I spent a great day at LocalGovCamp in Birmingham last Saturday, an unconference for anyone interested in how social media and digital technology relates to local authorities and improving public services.
Partway through the discussion, one particular issue really grabbed my attention. There was some frustration from some local authority officers about how difficult it is to actually make a visualisation or to communicate issues visually. It went something like this:
“This stuff is really hard. I want a tool that will let me put my data in and will give me a nice visualisation back.”
After a few responses – useful suggestions such as starting with Google Spreadsheets or Fusion Tables – the frustration with the steep learning curve came out, and Michael Grimes refocused the room with this nugget of sense:
“The process of creation [for a data visualisation] is important. It’s about how we communicate accurately with the information we have.”
And Michael got me thinking… do local authority officers expect making a data visualisation to be a straightforward process? Should it be easier? Are the available tools not serving those new to visualisation?
Or, and this is my thinking, there’s a false expectation that visualising data is easy. The JFDI attitude prevalent in other areas of digital tools for local government may have created false expectations on ease of access to visualisation.
Other digital tools in the social web made for publishing content – such as free blog platforms, Twitter, Facebook Pages or sharing video on YouTube – are relatively straightforward to get started with and local authorities are using these tools to great effect already.
But ease of access to tools, having the ability to publish or the skills to find your way around a blog platform doesn’t necessarily mean you can communicate effectively. Also, you can’t learn to write well or communicate with other people by spending an afternoon reading blog posts on the subject. These are skills that take time to build up and are achieved through practice, experimentation and, frankly, well… work or experience.
Making an effective data visualisation of a civic issue or communicating policy ideas visually to help other people understand the issues is an involved process:
- How should it be done?
- Who decides what the message is?
- Who ensures the data is accurate?
- Who makes the visualisation?
- Where is the visualisation shared for maximum effect?
The process of creating a visualisation requires a variety of skills:
- Handling tabular data
- Some understanding of statistics
- Research and analysis
- Understanding people, communicating ideas and storytelling with data
- Visual design understanding and software knowledge
Let’s look at a few examples and try and dissect them a little.
How many households are like yours?
The New York Times published this interactive data visualisation which enables you to explore the different types of American households and see how these households have changed over time.
This visualisation is a nice mix of charts, illustration and a simple user interface for users to select the household makeup to retrieve data on. Nice work – easy to understand – and an approach I could see being useful for UK local authority officers and elected members, particularly if similar UK demographic data at a more local level could be used.
Also note that four people were involved in creating this visualisation (Jeremy White, Ford Fessenden, Sergio Pecanha and Matthew Ericson).
Local apprenticeship data
Closer to home, the West Midlands Regional Observatory (disclaimer, my former employer) produced a set of visualisations on supply of and demand for apprenticeships in West Midlands local authority districts. The idea was to present the data in a single-page dashboard style for use by local authority chief executives and business leaders.
I’ve shown this project as I think it’s a nice example of what you can achieve with good communication and technical skills in Excel – skills readily available in local authorities. This visualisation was created using the tools the organisation had to hand – MS Excel and Publisher – with no extra graphics software.
Roundup and identifying skills
My response to the room at LocalGovCamp was:
Don’t beat yourself up with false expectations that you should be able to handle all of these areas on your own. It’s a rare person who combines all these skills. Graphic design, illustration, communication and statistical analysis are established long-standing disciplines. It’s unrealistic to expect yourself to quickly develop these skills together without a period of learning and practice.
Instead, find these skills distributed across a local authority in different people – and bring them together in an agile way when you want to create a visualisation.
Some more suggestions from the room are in Paul Evans’ slides, quoted here:
- Review required skills for LocalGov employment
- Co-ordinate visualisation skills within local government better
- Lower expectations on corporate style – go for authenticity rather than branding
- Encourage people other than formal employees to present information – it’s more authentic – enable and curate rather than ‘just create’
- Make a clearer link between participation and decision making
- Make organisations more permissive in comms terms – making everything go through the corporate filter doesn’t work
- When we inform – say WHY we’re informing
- Curate walk-throughs of how people do good data visualisation – dotgovlabs / skunkworks
- Visual media surgeries!
A wizard-driven approach to visualisation
There was also talk in the room about a desire for a wizard-based tool to walk the user through creating a visualisation, with tips and recommendations suggested at relevant points in the creation process.
Have you used anything like this? Do you think such a tool would be useful?
- Improving data visualisation for the public sector
- My bookmarked resources, tools and examples of visualisation
- Google Spreadsheet – an early attempt to compare featuresets of visualisation tools – feel free to edit this with any useful tools you find
- debategraph.org – visualising debate and conversation rather than data
- 22 free tools for data visualisation and analysis
- Visual tools and applications (via visualisationmagazine)
- Visual Camp group on Our Society