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.
The second type are visualisations that use graphics to illustrate a figure, such as on this poster about Mashable users:
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.
- Have a point and a purpose – What’s the issue you want to get across? What’s the question you’re asking?
- Make it relevant and interesting to
a largethe 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.
- 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).
- Deconstruct your point into a series of facts or statements that you can back up with data.
- 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, data.gov.uk, 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.]
- 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.
- 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.
- Edit, refine and make it flow.
- Apply visual methods: This could be maps, scale, timeline, bar charts, icons, pictures of objects, word cloud or illustrations.
- Apply an interesting visual style.
- Choose the right medium: What will work best for your audience? Static image? Interactive graphic?
- Jump start the sharing process: Make sure it’s easy to share by putting it on YouTube, Flickr, Pinterest, visual.ly etc.
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: http://blog.shelter.org.uk/2013/02/we-want-economic-growth-so-how-about-more-homes/]