Tag Archives: datavis

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?

All content (c) Caroline Beavon 2020