Data and the art of story-telling


This blog-post is my take on the relatively new and partly-confusing (to me at least) world of infographics, visualisations, dashboards, and their role in story-telling using open data.

Jump straight to some examples

Infographics and visualisations – why do they matter?

Data is at is most powerful when used to tell a clear, concise and compelling story, and ideally spark a debate around a particular issue.  

I think we’re witnessing an explosion in new data rich story-telling techniques and tools.  In part, this is being fuelled by ever increasing volumes of open data – and its great that open data is now very much at the heart of public policy and services.

I think it also demonstrates a genuine push by data publishers (myself included) to reach out to their audiences in new, innovative ways.  We are realising the importance of pro-actively engaging in the debate where it is happening, and not simply expecting users to come find our and decipher our story by, for instance, visiting and searching our own websites.

As I see it,  data-led stories are told via three channels: (a) Infographics; (b) interactive visualisations using off-the-shelf tools; and (c) more customised and bespoke visualisations, usually requiring some programming expertise.

To date, I’ve been working mostly in the third “roll your own” area,  developing various demonstration visualisations which blend and combine data from multiple sources over the web.   Whilst this is great fun, not everyone is a programmer.   We need more user-friendly tools to broaden infographics and interactive visualisations beyond the geek, and reach new audiences in new, engaging ways.

There are now several examples of good infographics, plus a range of established, intuitive tools for creating more interactive outputs.   I’ve included some of my favourites below.

In my view, there is now real and significant potential to utilise infographics and visualisations across Government, including in DCLG where I work, as part of our standard toolbox.   Creating and publishing these outputs should be a routine activity, like developing a Powerpoint presentation.  However, getting there will require us to address issues around skills, capacity, and tools, plus availability of the right data in the most accessible, re-usable forms.    My starter-for-ten questions are:

  1. Where and what is the best practice for creating meaningful infographics and visualisations?  Should we develop guidelines like those recently published by the Office for National Statistics? 
  2. How do we identify and prioritise areas/issues where infographics and visualisations would (and would not) make the biggest impact?
  3. How do we develop new skills and capacity to embed and sustain infographics and visualisations as part of our routine, day-to-day communications activities?
  4. What are the right tools, and how do we introduce them across the organisation in a sustainable, affordable way?
  5. How do we provide the underlying data to internal and external tools in the most accessible, re-usable form?

I’d welcome your views on these questions.  In the mean time, here are a few of my favourite things….

Infographics

Social housing lettings in England: April 2012 to March 2013, from Department for Communities and Local Government

InfographicInfographic-2

The M3 Local Enterprise Partnership, designed by Caroline Beavon, working with Research and Intelligence at Hampshire County Council, part of the Hampshire Hub Partnership.

HAM01 - Map V 7-01

Help-to-Buy, from Home Ownership Schemes: Information about the UK Government scheme for home buyers

Help-to-Buy-Infographic

Contribution to jobs and growth, from Coventry City Council

8970597176_414b82fa32

Civil Servants employed in 2013, from the Office for National Statistics

civilservants2014final02_tcm77-330286

Family size in 2012, from the Office for National Statistics

familysizeenglandandwalesgraphic2opt2_tcm77-304111

Labour Market Infographic Summary, March 2013, from the Office for National Statistics

7719529_tcm77-304028

Improving cancer care, from Department for Health

Cancer-infographic

Apprenticeships score top marks from business and apprentices, from Department for Business, Innovation & Skills

Apprenticeship_Evaluation_Infographic_-_V2_-_FINAL_-_190813

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