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Thursday, January 18, 2018

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PHILANTHROPY 2173 - Data visualization more common, more important
Lucy Bernholz

July, 2011

I've written a lot about data and data visualization. A few weeks ago I even awarded "The Person's Choice Award for Foundation Data Presentation" to the Knight Foundation for their great work on interpreting and sharing what they've learned from their Knight News Challenge.

One sign of just how important it is becoming to present information in these engaging ways is the advent of "commodified, off the shelf" visualization tools. These are online, free software programs that will take your data and slap it on a map or make a few graphs for you. In many ways this was started when Microsoft started embedding shared templates into Excel and Powerpoint - within a few years certain ways of seeing information presented became very common in certain circles. Since then, more interesting visuals have become available online. One site - Many Eyes - has long been available. The newest of these sites, - turn your tweets into a "solographic." Here's mine:

All I did to make that picture was load my twitter account into the link that I received in email. The point of is to "Show your data." They have dozens of different presentation formats available. They've taken the "art form" of these cool infographics and made it readily available.

So, what's left? Well, the hard stuff is left. Not that art is easy - but there are certain common ways of presenting data that these kinds of online visualization tools will make ever more common. Excel made it easy to make bar and pie charts. These tools will make it easy to make bubble and infographics. But it still matters that you use the right picture for the right data for the right story. In fact, the more common these pictures become, the more important the ability to understand the story in the data becomes.

You still need to know what you're trying to say. You still need to know what kinds of data you have or where to find the data you need for your purposes. You still need to know what kind of data representation (picture) helps make what kind of point. We all need to get better at reading the nuance, understanding the differences, and thinking through the implications of these cool pictures. No doubt about it, a picture is worth 1000 words. Especially if it shows us something we can't see in the raw numbers or raw words, shows relationships we wouldn't otherwise find, or sparks new questions. If not, it's just a cool picture.


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