Data and Storytelling: 6 Ways to Use Data to Move Your Mission

Submitted on Thu, 5/12/2011 - 3:03pm
Given the attention that data gets from the media, influencers, and the Hill, every communications department is obligated to look closer at their data and how they are using it - and should be tapping into it to get work done towards organizational goals.

Data is the new black. These days everyone is releasing it, visualizing it, aggregating it, and mashing it up. And for good reason. Data is so much more than a stack of numbers or a server filled with client outputs. It can justify the work that your organization is doing, help others understand why it is critical, and offer exciting new ways to motivate others to help solve the problems your organization is working on.

And chances are your nonprofit, government agency, foundation, or research institution has gobs of it just sitting around. It's locked in white papers, policy briefs, and fact sheets. It's hidden away in project output reports and research excel files.

Given the attention that Data gets from the media, influencers, and the hill, we believe that every communications department is obligated to look closer at their data and how they are using it - and should be tapping into it to get work done towards your organizations goals.

One effective way to transform your data from an afterthought into a powerful communications product is through visualizations that help tell your story.

Here are 6 ways to tell your stories with data that you can apply to your own web and communications work:

1. Speak With Numbers

Sometimes, it's best to just let the numbers speak for themselves. Numbers are a universal langauge. You can make a big impression of site visitors just by presenting them clearly, and in context with your web content.

Charity Water, an organization that raises money to build wells in Africa has learned the lesson. Look how elegantly they tell the story of the need for fresh drinking water, and the difference their prorgrams are making.

2. Reveal Change

Many of the stories we'd like our site visitors to understand are centered on revealing the truth behind a situation. The truth can become obvious when you reveal the change in data in a visual way. By simply removing everthing except the changing data, your data will suddenly reveal the compelling story you are looking to spread - whether you are revealing conditions that are worsening, attitudes that are changes, or the improvements you organization is making.

My favorite example of this technique is the Descry Project's Obesity Epidemic visualization. By using the simple metaphor of t-shirt size to represent a US State's obesity rate, and making them “grow” over a two decade period - we can quickly see how America's waistline has ballooned in since 1987.

3. Focus the Story

We touched on this principle above. If you really want users to understand the story your data tells, you need to remove everything except the story. Focus their attention, and they'll get it. Everything else is just noise.

In this example info-graphic from David McCandles, he was inspired by Clay Shirky's claim that the world has an enormous ‘cognitive surplus' - untapped hours that we could be using our brains, but simply are not. David zeroed in on two relevant data points to tell the story - the number of hours Americans spend watching TV in a year, and the total combined man hours needed to create all of wikipedia:

4. Provide Context

Users need a grounding point to understand your data. They need something to put into a perspective that they relate to intuitively. When telling your story with data, look outside your own data set to find other data that makes your story more accessible - puts it in context.

Check out another of David McCandless's beauties, below. Again, David uses the simple comparitive size of blocks to put “A billion dollars” into context.

5. Let User's Explore, Discover, and Control

Moving beyond info-graphics and simple into interactive tools that let the users take control of the data themselves are another powerful way to reveal your story through data. The best interactive data tools make it simple for users to jump into the data:

  • They don't just start with a blank canvas asking users to select mysterious indicators, metrics, or variables.
  • They do get the user started with a pre-selected set of data that already tells a story.
  • They don't take an “everything and kitchen sink” approach to providing tools that can manipulate the data.
  • They do provide understand the most common way a user would like to approach the data, and provide one or two data manipulating tools that help them on their way.

Let's look at another example of this in practice. CUP is a New York City based organization that educates and informs the public, educators, and policy makers to help them make smarter urban growth decisions. Their Envisioning Development project helps people understand “What is Affordable Housing” in New York City. This map-based interactive data visualization makes it simple to select a neighborhood, and quickly see the neighborhoods income distribution, the real cost of hosing in that ‘hood, and then reveals the gaps.

6. Tell Your Story, Literally!

Sometimes the best way to explain your data is to do just that - explain it. Using video explanations of even simple charts and graphs can help site visitors quickly get the big picture - and arms them with an understanding of the data that lets explore and discover more confidently on their.

Hans Rosling, the dutch economist famous for his TED Talk's that reveal the insight we can gain from data, has popularized the approach. And even better, through his collaboration with Google, he's made his data visualization software available to everyone through, and now through Google Spreadsheets Widgets.


What are you waiting for? Get out there and start transforming your organizations locked-up data into powerful communication tools with these 6 Ways to Visualize your Data.

This article was originally published at

As Forum One's chief technology officer, Kurt leads the implementation of technology services to help clients increase their impact. He manages web development projects, identifies and cultivates new client opportunities, and guides the expansion of Forum One’s product line to better serve clients. He also advises senior executives about technology, trends, investment planning, and execution. Kurt is a frequent speaker and panelist at conferences on technology issues facing organizations.