Creating Meaning with Data Visualizations: Lessons from Visual Data Storytellers

By Kristi Arbogast, Communications and Operations Associate at OpenGov Hub

At OpenGov Hub, we specialize in all things data, whether that’s creating open data initiatives, curating data for reports on corruption, or empowering citizens with access to information.

Yet, as many people who work within this new paradigm of big data and open data, the deluge of information can sometimes overwhelm the story hidden within that data. Many of our Hub members are turning to data visualizations to highlight elements of the story, so to learn from some experts we recently sat down with data visualizers Ricky de Marchi Trevisan of Esri and Desmond Spruijt of Mapping Worlds to talk about how they handle the influx of data.

The large amounts of data we now have is, according to Ricky and Desmond, why data visualization is proving to be a powerful tool to actually show the narratives and relationships contained within large data sets.

As Ricky pointed out, “data visualization is a quick, easy way to convey concepts in a universal manner”, particularly as the human brain processes visual information much quicker than all of those large stacks of reports and neverending spreadsheets that all of us are overwhelmed with.

This visualization allows people to have an entry point into your data and for you to highlight certain aspects of your data that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise, according to Desmond.

One way to draw people into the data and to explore the stories within it is to humanize it. By that, Ricky means for you to ask yourself why you are writing this, to consider the user, to think who will be reading this, and how can you get those people to easily share it with others. The data driven stories need to be compelling enough and, most importantly, easily understood enough that someone can quickly share the story with someone else. This is how impact is created.

Naturally, the surface-level simplification that this requires is one of the negatives of data visualization. Desmond, who is an academic by training, highly suggests making the source data fully available with each visualization, so that journalists and researchers can use those data sets. But, as he pointed out, even journalists and researchers need easy entry points into complex data.

The range of data visualizations that can be created are as varied as the data sets they represent. But some words of wisdom from our data visualization experts would be wise to incorporate in most efforts.

First, Ricky reminds everyone: do not reinvent the wheel and over-design. Incorporate peer feedback and keep learning from others. Remember who your audience is and simplify it even more, but most importantly, attach a story to the visualization.  

Desmond added in that showing less is more, both aesthetically and content wise. “If you’re happy with your visualization, go another round of edits on what can be skipped.” The more information that is stacked up, the more likely it is users will be lost. In this way, you could consider data visualizations to be somewhat akin to poetry, where the right elements in the right configurations can create the most meaning.

Ricky and Desmond both made sure to share some of their favorite visualizations with us, so that you can see what they consider to be shining examples.

Ricky’s current favorite is A Mappy Look at the 2017 UN World Happiness Report.

Desmond found this visualization of Syrian casualties to be powerful, especially as you can focus in on particular individuals represented by dots, adding that human element that is so vital for visualizations.

In the spirit of peer learning, feel free to share some of your favorite visualizations with us. We’d love to share them with our community and on Twitter.

Esri inspires and enables people to positively impact the future through a deeper, geographic understanding of the changing world around them. They support organizations everywhere with the most powerful mapping and spatial analytics technology available. ArcGIS provides Esri users with a scientific-based approach to solving problems in real time.

Esri has been a sponsor of the OpenGov Hub since its creation.

Mapping Worlds has expertise in web technology, cartography, interactive design, and content creation which enables them to provide clients with effective communication tools. They offer web development, visual design, consultancy, and journalism to help present data-rich content.

OpenGov Hub hosted a Brownbag Lecture this past month with Mapping Worlds on Dynamic Data Visualizations.