Data Design and Storytelling

Dona Wong, VP-Digital Strategy, Communications & Outreach, Federal Reserve Bank of New York
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Dona Wong, VP-Digital Strategy, Communications & Outreach, Federal Reserve Bank of New York

Everyone talks about big data. The real story is in the small data. Data is the new oil—plentiful, but unrefined. It requires balancing the discipline of data analysis and succinct storytelling to visualize the data and turn it into actionable insights.

I had the opportunity to study under the tutelage of Edward Tufte at Yale University, a pioneer in data visualization. I’ve learned that data visualization is a powerful tool for revealing unexpected patterns and anomalies to our audience. Part of my thesis was to map the location of emergency phones in relation to crime statistics on the Yale campus. The juxtaposition of the two data sets—emergency phone locations and crime statistics—created a whole new meaning that was not there before. We can now answer the question: Are emergency phones available at high crime locations? Already in my early studies, I’ve learned that information graphics can be literally a matter of life or death.

I spent almost two decades in visual journalism between The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. We start with rich content, distill the information and visualize it for our audience. Data visualization is about telling a good story. In any story, content comes first. The essential elements of good information graphics are:

“Rich content brings meaning to a graphic.

Inviting visualization interprets the content and highlights the essence of the information for the reader.

  ‚ÄčData is the new oil—plentiful, but unrefined. It requires balancing the discipline of data analysis and succinct storytelling to visualize the data and turn it into actionable insights  

Sophisticated execution brings the content and the graphics to life.”—excerpt from The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics.

Illustration from The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics. 

Data visualization is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. The question we need to ask is how do we actually use data visualization to present the data in a way that provides insights to our audience to meet any organizational or business challenges.

One of the most important elements in data stories is relevancy. We are inundated with data or content, be it qualitative or quantitative. Our content needs to be mapped to a clear objective with a targeted audience. The question is not “How much content?” Rather, we want to answer “How useful is the information?” We would then be able to distill the data and put it on the proper channel to reach our audience.

From my days as graphics editor at The New York Times and head of graphics at The Wall Street Journal, I learned the audience is the most important group of people in my work. Having millions of readers means having millions of critics on a daily basis. Understanding my audience helps shape my graphic. For example, a lab report with clear illustrated graphics about blood pressure and cholesterol level can motivate patients to exercise more and change their diet. However, if the graphics are highly complicated, the report is not only useless; it is a disservice to the patients. We have to take the perspective of our audiences and approach the solution with conviction and empathy, as well as accuracy.

Color should be used to differentiate hierarchy of information. Everyone can perceive the difference in shading, but they may not differentiate certain colors. “Color combinations such as red/green can be similar in value or lightness. The lack of contrast in lightness makes it virtually unreadable for color-blind users.”—excerpt from The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics. And yet, we see these faulty color combinations all the time. The key is to develop a charting color palette with multiple shades of the same hue. According to the National Institutes of Health, about one in ten men have some form of colorblindness. Do you want your message to get lost?

Illustration of an effective color palette from The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics.

As data visualization experts, we have to exercise both sides of our brain. It’s a constant balance between analytical and creative thinking. Visualizing content is a rigorous iterative discovery process that requires numerous rounds of analysis and sketches with the aim of approaching a desired goal. When you see pictures with numbers, that’s when you know you have made the leap from an analyst or a designer to an information designer.

Data design and storytelling make data tangible for our audience and our stakeholders. Visualizing the data provides actionable insights and empowers us to transform what is unknown into something that is known and to influence our constituents in the most powerful way.

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