Creating your own data visualisations

At the NCVO Annual Conference on Monday I went to the workshop on visualising data. Now, I love data and I love visualisations so I was pretty much like a pig in the stinky stuff. The workshop was run by Ed and Matt from Reason Digital.

Visualisations are essentially a way to show (often complex) information using graphics.

Whether you have to write reports full of facts and figures or you need to demonstrate the impact of your work to the public then creating a graphical representation of the information might be an effective way of doing it.

I have to say that I don’t agree with visualisations for visualisation’s sake. You as an organisation need to have something to say that you think will be more effective using graphics.

In general there are two types of data visulations. Firstly ones that illustrate a number of different variables in a way that makes complex data easier to understand at a glance. One example of this is the Minard visualisation of Napoleon’s march into Moscow. This visualisation incorporates information about time, distance, soldier numbers and temperature.

Losses of the French Army in the Russian Campaign 1812-1813

The second type are visualisations that use graphics to illustrate a figure, such as on this poster about Mashable users:

Mashable vs Hashable

In the workshop it was also suggested that an infographic (such as the first example) is telling a specific story and leading you to a conclusion. A data visualisation (the second example) puts the facts in front of you and leaves you to make up your own mind.

People enjoy debating these two types and the terms that are used to describe them, you can read more about it in the article “Infoposters are not Infographics: A comparison”.

Whichever type you end up creating there are 12 steps that Reason Digital think you need to work through. Even if you plan to work with a company, volunteer or staff member to create your visualisation then these steps will help to define exactly what it is you want to achieve.

  1. Have a point and a purpose – What’s the issue you want to get across? What’s the question you’re asking?
  2. Make it relevant and interesting to a large the right audience – This might involve stepping away from what you as an organisation are doing and looking more at the issue or cause in general terms.
  3. Decide if you’re making an infographic (with narrative and pointing to a conclusion) or a data visualisation (something you can explore and people can make their own minds up).
  4. Deconstruct your point into a series of facts or statements that you can back up with data.
  5. Gather data and statistics: You might have the data you need within your organisation but you can also get supporting data from the ONS site, NHS data store,, What do they know?, COINS, Guardian data blog and local council websites. [ETA – Once you’ve gathered your data then make sure you reference it in your visualisation. It will give more credibility to what you’re saying.]
  6. Choose and order your facts. This stage needs a certain level of statistical literacy to be able to interprate data and the inconsistencies it can throw up.
  7. Work your data into a narrative. Make sure the story you’re telling comes out in your visualisation. The key to a great visualisation is in finding the story.
  8. Edit, refine and make it flow.
  9. Apply visual methods: This could be maps, scale, timeline, bar charts, icons, pictures of objects, word cloud or illustrations.
  10. Apply an interesting visual style.
  11. Choose the right medium: What will work best for your audience? Static image? Interactive graphic?
  12. Jump start the sharing process: Make sure it’s easy to share by putting it on YouTube, Flickr, Pinterest, etc.

Some of the tools we looked at for creating visualisations included Google fusion tables, Google refine, Gapminder and

There are of course barriers to creating visualisations:

  • Having the right data – Once an organisation has decided on the story it wants to tell the next step is finding the right data. Even if you don’t have it straight away, once you’ve identified what it is you can build in mechanisms for collecting it in the future.
  • Knowing how to interpret data – As I mentioned above, you need a certain level of statistical literacy to make accurate visualisations. This kind of skill could come from a staff member or volunteer.
  • Confusing personal data with that needed to create visualisations – There is a difference between using personal information (such as religious beliefs, income, sexual orientation etc. about specific people) and generic figures about how many of instances there are of things or events. The latter is what you need to be able to create a visualisation, how many service users are male, how many service users also access other services etc.
  • Graphical skills – Not everyone has the skill to create an infographic. It may be that at the last stage you have to go to an external agency but if you’ve completed these stages then you’ll find the process a lot easier.

Have you tried creating visualisations? Do you think they are an effective way of communicating data? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

[ETA – I came across this great blog post and infographic in February 2013 from Shelter:]

House building, house prices and economic growth in England.

House building, house prices and economic growth in England.


14 thoughts on “Creating your own data visualisations

  1. Nice post Louise – a rational argument for when infographics / visualisations (or ‘charts’ as we used to call them) can sometimes serve to depict *a lot* of information in a simple and palatable way. Personally, I’m one of these odd people whose brain *doesn’t* like graphics – and statistic-strewn images actually bemuse me. I prefer a deft written sentence – or (call me old fashioned) bullet points. But that might be because I write copy and work in PR, not digital exclusively. Something that really put me off infographics was their sudden ubiquity – especially page after page of them in magazines like Wired.

    There’s nothing like overkill to put me off something. But that could just be me. We all learn and absorb information in different ways I guess :)

    • I understand where you’re coming from Rob. As someone who does find it easier to understand concepts visually I am also getting a bit bored of organisations (mainly corps) jumping on the bandwagon and putting bubble writing numbers on to what would in the past have been a simple press release. It’s a shame that these are taking away from what are actually very clever visualisations. I don’t think that charities should necessarily be creating full on infographics but having another way of communicating in their repertoire could come in handy occasionally.

    • Great, thanks for these Virpi. There’s so much interesting stuff out there to read. I can’t wait to see more charities using visual communication as a way of getting their message across.

  2. Pingback: Creating your own data visualisations | weeklyblogclub

  3. Pingback: DataVis Tutorials - Principles | Pearltrees

  4. Enjoyed this! As a ‘stato’ / ‘analyst’ anything around infographics and visualisation is interesting.

    Personally dislike point 2: Make it relevant and interesting to a large audience – feel that making it relevant and interesting to the “right” audience sits better with me but then I accept that the 12 points are based on having impact too. (Reality Media supporting this)

    Also I really wish that sources were more prevalent, important, available. I’d love if every infographic had a source page listing which stat came from which source. It’s hard to trust an image when you don’t know what it’s based on.

    It’s leaking to other data too – for example which visualises your linked in profile! looks at this a little bit!

    • Thanks for your comments John and I totally agree about the point of making it relevant for the right audience. In reporting back from the session I forgot to add my own common sense. I’ll update the post to reflect that at the first opportunity.

  5. Pingback: Seeds, sports, stabilisers | weeklyblogclub

  6. This is a great post Louise, thanks for sharing it. It’s also prompted an interesting discussion. I’m personally happy with lots of data visualisation, as a quick way to take in facts, but infographics need to be sparsely used. Your own post is a good example of mixing words and pictures likely to appeal to both visual and textual people. I agree with John about point 2 and prefer the “right” audience (which might also be a large audience, but not always)

    • Thanks for leaving a comment Mark. I totally agree with John too and i’m going to update the post as soon as I as get the chance.

  7. Pingback: Happy 5th birthday blog! | Louise Brown

  8. Thanks for letting me know Louise,
    I got to handle a very old Minard print of Napoleons march a few years ago.
    It was incredible.
    I like the 12 steps from Reason Digital, very helpful.
    Some interesting points in he comments.
    I think some corps are jumping on the bandwagon and there are some shockers passed off as infographics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s