Data Expeditions

The best data storytellers haven’t learned everything they know from a book… A lot was trial and error, picking sometimes the right path, sometimes a dead-end, sometimes needing to learn a new skill to traverse the peaks…

What exactly is a data expedition?

Data Expeditions are quests to map uncharted territory, discover hidden stories and solve unsolved mysteries in the Land of Data. In a team you’ll tackle a problem, answer a question or work on a project. We help you to get started and it’s up to you to decide where you go…

Intrigued? Read on…

At School of Data, two of our central philosophies are learn by doing and work with real data.

Image source: glenn . on Flickr

Data Expeditions are the truest embodiment of these philosophies. We set you a challenge, group you into a team and you decide how to tackle the mountain ahead of you. You may even make some new friends along the way…

We’ll provide some guidance, a leg-up (if you need it) and geeky humor – everything else is up to the participants.

Who are data expeditions for?

Everyone. There is a role for everyone and you ‘play’ the role you are strongest in, while, if you like, pairing up with people who are stronger in a skill you’d like to know more about. The required roles for a data expedition can be found below:

  • Storyteller – People who are good at finding interesting angles to explore and producing outputs that really speak to the intended audience. Storytellers are particularly key in defining the question and in pulling together the final mission reports at the end.
  • Scout – Scouts hunt down data from across the web. They can be non-technical or technical, depending on how difficult it is to obtain data (whether it is easily downloadable or needs to be scraped etc).
  • Analyst – Analysts are the ones who crunch the data found by the scouts and test the hypotheses generated by the storytellers.
  • Engineers (Optional) – Put together the final outputs with help of the group. Engineers are usually somewhere on the technical spectrum but they don’t have to necessarily be coders, we’ve seen loads of great outputs from people who know how to use off-the-shelf tools.
  • Designers – Beautify the outputs and make sure the story really comes through the data. Note: a paper representation of how you would like to present your outputs is just as valid as a fully-fledged interactive graphic produced by a coder (sometimes it even serves as a precursor to an interactive).

Like a real quest, your teammates will give you a leg-up when you are stuck, point out alternative routes when one proves unfruitful. No expedition will ever be the same twice, and how much you learn depends on your team’s ability to work together and teach each other…

What will I be expected to produce on a data expedition?

Unlike in a traditional course, there are no right answers. What’s more, we don’t specify what the outputs should be. This is deliberate, we want to encourage creativity and free thinking. This means you can produce whatever you like, from a blog post or a scanned pencil-drawn version of a visualisation you’d like to create, up to a fully-fledged, interactive application.

The main aim is for the investigators to learn from each other and work with data to solve real-life problems, answer questions and tell stories.

How long will it take?

Expeditions offline can be anywhere from 3 hours to a day.

Online they typically take 2-3 weeks (expect to work around 3-4h per week). We will experiment in the near future with holding intense day-long and one week online sessions. Stay tuned.

OK, I’m feeling brave. How do I start?

Congratulations, intrepid explorer, on being one of the brave who prepare to set out on a misty morning to uncover the mysteries, climb the peaks and catalogue new species.

Participation is easy – no prior knowledge or experience is needed. As long as you are willing to learn and come along, you’re welcome. If you have skills in some areas but not in some others: Join in you’ll greatly contribute to the experience.

To participate in a future Data Expedition – fill in your details and we’ll let you know as soon as a expedition starts.


We’re not only actively looking for adventurers but also for guides. If you are daring and imaginative enough to take a group through the valleys following a quest or have your own quest you have what it takes to be a Data Expedition Guide.

As a guide you will set out the quest and monitor the adventurers’ progress, guiding if needed. If necessary it is good to supplement further materials or pointers to where one can find further materials to learn skills etc.

Check our Guide for Guides on how to guide and organize a data expedition. If you’re willing to guide an expedition online, let us know—and check out our online expedition guide to learn how it’s done.

NB – Fancy dress and silly names are not mandatory – but they do help to draw a crowd.

Steal our model – run it yourself!

We’d be delighted for you to run one of these yourself. They make great accompaniments to hackathons or to run on their own. Need a hand? Drop us a line on schoolofdata [at]

Of course, we’re always delighted when people tell us that they’re running an event, so that we can feature them on the blog and help to showcase your outputs, we also love getting feedback on how the model works – so if you have any thoughts, please do let us know!

A full expedition kit can be found in the Guide for Guides section. Copy & keep!

If you’re more interested in running an online expedition, the online expedition guide will tell you what you need to know.

A quick note about online and offline expeditions can be found below.

Offline Expedition

We’ve had some practice running these expeditions online. Our first trial run launched at MozFest in 2012 (Read the Blog Post). Expeditions are 3h to a day and include focussed work on a distinct quest. For our first expedition we had three different quests – loads of geeky humor and sparkly capes.

Remember the aim is having fun while working and learning about data – not the outcome.

Online Expedition

Online Expeditions try to take the concept of Data Expeditions out of the physical world and depend on emails and other means for organizing.

Our first online expedition is just out there in the cold at the moment. We will post calls to upcoming online expeditions on our mailing-list and our blog – so follow them closely.

Past Expeditions

  • Mining the Mines (Offline). The discovery of oil or natural resources in a country and subsequent mining and extraction activities have enormous economic and political significance. This expedition investigated the tangled world of extractive industries… Read more on the outcomes.
  • A Call to Investigate an African Crisis (Offline). Data Sherpa Michael got a call from some dwarves in Middle Earth, who had heard about a sudden drop in life expectancy in central Africa. After initial musings about a civil war, the team discovered a striking correlation between the increasing prevalence of HIV and plummeting life expectancies… Read more on the outcomes.
  • Investigating Tax Havens (Offline). This was an experiment in providing a chain of possible investigations and then allowing a storyteller to choose their own expedition path through the data. The group divided into two teams to explore the possible routes: the tax avoidance route and evasion route and then find possibly culprits. Read more on the outcomes.
  • Flatland (Online). An quest to investigate obesity from around the world…
  • Open Data Day 2013 (Offline).