The challenge of telling good stories: how helpful is “data visualisation” for development practitioners?

Zenebe Uraguchi, 13 October 2017
The challenge of telling good stories: how helpful is “data visualisation” for development practitioners?

Amar Numanović & Zenebe Uraguchi

Development practitioners are under increasing pressure to demonstrate that their work is relevant and it contributes to sustainably addressing poverty and unemployment. For this, they report and tell stories to a range of stakeholders. Clear thinking is the basis of telling good stories. However, development practitioners, like us, often get trapped in “clutter” — the state of having unimportant details and less relevant jargons in the storylines.

In the age of digital information, the growing challenge is how to ensure information effectively reaches the intended audience. The “new media” — i.e. media that supports interactive, two-way and networked communication, such as social networks, blogs etc.— has brought about “content explosion”. Flooding of data means a growing amount of raw, unstructured data. This, in turn, creates clutter that reduces the ability of information that readers see and process properly.

In this blog post, we ask to what extent innovative communication forms and channels can help development practitioners to present content in a simple, easy-to-digest and time-saving manner. We discuss how data visualisation, which is a form of communication that draws particular attention by representing data in a visual context, like a chart or a map, can enhance data-driven messages.

What is data visualisation and why it matters?

Data visualisation, stated simply, is a structured presentation of data in various graphical formats such as 2D or 3D charts, diagrams, maps and pictures. Visualisation can be static (plain, informative, graphics) or interactive. It is intended for supporting the exploration, sense-making, and communication of data.

Data visualisation has found its application from storytelling. Storytelling using data visualisation has become widely recognised in journalism, business and academia. Organisations implementing development projects are gradually realising the need to up their visual and data communications game. Good practices are slowly emerging in development cooperation using data visualisation.

For example, Amnesty International uses data visualisation for its major campaigns. One visualisation presented explores which countries practice death penalty and in what numbers. This is timely: the effectiveness of development cooperation is being questioned, and development practitioners are increasingly finding it attractive to use simple and understandable presentations. It is becoming an unwritten rule that a good story should be supported by good, reliable, understandable and well-presented data.

How does it work?

First, visualisation communicates data in a simpler and more appealing way. The advantage over other types of data presentations is its simplicity – it makes patterns in data more recognisable. Raw data or findings presented in a form of quantitative data (numbers) are difficult for readers to process, and usually takes a lot of effort, time and knowledge to be translated into clear and actionable insights. For example, presentation of open government data as visualisation rather than only as a raw data or textual reports can empower citizens to closely monitor government’s work and hold public service providers accountable.

Second, visualisation communicates data in a more “dramatic” and persuasive way — by stressing out sharp contrasts, highlighting important patterns and playing with colours. This way, one can translate less interesting and overwhelming data into striking, exciting and memorable graphics. Therefore, data visualisation is becoming widely recognised as an effective tool and, accordingly, finds its application in making stories more convincing. Some data suggest that presentations that use visualisation are 43% more persuasive than those without.

Some examples: “Don’t simply show the data; tell a story with it”

 Example 1: Global warming

In this story, the main point is observed temperature has risen from 1880 to present day. In the presentation, the visualisation takes readers through exactly how much different factors contribute to global warming in comparison to what has been observed, adding a richer layer of storytelling. The conclusion the authors want viewers to draw is made very clear.


Example 2: Segregated labour market

The Economist presented America’s jobs considered to be “women’s work” that are multiplying but are relatively poorly paid. The analysis is quite simple but insightful. The fastest-growing industries in America are those that have long employed more women, such as healthcare and education. Meanwhile, many sectors traditionally dominated by men, such as manufacturing and mining, have grown much more slowly. Yet this does not mean that female workers are better off.


Example 3: The journey of your morning coffee

In line with the objective of making the complex easy to understand, this infographic provides a visual representation of a coffee bean’s journey, from bean to cup. By breaking the process down into parts, it does its job of giving the reader bite-sized pieces of information that are easily digestible.


