The power of visualizing data

election-map_iiLike many of you, I stayed up much later than usual last Tuesday evening. I flipped channels searching for (and comparing) each network’s up-to-the-minute election results. While each network displayed the election results slightly differently, one image dominated every network’s coverage: a color-coded map of the United States.

The map was efficient, powerful and memorable. Displaying the election results visually allowed for a large amount of data to be condensed. Additionally, it allowed viewers to easily see who won what state (and in some instances, county) and quickly assess the distribution of the election results across the country. Most networks also incorporated the total electoral votes each candidate had won up to that point in the evening into their visualization. This addition enabled viewers to quickly translate the color-coded map in terms of electoral votes so they knew exactly where each candidate stood relative to one another. While the color of several states on the map fluctuated throughout the evening, the final visualization was powerful and memorable: it said so much with very few words.

In the week before the election, I attended a two-day data visualization workshop led by Dr. Stephanie Evergreen. Dr. Evergreen, a data visualization expert, highlighted the primary factors that make visualizations powerful and memorable: font, color, selecting an appropriate chart/figure type, and knowing the audience. While the human eye has difficulty making connections quickly between a series of bullet points or data presented in tabular format, a well-crafted visualization can help viewers easily zero in on what its creator wants to convey to his or her audience.

In addition to learning about the elements used to create a powerful data visualization at the workshop, I also learned easy-to-implement hacks that I could use when designing visualizations. The remainder of the workshop was hands-on: I applied the hacks to raw data and discussed my results with my neighbors. I also attempted, with the input of my neighbors, to improve a series of unclear and ineffective visualizations (courtesy of WTF Visualizations). [Note: This exercise is more difficult than you might imagine!]

I am looking forward to putting into practice what I learned at the workshop. The next time I sit down to create a visualization, I will begin by doing the following: 1) Identifying the main point of my visualization before I create it, 2) Letting my point inform the type of visualization I select, and 3) Stating my point explicitly in my title in a full sentence.

Last Tuesday evening, viewers experienced the power of visualization. Understanding what elements create a powerful and memorable visualization and how to implement them are also important when conveying results from an assessment and evaluation (A&E) study. If you’re seeking guidance with creating a data visualization, you may find Dr. Evergreen’s books and blog helpful. Here at the Institute, TLL’s A&E specialists are happy to meet with you about using data visualization to convey your A&E findings.

(“Margin of Victory Map, 2012” from 270towin)

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