Have your data got a visual story to tell?

Have you ever looked at a large table of data or some uninspiring, unreadable chart or graph and wondered what it was about? Have you thought whether what you’re looking at is telling the real story or selectively representing data to make a particular point or emphasis? Does the data look confusing or just plain ugly?

Recently I attended a fabulous two-day workshop on data visualisation that explored questions like these. Hosted by The Walkley Foundation, the workshop was enthusiastically presented by a US dataviz-whizz, Lisa Williams (@lisawilliams).

Lisa is the Director of Digital Engagement for Investigative News Network, an author of a blog on coding for journalists called Life and Code and a self-confessed data nerd.

Data representation

We learnt about how data can be misrepresented and interpreted simply by the way graphs are labelled and whether the baseline starts at zero or any other arbitrary number to exaggerate the ‘claims’ (see below for an example from Fox News).

Fox news - dodgy data
Check the vertical scale on this for a mere 4.6% change!

Changing the scale of an axis can also effect the way the data is interpreted.

Modest vs Rapid growth - same data set
Modest vs Rapid growth – same data set

Beautiful data

Lisa showed us many great examples of how to present data in varied and engaging ways. It’s not just about showing the data, it’s about telling a story – and beautifully.

For a wonderfully creative example – listen and watch Wikipedia being edited in real time.


And below is a beautifully conceived data visualisation with a chilling message. The number of people killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004. Really worth looking at this.


Practical data

You may find that you have a whole bunch of data that, in its current form such as a large table, is unreadable or a little dull. You want to get the message out in an interesting and readable way.

Data visualisation could be the answer.

Below is a good example of a practical application of data visualisation produced by the Centre for Diet and Activity Research in the UK, showing dietary intake compared to income and education.


Putting it all together

Many free tools are available to help build good data visualizations. Lisa took us through a few of them – using real-world examples – everything from simple bar charts to more complex mapping applications.

Of course it was just a taste of what can be done but Lisa gave us an excellent introduction to new, fun and interesting ways of communicating data and statistics.

I’ll leave you with this – a fine example of story telling from the New York Times. A Rogue State Along Two Rivers.


Many thanks to Lisa for a great introduction to a broad and interesting topic. Many clever people are out there doing innovative data visualisations. If you have any examples to share, I’d love to hear them.

And if you’d like me to help with turning your data into creative, engaging stories, please get in touch.