Three more compelling reasons to use data visualisation for storytelling in development cooperation 

1) Data visualisation is social media friendly

One of the strong advantages of data visualisation over other types of data presentations is that visual content is social media friendly. In a bunch of content, circulating the web, graphics are easier to notice and absorb.

Another important dimension of data visualisations is their “‘shareability” on the web, especially on social networks. Visualisations are usually self-contained and self-explanatory, as well as attractive, and therefore suitable for sharing. For the sake of illustration, some data provided by SciDev.Net show that “articles containing data visualisation elements had 533% more retweets than articles without data visualisation elements”.

Furthermore, some evidence suggests that “data visualisation encourages readers to engage in discussion”. In that sense, SciDev.Net’s data shows that stories containing a data visualisation element had an average of 942% more comments on Twitter compared with those without such elements. Thus, visualisations have a great potential for stimulating discussion.

2) It provides more structure and clarity
Data visualisation supports better structure and clarity by laying out information in an appropriate way. It provides guidance and helps in minimising the stories from derailing. Development projects have “interventions logic”, showing the hierarchy of changes like:

  • What the projects have contributed/are contributing;
  • How the interventions of the projects are contributing to change or improve; and
  • How these (changes/improvements) are feeding into (are showing signs of) progress in addressing poverty or unemployment.

Clarity is more than mastering a language. Clear and structured thinking is the central principle of telling good stories. The first thing for achieving clarity is to avoid squeezing too many ideas into stories. This corrects, if backed by effective data visualisation, going off-track and hiding key message of stories.

3) And finally: it gives more firepower to the secrete of good writing  

One of the best story tellers, William Zinsser, was invited to a school in Connecticut, USA to share his experience. Another guest invited also was a doctor writing and selling stories to magazines. The first question from the audience went to the doctor.

Audience: “What was it like to be a writer?”

Doctor: “Tremendous fun….The words just flowed. It was easy.”

William: “It wasn’t easy and wasn’t fun. It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.”

Second question: “Is it important to rewrite?”

Doctor: “Absolutely not!” 
William: “Rewriting is the essence of writing!”

Good story should be meaningful, well-structured but also easy to digest for end-reader. Hence, the real struggle for development practitioners is how to communicate our messages in a way to do both, keep the intended meaning, on the one side, and ensure that our text is read, on the other.

In that sense, it is necessary to keep in mind that readers are usually time-poor or they lack in knowledge to closely consider and/or properly understand complex research evidence provided in voluminous publications such as books, comprehensive research reports, scientific articles and alike. Therefore, data visualisation has a great potential to tell stories more effectively and to save time of readers. Of course, data visualisation is just a tool, and as mentioned earlier, clear thinking and innovative business ideas are the precondition for successful use of data visualisation.

Amar Numanović is a researcher and analyst with an extensive experience working with think tanks, academia and non-governmental organizations in the Western Balkans. The primary fields of his research interest are industrial policies, the role of the State in economic development and labour market. He currently works at the MarketMakers project in Bosnia and Herzegovina as Impact Analyst.

Zenebe Uraguchi is a development economist with multi-country experience working for a multinational private company, an international development bank and a research institute. He currently works with HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation, based in Switzerland, as Programme Coordinator for Eastern Europe and Senior Advisor in market systems development.

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Zenebe Uraguchi

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6 Comments for «The challenge of telling good stories: how helpful is “data visualisation” for development practitioners?»

  1. Johanna Schaufelberger

    16 October 2017 at 19:34

    Very interesting post, good examples. Thank you!

    • Zenebe Uraguchi

      16 October 2017 at 22:47

      Dear Johanna, thank you very much for your comment. Have you used data visualisation? We and our readers would be glad to hear your valuable experience. Best wishes, Zenebe

  2. Conilh de Beyssac Bernard

    17 October 2017 at 10:47

    Thank you for this enlightening article.

