Online data expeditions: Guide for guides

So you’re thinking about running a Data Expedition. The guide below gives you some key pointers about how to make your expedition a success.

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Online data expeditions:
guide for guides

What is an online data expedition?

A data expedition is a journey into the unmapped territories of data.

Online expeditions bring a group of people together online – potentially hundreds of them! – and give them a goal. Facilitators work with them to help them achieve it.

These slides will tell you everything you need to know to set up your own online data expedition.

Online expeditions are quests

An online expedition is a quest. It’s a journey towards a goal.

Data heroes must know when the quest is completed. Online expeditions work best with explicit end goals.

Good goals are projects. A blog post, a set of data visualizations, or a new cleaned dataset are all suitable goals.


Online collaboration requires lots of hands on deck. You will need a group of facilitators to help run an online expedition.

Facilitators are hands-on helpers. They keep the expedition running by troubleshooting and answering questions. They’re also experts who can teach training seminars on key skills.

Scale and organization

Online expeditions can be as big as you want. We’ve run them with as few as 20 people and as many as hundreds. These slides are mostly about larger expeditions.

You should organize an expedition around groups of 10 people. If you have more than 10 participants, break them up into groups.


Timing is important with online expeditions. Plan carefully, and make the plan available to all participants.

Schedule 1-2 weeks of preparation time for reading and project planning.

Schedule a sprint where participants get together online and work on their projects, with facilitators available live to answer questions.

Skill levels

Data Expeditions are for everyone! Don’t ask participants to be experts when they join. In your plan, be clear about who can participate, and plan separately for everyone you accommodate.

Plan for at least two levels of skill (beginner, advanced). Try to group participants with others with similar levels of skill.


Online expeditions can provide an expert seminar tailored to the content of the expedition. A seminar is an hour-long introduction to the expedition’s core concepts, methods, goals, and tools.

Seminars can be held using Google Hangout and recorded for participants who can’t view them live.

Getting fancy: multiple tracks

Expeditions work best when they focus on a theme (usually a set of skills).

A really fancy data expedition might have multiple themes. Each should basically be its own expedition (or track), with its own planners and facilitators.

One of our recent big expeditions had separate tracks for Geocoding, Data Cleaning, and Data Visualization, for example.

Planning the expedition

Planning the expedition

Now you know what a data expedition is and who its key participants are. So how do you actually create one?

These slides tell you how to create the plan and basic resources that will help your online expedition go off without a hitch.

Remember that if your expedition has multiple tracks, each track needs planners and facilitators.

Course content plan

Most important of all: write out the course content plan for the expedition. This document is the bible for the expedition. Make it available to all participants.

Include: core theme; source materials; goal projects (for each skill level); tools (for each project); learning resources (for each tool).

Recruiting facilitators

Facilitators are crucial. Recruit facilitators who know the subject and—most importantly—can commit time. Make sure they can commit to:

Planning seminars

An hour-long lecture or screencast is a good way to introduce the expedition. Find an expert to deliver such a seminar.

The seminar doesn’t have to cover everything that participants need to know. It is an introduction to the field of the expedition. It shows how to think about its goals.

Thinking about participants

Think carefully about how groups can work together to achieve their goals.

You don’t have to assign explicit roles to group members. But think about how projects naturally progress and provide suggestions for completing projects in groups of 10.

Remember to plan for different levels of skill.

The data processing pipeline

Can’t figure out a project’s natural stages? The data processing pipeline is a good guideline to how many data-driven projects proceed.

The data processing pipeline

Group communication tools

Encourage collaboration by providing tools for group communication. We suggest:


Announce your expedition about a month in advance. Start accepting signups no more than 2-3 weeks in advance. You want participants to remember they’ve signed up! Expect 33% of signups to drop out anyway.

Be explicit about time commitments required by your expedition. Give dates and times for sprints, seminars, and other hands-on periods.

Creating groups

Make sure to find out what time zones participants are in. People need to work with other participants in nearby time zones.

Don’t put participants in groups until the end of the first week. You will get many dropouts before that point.


We’ve had success structuring expeditions into these phases:

  1. Introduction week
  2. Preparation week
  3. Weekend sprint
  4. Follow-up

Introduction week

Preparation week

Weekend sprint



Email is the main way to communicate with participants. For each timing phase, write a key email in advance.

Begin each phase by sending an email. Outline what’s happening that week(end); provide links to seminars, resources, etc.; explain how to contact facilitators.

What do you need? – Summary

Once you’ve got these things, you’re ready to go:

Running the expedition

Running the expedition

In the previous section, you learned how to build a plan for a data expedition. Running the expedition is simple: just follow your plan!

These slides provide advice and troubleshooting for the different phases of the expedition.

Kickstarting group dynamics

Breaking the ice early on is essential. It works best if group members can see and hear each other. Strongly suggest that groups hold a Google Hangout or Skype call in their first week.

Most groups will have one or two highly engaged participants who drive the group’s activities. Try to identify these individuals early on and encourage them to be confident in their leading role.

Fixing broken groups

When most members of a group drop out or disappear, the group is “broken”. Its remaining participants can’t complete the quest on their own.

Facilitators should watch out for struggling groups and be ready to re-group participants whose groups have broken down.

Communication between participants

Be flexible about how participants communicate. Some people like mailing lists, others hate them.

You may want to set up temporary mailing lists to help groups get in touch with one another and work out how they prefer to communicate.

Be inflexible in one way: require everyone to communicate early and often. Get participants to introduce themselves when they join a group – then make sure they say hello a second time.

Answering student questions

Facilitators must always be available to answer questions. If they’re not, people will feel lost and discouraged.

Helping participants means both answering emails in the first phase of the expedition and being available live during the weekend sprint.

Be sure to specify in each email you send how to reach facilitators for help.

Emails from guides to participants

Emails are the main way of moving the course along. They must be clear and complete.

Tell participants everything they need to know at each phase and include ways to ask for help.

Don’t surprise people: say what the end goal is at the start of the expedition.

Seminars and unhangouts

We’re still experimenting with running seminars and large online collaboration sessions.

Let us know about the successes and difficulties you experience incorporating these elements into your expeditions!

Project submission

When your participants do good work, reward them by recognizing them.

A good way to recognize participation is to turn a project into a blog post. Smaller projects can be grouped together into a single post.

Our friends at P2PU have created a system of Badges which can be used to recognize great projects.


Data expeditions never really end. Quests create a lasting bond. Participants often stay in touch and keep working on projects related to the expedition.

You can help expedition participants stay in touch by providing mailing lists and by contacting participants after the expedition to collect their reflections on the experience.

After the expedition

How’d it go?

Online data expeditions are an ongoing experiment. If you’ve run an online expedition, we want to hear about it.

Contact us and let us know how it went! We would love to feature your expedition’s stories on the School of Data blog.