Data Advocacy Essentials, Pt IV: FAQs on Visualising Data

What is a data visualization?

Data visualization is a visual representation of data that has been abstracted in some schematic form, meaning it has been put into a table, picture or diagram. A primary goal of data visualization is to communicate information clearly and efficiently to users. Effective visualization helps users in analyzing and reasoning about data and evidence. It makes complex data more accessible, understandable and usable.

How is this different from an Info-Graphic?

An infographic is more subjective and will use data to tell a story in a very deliberate and intentional way, while data visualisations are meant to be objective and are more focused on numbers. It is more likely in advocacy work that you will want to use an infographic.  An infographic will likely utilise elements of information design and information architecture

Why is visualising data suddenly so important for advocacy campaigns?

This data visualisation contributed to the ending of the slave trade in England in 1783

This visualisation contributed to the ending of the slave trade in England in 1789

Data visualisations in advocacy is nothing new. There are examples from the 1700’s that contributed to the end of the slave trade in England, and Florence Nightingale famously used a combination of pie and bar charts to convince Queen Victoria to improve conditions in military hospitals.  Because we live in an information rich age, visualisations are more important than ever. They distill complicated data in a way that is easier to understand and comprehend. Social media has allowed for easier sharing of clever and compelling data visualisations and infographics.

What types of visualizations are most effective in advocacy?

From working with organisations focused on rights and justice around the world, I’ve noticed that the most effective visualisations are ones that make a single point and show the least amount of data to get that point across. Keep in mind that the most effective social change graphics use visual metaphors or humour to get their point across and may not use any data at all.  The most effective visualizations are ones that make a single point and show the least amount of data to get that point across. Simpler is better. Make your numbers relatable. Instead of just showing a HUGE number, relate that to something that will capture your audiences attention: e.g. this HUGE NUMBER is equal to 5000 lattes or the population of Nigeria. The most effective graphics will grab the viewer and have a clear message.

How do I start?

Start with your goals.  What are you trying to accomplish?  What change do you want to see? Then think about the story your data tells and how a visualisation will help you make that change. Next you will need to get to know your audience as best you can. Try to figure out what they find compelling about your data.  What visuals will resonate with them?  How do you want them to react to the visualisation? Then take a look at different data visualisations for inspiration.

Pie charts, good or bad?

Pie charts are good! Just understand when they should be used. Pie charts can be generated in your spreadsheet program and are a great first step in generating a data visualisation and helping to understand if you need an infographic. Whether it will work as a final product depends on your data, audience and goals.

What software tools can I use to generate my own data visualisation?

There are lots of tools available that can help you with making a preliminary data visualisation.  However, and we can’t stress this more strongly, you should not rely on using software to create a final infographic for use in advocacy.  If you want to make something really powerful and effective, chances are you will need the help of someone with strong graphic and inforamtion design skills.  Software is a great first step in visualising your data (see pie charts question above).  If you are working with geo-locational data, try using a service like Crowdmap by Ushahidi. For other types of data, see this list of Visualisation Tools from Tactical Tech’s Visualising Data from Advocacy guide.

Where can I see some good examples of visualisations in advocacy?

There are lots of examples floating around the web. Some great places for inspiration:

How should I approach creating online interactive infographics?

An effective interactive infographic will take a user on a journey.  Again, think about how to convey the least amount of data that will grab your audience and compel them to learn more about your issue. You should provide a pathway for them to get stories about individuals’ experiences. You also need to be able to drill down to all the detail that your data contains.  This is known as the three gets: ‘get the idea, get the story and get the detail’.  There is a fourth get that every interactive infographic should have, which is ‘get involved’. A great example of this is the Land Matrix website.

Should I use a different data set in visualisations for different audiences?

Not necessarily.  The beauty of data visualisations and infographics is that they can focus on different elements of a data set depending on who the audience is. The same data set can be the foundation for different visualisations that will mobilize allies, educate neutral parties, or counter opponents.  You can see examples of how this works in our post on Action Cycles and Stakeholders

How can I get data to use in a visualisation?

You have two options to get data – either collect it yourself or find data that has already been collected and made public.  Data that is collected and made public may be more difficult to use as it was collected for other purposes.  If you collect data yourself you should be prepared to engage and share ownership with the community you are gathering the data from or with.  To learn more about where to get data, see our post on Data Sources

More Resources For Visualising Data:

About Data Advocacy Basics

FabRiders provides workshops, webinars and advice on how to use data effectively for advocacy, social change and social justice. This series of blog posts on Data Advocacy Basics pulls together a lot of the information we use. Much of this knowledge has been openly shared by many others, such as School of Data, Tactical Technology Collective and the Transparency and Accountability Initiative. A big thanks to Sarvenaz Fassihi for compiling and editing Data Advocacy Basics and Beatrice Martini who gave great comments, feedback and support.

See also: