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 In Data Resources for Nonprofits, Data Visualization Tools, Interactive Data Viz, Viz

Why is visualizing statistics such a big part of what the data community does? Couldn’t we just let the numbers speak for themselves?

I’m a visual learner. A hands-on learner. It’s not just that I like graphics or using colours and diagrams to keep myself organized. I’ve always found it much easier to grasp a new concept when I could see or touch a physical representation of it. Many of my clients share this trait. In fact, research suggests that the majority of the human population — 65% of us — feel we learn best visually.

Unfortunately, statistics and data analysis are the antitheses of visual learning in many ways. Much of the field is very abstract and filled with complex concepts that are not at all intuitive.

When I studied statistics, it was incredibly helpful when I was able to see a visual representation of the theories I was attempting to comprehend. Being able to play around with numbers in different situations allowed me to see how statistical theories worked.

“But Heather, I’m not a statistician. I don’t need to understand those theories.”

It’s true that the average person doesn’t need a statistical understanding of the same depth and breadth that someone in my field does. But anyone who draws any kind of conclusion based on numbers presented to them (hint: that’s pretty much everyone) does need to understand what the data they see means. And that’s where the value of visualizing statistics comes in.

Why Visualizing Statistics Matters

Visualizing statistics is so much more than just illustrations to make data more palatable. That said, making data visually appealing is an important part of getting people to pay attention to the story you’re trying to tell. I’m going to focus on how visualizations can improve comprehension, but we shouldn’t overlook the other benefits of visualizing statistics:

  • Pictures can transmit messages faster than words
  • We tend to remember images longer than text information
  • Visual cues trigger emotional responses
  • Infographics and charts are more likely to be shared than weighty data analysis articles

As a statistician, I find just about any set of numbers interesting — but I’m the exception, not the rule. If you’re using data to communicate your story, whatever it may be, presenting it in a simple, memorable, digestible format is the best way to get your message across. People will understand it. They will remember it. And they will share it with those around them.

A Visual Introduction to Statistics

No matter what kind of learner you are, there’s no denying that some statistic concepts are tricky to grasp. That’s why I’m so excited about Seeing Theory, a project designed and created by Daniel Kunin with support from Brown University’s Royce Fellowship Program. The site aims to make statistics accessible to a wider audience through interactive visualizations.

Trying to design a survey? Check out the section on probability to gain a greater understanding of chance, expectation and variance.

Visualizing statistics makes it easier for us to understand what changes in the data really mean.

From Seeing Theory’s Basic Probability

When telling your data story, you want the message to be as clear as possible. Even if you understand what the statistics you present are saying, there’s a real chance your audience won’t. In a post I wrote earlier this year about how misleading percent change can be, I used sale prices at a sock store as a really basic example.

Last month, I bought a pair of socks for $5.00. Last week, the store had a sale and dropped the price of the socks by 25%. This week, they raised the price by 25%, so now the same socks I bought last month are selling for $4.69.

Now imagine that is your story. But it’s not about socks; it’s about something more serious. Imagine you work in a community with a high risk of malnutrition. You provide food, but you also teach people there to grow and prepare their own food, with the goal of making them less dependent on external aid.

Visualizing statistics helps make sure your message gets through.

While your team worked in the community, chronic hunger decreased by 25%. After a year of work, teaching the population to farm and providing the tools they need, you leave. Hunger rates increase by 25%. How much of your audience recognizes the difference your initiative made?

Tell a Better Data Story

Does your team need help to tell a compelling data story? Are you making a difference but struggling to show people how? The team at Datassist specializes in data analysis and visualization for nonprofits, journalists, and social sector organizations. Get in touch today.

Want to deepen your own understanding? I’m leading a course through the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas on Crafting Data Stories. It started this week, but there are still a few spots left — sign up now!


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