How to do a good visualisation and why it’s important
Ben Fry has said that visualisations ‘answer questions in a meaningful way that makes answers accessible to others’ and Paul Bradshaw explains that ‘visualisation is the process of giving a visual form to information which is otherwise dry or impenetrable.’
Traditionally stories have been conveyed through text, and visualisations have been used to display additional or supporting information. Recently, however, improved software has allowed journalists to create sophisticated narrative visualisations that are increasingly being used as standalone stories. These can be be linear and interactive, inviting verification, new questions and alternative explanations.
Fry lists seven steps in creating a good visualisation:
The first is to obtain the data. Data can be found by sending Freedom of information (FOI) requests or by looking on government websites, as well as other webpages.
For more information on how to find data read here http://bit.ly/Hs6GAu.
It is a good idea to have a specific question when collecting data and to know what it is that you are trying to show in your visualisation. The more specific your question, the clearer your visualisation will be.
Play around with the data to structure it into categories, columns and to give it meaning.
Get rid of any additional information that will only confuse the visualisation and the user and make it less comprehendible.
Get the data into a form ready for visualisation.
It is important to use the right visualisation to present different sets of data. Every data set is unique and it is important that the visualisation used fits with the data.
Bar Charts or Histograms are good at clearly showing the difference between one quantity and another. Line Graphs are suited for showing trend, acceleration or deceleration, and volatility, including sudden peaks or troughs. Scattergrams are similarly useful for this, and are also good at showing anomalies. Bubble Charts can depict three aspects of the data through their place on each axis and the size of the bubble itself. Treemaps are useful for depicting different parts of a whole and their relationship with each other.
Different software can be used to create visualisations. Many Eyes is particularly good. Other options are Factual, Swivel, Socrata, Verifiable.com, Widgenie, iCharts, ChartTool and ChartGo. Wordle can be used for creating word clouds. Google Fusion Tables, Google Maps and Google Chart Tools can also be used. Tableau Public is free to download and allows you to create visualisations. Finally, if none of those are useful, Excel or Google Docs spreadsheets give you the option to create visualisations.
Check your visualisation to see how it has worked and how it could be improved. More attention may need to be drawn to a particular part of the data and attributes like the colour may need to be changed to improve readability.
It is a good idea to add interactive elements to your visualisation to let the user control or explore the data. If the user can select a subset of data or change the viewpoint then that added control will make their viewing experience more satisfactory.
Finally, remember that although visualisations can improve the users’ understanding and experience of a story in many cases, it is not a good idea to create a visualisation for the sake of it, make sure that it tells or enhances your story in a meaningful way.