internet. 
  2. It's a team player. We've spent a lot of time making sure small groups of people can collaborate in real time as they use NarraFirma. I wanted to do this because many of the projects I've worked on have been delayed by "document tag" — that is, people sending files back and forth. With NarraFirma you'll be able to do things like plan your project, write your questions, look at your data, and reflect on what you've learned, as a group. 
  3. It's an open book. NarraFirma is open source software. So if you have a question about how something works, you can just look at the source code and find out. If you need the software to do something it can't do, you can change it yourself or ask someone else to change it. You can even hire me/us to make the changes you need. We are willing to provide relatively low rates for improvements, as long as everybody gets them. 
  4. It works in the real world. One thing we wanted to build into NarraFirma was support for multiple projects, and within each project, multiple story forms, data sets, and catalysis reports. Why? Because I know that real-life projects aren't monolithic. Sometimes projects have sub-projects, and sometimes one project leads to another, and sometimes you have to start and stop and restart a project. I wanted to support that complexity at the infrastructure level.
Enough talk; here's the video

This three-minute video shows you what using NarraFirma is like.

Enough video; here's the software

You can try NarraFirma right now. We have set up an example project on the NarraFirma web site (with made-up stories) that you can poke around in. Go ahead, take a look.

Where it came from

Believe it or not, NarraFirma is the tenth software tool I have built and/or designed to support participatory story work. If you ever meet my husband, thank him, because he talked me into moving a long description of that history to a page on the new NarraFirma web site. Here on the blog I'll just say: I've been working on these ideas for a while.

Even though I will spare you fifteen years of details, I do think I ought to tell you what's been happening lately. As you probably know, in the spring of 2014 I finished the third edition of my textbook on participatory narrative inquiry (four years after I started its expansion). I had originally intended to jump right back into writing and finish the second book (More Work with Stories), which would probably have only taken a few more months. But I just couldn’t face the idea of going back to more writing and editing and typesetting. So I took a break and stepped back to think.

Ever since I published the first edition of my book in 2008, many people have written to me about it. Lots of them have asked the same question: I love the book. I’ve soaked it in. I want to do this. What tools can I use?

I didn’t have a good answer to that question. I pointed people at NarraCat (my open source tool for narrative catalysis), but most people couldn’t understand it or even install it. I pointed people at spreadsheets and at doing things by hand, but people wanted something more powerful. All of the more powerful options I knew of were expensive, piecemeal, buggy, difficult to understand, or all of those things put together.

My husband’s consulting contract ended in July (of last year), and we had saved a little money. So he asked me: if you could do you anything in the world right now, what would it be? I knew the answer right away. I wanted to create something that would help a person who had read my book and wanted to do what was in it — who wanted to make PNI work for their community or organization  — succeed. I thought I knew how to do it, but I knew it would take time. So we took a deep breath and plunged in.

That was in August of 2014. We’ve been working on NarraFirma ever since. It took a lot longer than we expected, but today the software is finally ready to use. It has both of our ideas in it. It’s not iron-clad yet — we consider today the start of the beta-test phase — but it works as well as we can test it by ourselves. We are ready for the world to use it and help us improve it.

While we made NarraFirma, it rests on the shoulders of the giants who made WordPress, Node.js, D3, Mithril, TypeScript, JavaScript, Git, Eclipse, and the whole darn web. Thanks so much for making NarraFirma possible. We would also like to thank some people who gave us early feedback while we were still making our way through the deep waters of software development.

What comes next

Like Working with Stories, NarraFirma has been a labor of love. Paul and I thought about a lot of possibilities for making money on NarraFirma directly: hosting a service; charging for premium features; charging for support; running a Kickstarter campaign; and so on. But in the end we decided to stick to the way we've been doing things all along: charging for specific time and attention (consulting, special features) while keeping general information (and capacity) free for everyone to use (and help to improve).

The fact is, deep down, we believe that the transformational benefits PNI and NarraFirma bring should be available to every human being. We can't give everyone a computer, but we can give everyone our software. In return, we ask that those who can pay help with donations or payments (for consulting or features, when they need them). Those who can't pay can help with feedback, peer support, and word of mouth. We think that's a reasonable proposition to set before the world.

