A lot of our day-to-day lives are filled with various forms of data. We take pictures, write notes, record numbers, and memorize information. Think of the number of steps that we take every day, the number and types of words in this blog post, the emails you receive. These are all data points that and we could visualize to discover patterns or insights that we may not have considered before.

Data visualization involves the art of sharing information in visual form. This is often done by using text, symbols, colours, positions, direction, or shapes. Tarek Azzam et all 2013 proposes three criteria to define data visualization: Data visualization is a process that (a) is based on qualitative or quantitative data and (b) results in an image that is representative of the raw data, which is (c) readable by viewers and supports exploration, examination, and communication of the data.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Why is visual communication important? It only takes about a quarter of a second for the human brain to process and attach meaning to a symbol. By comparison, it takes us an average of 6 seconds to read 20-25 words . The human brain processes visual information much faster than text.

The field of data visualization has evolved exponentially in the last decade. Access to a broad range of public data sets, an increased need to make evidence-based decisions, and a growing number of visualization softwares to choose from, have opened many opportunities for data information analysis. For example, the UN web-based data source includes more than 60 million data points and statistical resources compiled by the UN statistical system and other international agencies.

In fact, the ability to create impactful data visualizations, such as graphs, maps, infographics, and dashboards, has become a core skill for analysts, researchers as well as monitoring and evaluation staff and managers. The power to summarize disparate data points or research findings into meaningful and impactful, visual stories often means the difference between our stakeholders making, or not making, evidence-based decisions.

The applicability of data visualizations is not only for reports. Clear and enlightening data visualizations have become powerful tools to engage an audience in any presentation. They can raise awareness about messages we want to convey. Data and visual storytelling can together support effective decision making. Well-designed interactive visualizations for reporting and community engagement place engaged stakeholders in the driver’s seat in terms of defining variables and interpreting results (Lisa Wyatt Knowlton and Cynthia C. Phillips 2012).

Navigating fundamental challenges

While analysts, researchers or managers with data visualization skills have the power to reveal untold data stories, creating impactful graphs and maps is not necessarily intuitive. On the contrary, the use of data visualization poses some important challenges. Poorly designed graphs or maps that do not convey the message can confuse audiences, distract people from what is important, and ultimately lead to wrong decision making.

Different graph types are used to encode different types of data. Making the wrong chart choice can easily mislead audiences. A key component in the process of acquiring knowledge on graphicacy (literacy in data visualization) is understanding the types of graphs that are available to us and the types of data that they were designed to encode.

For example, should we use a line graph or a bar chart to display time? Or is it correct to display geographical data in maps or another format? It is important to explore such questions before choosing a visual representation for any given data set.

Colour is another design component that can make a big difference in data visualization. We are often inclined to use too much colour.  We may choose hues that are not contrasting when we want to show data points that are opposites. We might even end up not considering a large portion of our audience by not using accessible colours – colours that are readable by people who are colour blind or people who are visually impaired. Picking the right colour primarily involves understanding how our intended audience perceives colours.

In addition to the final output (visualization), the input (data set) can also lead to important challenges. The input of any visualization is the data set that we ingest. Transparency about the source data, and a detailed explanation about any methodological challenge in data collection, such as missing values or unrepresentative samples, are extremely important in any research or evaluation report. However, data visualization tools offer limited features to explain any methodological constraints related to data. If the data set includes an outlier or estimations, those data points should be clearly marked, either by using an annotation or a different shape or colour.

Once we master the output and the input, the next step is to bring it all together. In order to do this, we need storytelling. By incorporating data storytelling, we ensure that our audience is engaged in our visual presentation. Tools to incorporate data storytelling include personal examples, movement, synchrony, and, very importantly, a narrative structure.

Capacity building in the framework of the UN Data Strategy

The Data Strategy of the UN Secretary General (2020-2022) identifies data and analytics as a crucial and strategic asset for the UN System to adequately respond to crises such as COVID-19 and to advance in crucial socioeconomic areas worldwide, such as amplifying climate action, promoting gender equality, protecting human rights, advancing peace and security, and accelerating UN Reform for greater impact on the ground. It emphasizes that data and analytics have not fully met their potential yet; and indicates that improving data collection, management, use and communication represents a challenge that needs to be faced without delay. Instead of focusing on processes, the Strategy pursues a case-based approach to drive change by adding value to UN stakeholders, supporting them in making better decisions and delivering stronger support to those we serve.

UNSSC is working on different learning solutions in the area of data analytics and data visualization for UN staff. The upcoming training on data visualization and data storytelling  will focus on the process of making thoughtful choices in data visualization, and on how to enhance data storytelling techniques.

The course will cover core data visualization design principles, provide tools to make thoughtful chart choices like how to remove clutter and redundancies, and will demonstrate how to tell stories with data. The course is designed for beginners in data visualization and storytelling. The instructor, Rebeca Pop, will use tools such as polls, discussion, and hands-on group exercises to teach the craft and science of data visualization and data storytelling using UN data examples.

The course is designed to teach core principles, processes, and best practices that can be applied using any tool. It is also designed to be foundational and tool-agnostic.