“A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words...”

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” and so is a good map or infographic. Why are visuals such as infographics and maps an essential part of conveying complex data to tell a good story? This is a brief exploration about my love for complex data in the form of graphical representations and how an infographic can create order out of chaos.


(Source: http://dailyinfographic.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Youth-Movement.jpg)

Over the last couple years I have worked with a lot of very smart people, and boy do they have a lot of important information to convey.  Though, after a two- to three-hour conversation pertaining to a certain issue - mostly climate and governance matters in my case - my eyes start to glaze over.  Maybe this is because I am a visual and tactile learner. Or maybe it is because  it is difficult to follow when talking about complex macro- or micro-level issues using detailed jargon or complex data when they are not represented by a visual tool or reference.

My love for data sets and infographics, which I call the “eye candy of research,” began about four years ago when I met my brilliant friends and former colleagues Joseph Foti and Samah Elsayed. Over our career together at the World Resources Institite (WRI), Joe and Samah taught me the importance of compiling data into useful formats. No matter how complex the qualitative or quantitative data, both of them could capture it in a simple visual way, in particular compiling qualitative data in what I call "Rorschach Images of Global Environmental Governance."  After taking note of my colleagues' approaches, I began visualizing data in new ways, which helped me to better engage in my work preparing budgets, project plans, research, etc. Foremost, in their own way, both Samah and Joe taught me to be a visual detective so I could find patterns in data.

Just as you are taught when you are learning to write sentences, if you have too many points without a complete thought, your sentence does not work. In most causes, people forget that a picture can convey a million thoughts. It is important for the creator of content to work with a designer, photographer or creative 2D and 3D thinker to ensure that complex data is in a visually appealing format. By providing a visual (quick) way to represent data, the viewer or listener is enabled to understand complex points, conduct analysis, and distill facts.

(Source: GOOD on Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) Education http://awesome.good.is/transparency/web/1106/stem/flat.html)

(Source: http://visual.ly/what-colors-mean-different-cultures)

Why is it important to have complete data?

As part of the data collection process, it is important to compile information that is pertinent in order to give a whole picture. Most recently, I compiled data from a variety of sources pertaining to indicators of climate vulnerability (forthcoming for the 2010-2011 World Resources Report). Most of these vulnerabilities concerned the subjects of water, power, population proximity to coast lines, communication methods, connectivity, and hydrological cycles. Characteristic of all of these data sets were a ton of gaps in current figure dates. Some countries could not provide updated records, or it was at least hard to find national level information per country.

(Source: http://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/maps/gallery/collection/crop-climate)

Generally there are a variety of reasons that come into play to explain these difficulties, including (and not limited to) record keeping, data management, whistle blower and transparency laws, accessibility to online data from written records, public and private finances, and technology availability and awareness.

Additionally, it is often hard to find enough or the right tools and people to convey such complex information in graphical formats. In the last five years, though, there has been a huge shift, and now the number of tools and people creating visuals for data is increasing dramatically.

How can we further advance the data movement?

As we go forward, data providers and purveyors, please continue creating and telling compelling stories using existing and new information to populate the growing tools. But don't forget to heed our tips for keeping data visualization good and relevant, because as one designer says, "Just because it’s graphical, doesn’t mean it’s useful."

Foundations, private sector actors, research institutions and governments, please continue to allocate time and funding resources to generate new data and visuals. I believe that this will help provide content and eye candy to tell better stories!

Some of my favorite go-to places: Data Sets:


Providers of Visuals: