April 26, 2018, was the first U.S. celebration of International Chart Day , an event to commemorate and raise public awareness of charts and infographics. Krista Hennings, agency Q’s Tech Director of Front End, attended the event and is sharing some tips on data visualization that were reinforced by the event.
It's a poorly kept secret that people’s appetite for dense, hard-to-parse information is low. How can we provide our users and readers the information they need in a way that’s easy to understand and grasp, and tells a story we didn’t know was there yet? We’ve gathered the top takeaways from International Chart Day here to help you engage with your users using data visualization to give them deeper insights.
To build a chart or infographic, you have to have data or statistics. You might think that you need to hire a huge research firm to gather that data for you—but really, any chart creator should act like a data journalist and go on the hunt for data. This might mean writing surveys and gather responses, but there also is a ton of available data free for public use. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post data editors spoke of hunting for public data to use to build visualizations for their stories and reaching to topic experts to help them make sense of the stories they were writing. Data is out there, and the people who put it out there want it to be shared and used—so use it!
Too often content creators set out to write a story or article about a particular point of view or topic, treating data as only a source to back up their content. Really, it can be the reverse: data and statistics can lead to interesting insights that the original story might have missed. K.K. Rebecca Lai, a graphics editor at The New York Times, spoke about how huge tables of data are impossible for anyone to read—including senior data scientists! She went through multiple drafts of each visualization she made, sometimes not learning the real story within the data until the seventh or eighth attempt. It’s not until you start playing with the data as a chart that you start to see commonalities and through-lines. The data holds the story—you just need to take the time to tease that story out through your charts.
The New York Times’ K.K. Rebecca Lai and Jasmine C. Lee used public data of box-office sales and Oscar nominations to create this graph. It’s a great example of the story isn’t always clear until you play with the data enough to find something interesting and find the right way to display it.
Instead of pricey, highly-complex chart software, all you might need is some basic graphics tools like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator. The Washington Post’s Tim Meko demonstrated how the Post often uses public data or visuals (like Google Earth screenshots) and graphics tools like Photoshop and Illustrator to create engaging charts. If you don’t have the budget for an enterprise-level data visualization team, you can find ways to use the tools you do have access to illustrate the data you’ve found.
The Washington Post’s Tim Meko made this graphic with a collection of free public data, open-source graph and atlas tools, and Adobe Illustrator.
When the data you find gives you a great story to tell, the impulse is to put it all out there for your users. This runs the risk of overwhelming and completely losing them. Lai spoke about how Times editors had been building complex interactives with rollovers for more information and multiple filter choices. Editors found that users did not really dig deep in to complex interactive visuals and instead stayed focused on the initial view. With your visualizations, find the point you are trying to show, make it, and give it to the user on their first glance.