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The Power of Data Visualization

What do Climate Change and Florence Nightingale have in common? Data visualizations.

By: Aftan Lynch, Research Associate II

In an age of limited attention spans, we have only a few moments to attract the eyes of our audience and tell our stories. As practitioners of community-based work, we have but a matter of moments to share our stories with an information-overloaded public. And yet, we often have a wide range of information we want to share. So, how do we tell our stories in quick, engaging ways while communicating accurate and succinct information?

Data visualization.

In this blog post we’ll describe the power of data visualizations, and we’ll look at two instances in our history when they changed the way we thought about the world around us.

What is data visualization?

Quite simply, data visualization is the graphic representation of information or data. It might be a diagram, map, graph, infographic, or even a hand drawing. It’s a powerful tool that helps guide audiences to see patterns and connections within data—data that might otherwise be meaningless. Well-designed visualizations offer audiences a deeper understanding of the information.

Historically, data visualizations have shaped the way we’ve interpreted complicated and grand ideas. Under the weight of undeniable truths presented through the powerful messages of data visuals, our culture has shifted. When words and numbers weren’t enough, great thinkers used data visualizations to influence decision makers. They leaned on the potency of visualizations to reveal hidden realities that changed the way we viewed the world.

Case 1: A Compelling Case for Global Warming

Abstract data tends to obscure information and becomes meaningless without context. This has never been truer in the field of climate change, where scientists have struggled to create visuals that communicate the dire consequences of Earth’s warming. Researchers are increasingly using data visualizations to educate the public about the effects of climate change. But it was climate scientist’s Ed Hawkins who designed a data visualization that became known as “the most compelling illustration of global warming ever made.”

Seen below, the graphic spans from 1850 to 2016. This spiral graphic demonstrates a series of circles that each represent the average temperature of that year, with a data point for each month. As the animation plays out, the unwinding spiral expands further and further away from the center of the graph. In less than 20 seconds, the viewer gets a glimpse of the major changes in temperatures over the last 160 years, and how atypical the shift has been in the last decade. It’s an impressive graphic that serves to demonstrate the power of synthesizing data in a visually appealing way.

Case 2: A Shift to Better Sanitation

You might be unaware that a pioneer of data visualization was Florence Nightingale. The founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale is best known for her professionalization of nursing roles—but she was also a well-respected statistician. During the mid-19th century, Nightingale recognized that sanitation efforts to decontaminate water and improve ventilation led to decreased mortality in hospitals. It seems obvious to us today, but the link between poor sanitation and bacterial infections was, at the time, thought to be an inevitable consequence of hospital settings. Nightingale collected data on the mortality rate prior to, and after, simple sanitation measures were implemented. With that data, she created one of the first polar area diagrams called the “Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East,” seen below. This powerful image quickly and succinctly describes the life-saving advantages of sanitation efforts. It’s an image that denies any viewer the opportunity to ignore the benefits of improved sanitation. After being presented the image, the British Government established a commission to improve sanitation conditions in hospitals; A change that marked the beginning of sanitation reform—all due to Nightingale’s savvy use of data visualization.

Both examples illustrate instances when visuals were used to tell stories about the realities of data. In each case, numbers alone wouldn’t have communicated the same story. It was the use of captivating visuals that provided the context needed to reveal the deeper message.

Do you have a story to tell?

No doubt, as stewards of community-based programs we all carry data sets that house the stories of the work we’re implementing. Likely, you’ve written grant reports comprised of data illustrating the impacts of your work. Does this data tell a larger story? Think about the data sets you maintain and consider if they represent a bigger picture of your work. Can you visually display your data in such a way that it shares the deeper story of the work you’re carrying out? Very likely you can.

If you need help getting started, let us help! Contact SPS to help you create the data visualizations that tell your stories.

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