Tag Archives: data

21 Jan

Oh, the humanity

Note: these are the speaker notes for my talk at DataComms2021 – 20 Jan 2021.

I’d like to talk about our relationship with data over the past 12 months. and why, now more than ever, we need to be creative.

Yes, I’m talking about COVID, but there’s a lot we can all learn from the pandemic about how human beings respond to data.

When the COVID pandemic hit we immediately went into the first phase of this journey … there were charts like this

The New York Times

And this

Reuters

And this

The Sun

We entered the phase I like to call The Deluge.

We’ve spent the last few years being told how important data, especially big data, is and now we had a real crisis to tackle. So we began to gather all the data. There was research, surveys, interviews, data visualisations, dashboards, charts. We’d sit and watch those daily government briefings, eating up all that data, looking for answers.

And it’s something many organisations do, … because it’s all important, right? The more data you have, the better, right?

Wrong. The problem is, what are we expected to do with all this information? There’s so much of it, some of it contradicts itself. Some of it is just plain wrong.

Because there’s so much of it there’s little choice but to feel overwhelmed, confused and. ..well .. pretty scared? Because actually the data here isn’t that useful because we don’t know what to do with it.

Luckily we move then into the second phase, when we begin to make sense of that data …. we begin to edit, pick and choose and think strategically about the data that really works for us.

We begin to think carefully not only about the data we’re using but also how we present it.

We began to see useful diagrams like this ..remember when we were all trying to flatten the curve?

Information is Beautiful

Visualisations like that gave us something to work with … that gave us something actionable. of course, that data also began to work towards a more physical solution – the vaccines were now seeing rolled out

It’s a great stage for any organisation – that perfect diagram or chart which inspires your audiences. finding the nugget of gold in all that data

this is the phase when good things happen – and this is when we can change minds, change behaviour and make real impact. And we really enjoy being in this phase.

But as we often do as humans – we over indulge. Excited by the opportunities of data visualisation we begin turning everything into a chart. Remember a few years back when you couldn’t move online for infographics? They were everywhere. I know,. I made a bunch of them. And still do.

Which brings us to Phase 3 …fatigue – or the data hangover.

I don’t know about you but there was a point when those Government briefings stopped having an impact. The daily health rates just became numbers and I stopped listening.

At one point last year a friend of mine said to me that they didn’t think they had another lockdown in them. Well, I didn’t have another line chart in me. I was DONE.

And I’m not alone, the Government has been on a constant battle since the summer to keep people engaged with the issue, and keep us inside to protect the NHS.

For organisations working with data you’ll know this phase. Those spreadsheets start to gather dust, those dashboards stop being updated and that expensive visualisation you commissioned didn’t quite go as viral as you’d hoped.

And I’ll be honest. – I’m at this stage. I’ve been making dataviz and infographics for over 10 years and I’m bored.

Yes, there are some wonderful people out there doing innovative and exciting things, but on a day to day basis, especially during the pandemic, we’ve got lazy.

So here we are at Phase 4 … and what happens here is up to us. Because this is when we need to up our creative game to keep people interested and help us get the most out of our data.

I’m not saying it’s going to be easy – there’s no magic bullet or formula which can bring your data to life again .. but every single organisation using data needs to start rethinking, digging deep and refreshing how they do things.

Saying that – there are a few things you might want to think about

1 – zoom in – instead of throwing everything and the kitchen sink at your audience, pick ONE key statistic that’s going to do the job and celebrate it. Make it the hero and lift it up. We’re all tired. Our brains are tired – keep it simple for us.

2 – slice and dice – turn your data upside down, inside out, back to front. Start at the end. jeez .. .start somewhere else and go any direction you want. Instead of looking chronologically, take a snapshot across categories at a moment in time. Look at it differently.

3 – This is my big one – MAKE IT HUMAN. its really easy to forget that all those dots are people. Adding in quotes, faces, stories, voices and histories will ads so much depth and humanity to your data. As humans we respond well to faces. And if your data isn’t about people – make it about people. Add stories of impact, background, the story of the data and the people behind it. Which brings me to my last tip:

4. Make us feel again – I’m sick of feeling numb, and worn out – I want data to make me gasp, get furious, feel sick, laugh and cry. Seriously, it’s time to go big.

Because after the year we’ve had, there really isn’t any other way to go is there?

03 Apr

My Route: interactive touchtable

My Route was a heritage project based in Birmingham. I was commissioned to design a touch table that would show the changing history of the Stratford Road, one of the key routes in the city, from the 1940s to today.

Working with digital agency Substrakt, and touch table developer John Sear, we created an interactive touch table that was placed in a local community centre and a library for several weeks for the public to use.

The touch table shows a selection of the businesses, with audio, image and video content. Users interact with the touch table by moving the coloured “decade” lenses over the road, and icons appear when there is content available. Touching the icon reveals the content.

 

screenshot150611_1323_0001screenshot150707_1245_0001My-Route-touchtable-2-copy  IMG_3171

 

 

26 Apr

Telling Stories with Data

(an edited version of this article originally appeared in the HyperWM newpaper, Nov 2012)

 

Once upon a time …

Alice I by Katratzi, Flickr

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.

26 Feb

Who is my data idol?

There must be something in the water …. twice this week I have received emails from online journalism students asking for my thoughts on data journalism – and more specifically, my data idols.

The first was an email from Germany – or student Katarina Bons to be precise – asking for information about any studies into data journalism in the UK and who the key players were.

During the completion of my final MA Online Journalism project, during a desperate need to relieve tension, I pasted the text of my MA final dissertation into Wordle. Whilst I regrettably did not save the final image there were some surprising, and not so surprising results. Data, was of course – one of the most commonly used words (so much in fact that the A key on my laptop broke off and flew across the room).

Another word that cropped up, worryingly often, was McCandless.

Poster boy for the data generation, but not without his critics, David McCandless is definitely my data-crush – his simplistic yet visually stimulating work is a definite inspiration to me and – in times of creative drought – I have asked – “what would McCandless do?”. (to make the shortlist of an Information is Beautiful challenge was one of my personal highlights)

Then I received an email, a few days later, from BCU MA Online Journalism student Duarte Romero Varela asking for a recorded interview about data journalism.

Being an alumni of that particular course, and a self-confessed data geek, I was more than happy to hold forth.

Meeting in Cafe Blend in Birmingham, Duarte interviewed me for a podcast (listen here) covering a range of issues including:

  • Q: who is my data viz hero? (A: see above)
  • Q: what tools do I use? (A: Excel > Tableau > Illustrator)
  • Q: what is more important, how clear a viz is, or how it looks? (A: both – a clear ugly chart is like a badly written article – who’d want to publish it?)

This question was of particular interest to me – the tide does appear to be turning against data viz / infographics at the moment, thanks to the tsunami of terrible examples finding their way into web content, newspapers and onto billboards, bus stops and the side of coffee cups.  There are cases, and I am definitely guilty of this at times, of being seduced along a path of beauty, and forgetting about the practicalities and the journalism.

Here’s how I see it …

Journalism: what are you trying to convey? What is the story?

Clarity: it has to tell that story

Design: it has to look attractive for people to want to interact with it

 

It’s a shame that there are so bad examples out there, outweighing the good and giving the whole area a bad name.

There is a real need in some cases for highly complex information to be reworked into a visible format and it would be a shame if we threw the useful bar chart out with the overdesigned viz

All content (c) Caroline Beavon 2020