Visualization Experts: Data Needs Context and Clarity to Connect with Audience

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The Seattle Times tracked methadone-related deaths in the Seattle region and found the tool was higher in poorer areas. This map shows one view of the visualizaiton that was part of an award-winning series the newspaper published. Image courtesy of the Seattle Times.

The Seattle Times tracked methadone-related deaths in the Seattle region and found the toll was higher in poorer areas. This map shows a visualization that was part of the newspaper’s award-winning series. Image courtesy of the Seattle Times.

NASHVILLE—Pictures and words aren’t the only tools of storytellers these days. Any good dataset contains enough stories to fill a novel—or a newspaper. But getting the data to tell its story takes skill. That was the goal behind the one-day Tapestry Conference, sponsored by Tableau Software. The event, held at the historic Union Station Hotel in Nashville, drew about 100 attendees from journalism, academia, business and government, all hoping to enhance storytelling through the use of numbers.

Speakers showed how modern journalism has been influenced by the ability to use data in print and online graphics, creating both demand and potential for those in other fields who wish to get their stories out. But the tendency to just unleash massive data on an unsuspecting public and let them figure it out is no longer enough. It’s an issue that has applications for anyone wanting to communicate with data.

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But data alone doesn’t tell the story, said Cheryl Phillips, enterprise editor at The Seattle Times. Phillips, who gave a talk on “Choosing the Right Visual Story,” is used to working with journalists eager to do a “data dump” on the World Wide Web.

“I can’t tell you how many times a reporter would say, ‘I just got this data set. Can we put it up?’ No. What’s the story; what did it tell you?” said Phillips. “Data without a theme is just a bunch of data. We might want to let people download the whole data set in the interest of transparency, but that’s not the story.”

The Seattle Times won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for a data-driven expose into the state’s use of methadone for those in state subsidized health care. Methadone is cheaper to prescribe, but has higher overdose rates. The article was accompanied by several interactive graphics, which showed the growth in methadone prescriptions over time and a chart that pinpointed each death, segmented by median household income. The data was the backbone of the narrative and provided many subplots as well.

That series, along with several others that were shown throughout the day, captured what Pat Hanrahan, professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Stanford University and chief scientist and co-founder of Tableau, called the “real value” in visualization processing: explaining. “The problem we’re getting into is that the first part is getting really easy:  it’s easy to record data. That’s why we have so much of it. As a technologist, we think the big challenge is how we explain the data, not just show it.”

Provide Context

Nigel Holmes, a leader in the field of information graphics, took that one step further: “Numbers are wonderful and data are wonderful and information is wonderful, but context is the key to understanding.”

To prove his point, Holmes told the story of American Olympian Bob Beamon, who broke the world record for the long jump by leaping 29 feet at the 1968 Games. To show just how tremendous that feat was, Holmes stretched a piece of string 29 feet and then attempted his own long jump (clearing four feet at most).

“Now, you can go into any room and say, ‘I wonder if this is as long as the long jump,’” Holmes said. “If you put things into people’s minds that have to do with their everyday, everywhere experience, people can immediately grasp it without thinking.”

And that marriage of narrative, data and audience is the future of storytelling, said Robert Kosara, a former professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte who has studied the basics of visualization. Kosara is now a visual analysis researcher for Tableau.

“This is where we’re headed, the future of how stories should be told and how we can do things much more effectively than we used to do them,” Kosara said. “I hope this is where we’ll end up, with visual data stories.”

Kosara detailed how information has changed, from simple graphics to informational graphics to data visualizations.

The next frontier will see the creation of what Kosara calls visual data stories, which use data in interactive ways that speak to audiences without the need for text-heavy explanations.

It’s not here yet, he said. “I don’t have an example of this. I don’t think it exists. By putting together all the things we know and how to throw all the ideas together with an understanding of what works and what doesn’t, we’ll be able to build interesting new things to tell stories in a more interesting way than we do today,” Kosara said. “We’re on the cusp of something really amazing, really powerful, that goes beyond what’s out there today. This is about new ways of telling a story online, graphics that are interactive and much more powerful ways to use the data and having the data speak rather than having to explain everything in words.”

Kosara’s visual data stories weren’t the only forward-looking portion of the day-long conference. A demo showcase included about 20 companies and government agencies demonstrating data and services that are—or will soon be—available.

InfoActive’s self-serve platform allows users to turn live interactive data into mobile-ready graphics without the need for coding. Metablob, from Optimal Workshop, creates stories that unfold a click at a time.

Tableau, which has a version of its data analytics for companies, focused its demonstration on Tableau Public, its free version for journalists, bloggers and academics.

Serve the Audience

No matter what new technology is developed to make data analytics easier to use, though, the focus always comes back to the story, said Jonathan Corum, graphics editor for The New York Times.

Corum showed several examples of his work and explained his thought process. He visualizes three potential readers for each graphic he creates: a high school science teacher, a busy commuter reading the Times on the train, and his grandmother, an artist. He ensures that his graphics reduce complexity and tedium and that they don’t speak down to the reader, or overwhelm with details.

“As we come up with new ways of gathering, processing and displaying stories, we risk focusing so much on the techniques that we forget how to tell stories,” Corum said. “Don’t let the technology drive. If you’re focused on how you’re visualizing it, you can get obsessed with the technology and forget how to tell the story. If you’re using tools, be careful that you’re not letting the tools make the decisions on output.”

Sandy Smith is a freelance writer based in Nashville. Reach her at

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