A “data-viz” is worth more than a thousand words

Karthik Muthuswamy
4 min readAug 26, 2022

Major media organisations worldwide are increasingly adopting data journalism in their reporting. In this article, I'll explain why they need to do that.

Let’s first examine an age-old, worldwide, culturally accepted fact. Is a picture really worth a thousand words?

Here are some reasons to believe it is:

  • If you are the kind that likes speed 🚄: visuals are processed 60,000 times* faster in the brain than text. If you walk that much faster than an average person, you could walk around the world in ten minutes.
Around the world in 80 days — or faster
  • If your goal is to learn 📚: visuals have been found to improve learning by up to 400 times. You could walk around the world in a day.
  • You might want to remember 🔖 what you learn. A study found that after three days, a reader retained visual information three times more than written or spoken information.
  • In addition, the visuals also engage😍 the readers emotionally.

When you want to explain something from the real world, you might show a picture of it. How do you show something abstract, like data?

You visualise! 🔢📊🌏🕺

What’s a visualisation worth?

A visualisation is a technique to create and show an image(or picture) or a moving image (animation) or an image that you can interact with. If you have read news online or at least one of my articles, you have seen a graph. Like this one:

This graph –or data visualisation– visualises the information about the share of Sweden’s population that was born abroad from 1900 until 2010. This information, in turn, is an organised collection of data comprising more than 100 million data points –each representing an individual in Sweden over the years– categorised by their background. Using this data visualisation, the information is shown to you instead of being told.

You can also control what and how you see the information when interactive techniques are used to create a visualisation. In the previous graph👆, the data after 2010 was missing — you will fill it in the next graph 👇.

In this interactive visualisation, I conversed with you, and you had the chance to think, make a guess and control the information before it was told or shown to you.

Creating a visualisation that is easy to understand is not easy. The most common –and the most tempting– approach is to present everything there is in one graph. Search “dashboard” on Google images, and you can see loads of them.

Information –and data visualisation– need context, and the context has to be explained with a story using narrative/storytelling techniques.

Storytelling

Storytelling is how we share our experiences with others. Disney, J. K. Rowling, Stephen Hawking –and you– are all storytellers.

Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the popular science bestsellers Sapiens said:

“Homo sapiens is a storytelling animal that thinks in stories rather than in numbers or graphs, and believes that the universe itself works like a story.”

Numerous narrative techniques exist, and the right technique has to be chosen depending on the audience, mode and genre.

In the 21st century, the scale and the range of digital information available have created unprecedented possibilities in journalism. It gave birth to data or visual journalism. Watch this 4 minutes video to see how a storyteller, Hans Rosling uses visualisation techniques to tell a story. (It was magic to me. The work of the Rosling family was my first big inspiration to get into this field). Major news organisations –including NYTimes, Washington Post, Guardian, Reuters, BBC, etc.– have understood this magic.

While there are several ways of doing data journalism, one technique particularly does a great job in storytelling using data visualisation.

Scrollytelling

Scrollytelling reveals the story as you scroll down a page. You don’t have to control the flow — just scroll to see the story evolve. Like in this story.

Do you feel what others around you feel?

This technique is practical and effective in creating an immersive experience with just text, data and some digital tools. The power of using this technique is better explained by guides from the experts, including this, this and this.

If you want more — here is a selected list of resources I recommend you to check out.

Selected links

Some people and their work:

Some organisations:

Some non-western organisations:

Notes

  • I’ll try to update the preceding list regularly. You are welcome to add your list in the comments.
  • *Data in the first section is from Shift learning.

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