So, pointing in that direction, I have updated my web site with more specific consulting plans that I hope people will find attractive. NarraFirma will make my consulting practice more efficient, because we designed it to reduce some of the most time-consuming parts of the work I do for clients. By doing projects in NarraFirma, I can offer a lower rate and a quicker turnaround. I can also communicate with clients more easily, because we can use the software collaboratively. We can even share the catalysis process, so that clients can become independent of my help more quickly.

Here's what I would love to happen over the next few years.
  • Lots of people use NarraFirma for PNI projects, big and small. Projects start out small and non-critical, then move up to larger, more ambitious projects as the software is tested more completely.
  • People tell us what needs fixing, and they send us great ideas for improving the software.
  • People help each other use NarraFirma in forums and groups. A community grows.
  • Some of the people in the community improve NarraFirma. People fix bugs, add features, create templates, and write helpful guides.
  • From time to time, somebody supports the project with a donation or a grant.
  • Once in a while, somebody pays me/us to provide training or coaching, do some catalysis work, add a new feature to the software, or meet some other specific need.
  • In time, the software and its community grow into a strong resource many thousands of people can rely on to bring the benefits of PNI to their communities and organizations.
If you would like to help me do any of this, here are some things you can do.
  • Take a look at NarraFirma. Send  some feedback. 
  • Tell other people about NarraFirma. Tweet, blog, email, whatever. Spread the word.
  • Thank us for making NarraFirma, and help us keep working on it, by making a small donation. (It's not tax deductible, but it's karma boosting. By the way, if you were one of the people who sent a donation to support the book, I want to take this opportunity to thank you again. Your donations have been heartening, and they helped inspire us to keep going and make NarraFirma.) 
  • The next time you think you might like to use participatory narrative inquiry, consider using NarraFirma. When you do, ask questions on the support forum; submit bug reports; make suggestions.
  • If you know of any grants that might be a good fit for funding future NarraFirma development, let me know. If you would like to work together toward any grants, let me know.
  • If you're using NarraFirma and need some help, or want it to do something it can't do, consider hiring me/us to help you or to improve the software.
If you have any questions I haven't answered here, send me a note. I'm eager to talk about NarraFirma and what it can do for you.


Gene Bellinger said...

Cynthia, I think a video with voice over that tells a story would be helpful. I watched the current video and didn't find it meaningful. I think there was way too much to absorb. Try to go back and think about what it was like before you knew all you already know about the software and try to explain it to me from there as that's where I am.

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Hello Gene, thanks for looking, and thanks for the helpful comment!

It's pretty much impossible to create a brief video that can describe the NarraFirma software fully. Yes I could tell a story, but the story has many layers, from "why stories" and "why inquiry" and "why participation" and "what is PNI" and "what does a PNI project look like" all the way to "what does software need to do to support a PNI project" and "what were the goals behind NarraFirma." That would be a very long video, and I doubt people would be willing to watch the whole thing. This particular video is not meant to explain all of what NarraFirms is for/about. It focuses only on showing what the software looks like. That's appropriate for where the video will usually be encountered, on the NarraFirma web site (after a series of answers to those other questions). You're right that as a stand-alone video (which it isn't, except on this blog post) it isn't adequate. I'd like to create a whole series of videos that explain the ideas behind PNI and NarraFirma step by step. I'd like to do lots of things. One thing at a time :)


John Caddell said...

Ok, this software is kind of amazing. It is as if you distilled every step you discuss in the book, and it's right here for anyone to use. What a perfect companion piece. I wish this had been available when I was doing my farmer's market project a few years ago (remember that one?).

I can envision many groups using this. I hope is spreads all over the world.

Thank you Cynthia and Paul!

Gene Bellinger said...

Cynthia, the same old problem. So little to do and so much time! ->:)

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Gene, thanks again and yes, if there was all the time in the world things would be different. Or would they?

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Blogger used to let me reply to comments and now it doesn't. Wonder why.

Anyway, this reply is to John: Thank you! We've worked hard on making NarraFirma useful to people, especially beginners, and I hope it will be useful to (and used by) many people in the years to come. And yes I remember your farmer's market project well, in fact it's one of the projects I highlighted on the NarraFirma web site, because it is such a great example of a small project that had a big impact. If anyone is curious, John's project is one of the case studies in the More Work with Stories book. Also: John's story related web site (3-Minute Journal) is worth looking at.

Apparently I can now use links in comment posts. Blogger giveth, and Blogger taketh away.