Telling Stories with Data
(an edited version of this article originally appeared in the HyperWM newpaper, Nov 2012)
Once upon a time …
When was the last time you sat down and read a fairy story?
It may be a few years, but I’m sure you could tell a few of those childhood stories from memory. Whether it’s the interesting characters, the exciting storylines, the emotion you felt or the moral lessons you learned; the stories stick.
When was the last time you sat down and read a spreadsheet?
I’m guessing, never?
Unlike a fairy story, a spreadsheet has no characters, no thrilling plot, no emotion and no lesson to be learned.
You probably skip straight to the end, check out the total and close the book – you certainly don’t print out all those pages, and take them home for a cosy night by the fire.
However, there IS a story in that spreadsheet – it’s the story of a situation, a rise or a fall, a pattern or a trend. It may be a thrilling rollercoaster of a ride, it may be a fascinating insight into the current landscape. Unfortunately, it’s hidden behind all those rows and columns of numbers.
This is where visualisation comes in – taking those statistics and turning them into something the human eye can fathom – colour and shape, placement and size. By presenting these numbers in a visual way you create something that anyone can understand, irrespective of their literacy, numeracy, language, background or prior knowledge of the subject.
Through bar charts, pie charts, line graphs and full-on infographics, the story is revealed, we can see the characters (the different elements) on their journey – we can see the changes, the excitement and the disappointments.
That story will provoke a reaction – anger, satisfaction, joy or disgust – all emotions that will prompt our next move. Do we stay on the same route, or does something need to change?
Without clear and simple representations of the information, there will be many people who simply don’t get it.
And in the current climate of transparency and accountability – data is only open, if everyone can access it.
Once we reach this point, we can all begin to make clear, informed decisions about our future and the future of others and, hopefully … live happily ever after.