    Yes, communication and data visualisation is essential for everyone and for development practitioners since both their role and their “business model” is not easy to grasp and to explain. Before communicating facts and figures and to design a data visualisation model, it is essential to agree on which story do we want to tell? Development practitioners have different stories (different visualisation) for different audiences: i) themselves in order to share a practice, a concept, a solution; ii) their clients or funders who invest in their competences, solutions and services for a socioeconomic development agenda (with a socioeconomic return of investment or “value for money”); iii) potential partners and potential clients / funders / investors for business development; and their targeted population to demonstrate relevance, credibility and build up a concrete reputation. And all of it within a multi-cultural context. The power and effectiveness of data visualisation are very much related to the socio-culture in which we want to communicate: graphs, figures as shown in the examples, cannot always be effective; symbols are not universal and can be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

    In our globalisation of information and data, how can we trust data? And how can we trust data visualisation that can be, at times, data manipulation? How to maintain a minimum trust on data? It seems to me that there is some kind of “data fatigue” from consuming too much data.

    Last but not least, development is about people and data may not be the right way of telling stories about people. So, I will suggest complementing “data visualisation” with “life story visualisation”: at the end, the most powerful demonstration of development practitioners’ good work is targeted people testimonies and visualisation of concrete socioeconomic progress. Process documentation, change documentation and visualisation, using data visualisation at times are still very relevant communication tools.

    • Amar Numanovic

      17 October 2017 at 13:45

      Dear Mr. Bernard Conilh de Beyssac,

      Thank you for your comprehensive and valuable feedback.

      When it comes to the first paragraph of your comment, you have a point and we both fully agree with you. Data visualization is a tool for communication and, having that in mind, prior to producing visualization, we need to have to be clear on (1) what is the message we would like to communicate, (2) what are our target groups (what is socio-cultural background of our audience, which discourse is understandable for them, etc.) and (3) which effect we want to produce with our message? Depending on answers to these question, we should look for the best fitting visualization design.

      Regarding your questions from the second paragraph, I have to admit that you asked a question of a great importance and that we will pay a special attention on answering this question in the future. I’ll give a rough opinion, off the top of my head. First, we have to promote “data literacy” among scholars, practitioners, and media but also among general population, having in mind that contemporary world highly depends on data. Second, researchers and practitioners should be more involved in this domain and act as some kind of corrective mechanism in cases where data and visualizations are misinterpreted or misused. Unfortunately, misinterpretations and misuses can be challenged but they will always exist (as they have also existed before).

      Finally, when it comes to your third paragraph, we again fully agree with you. Data visualisation is important tool for communication but not the only one and, in that sense, visualisations should support message communication but not replace other important elements such as narratives and similar. In that sense, your proposal about complementing “data visualisation” with “life story visualisation” can be considered as necessity if we are talking about development practitioners.

      • Conilh de Beyssac Bernard

        17 October 2017 at 14:56

        > Thank You Amar for your reaction,

        Development practitioners do face almost daily a communication challenge on what they do, why and how they do it. This goes beyond “reporting” on a budget & activity plan or logical framework. Here we need facts and figures and data visualisation is certainly important and powerful, I agree. There are ways of making it relevant, effective and even fun and attractive. So, let’s do it!

        Development practitioners still suffer from a wrong perception from the others and in particular “businesses” because we do not know how to explain and help them to “visualise” what we do, how we do it and why. I did this experience of explaining to a multinational how an NGO works. Most of the people gave me the following feedback: “this is the first time we understand how an NGO works and we realise it is a real job”. Some business people still laugh about our work because they do not understand it and they believe that only “businesses” are real since they have data, facts and figures to show.

        First of all, NGOs are also “businesses” with products & services they offer to clients that buy them. They operate in a singular market where offer and demand adapt to each other’s and with some kind of “price signals”. They do have to face all kind of positive and negative externalities as any other business. I am saying that because I still see some provocations from the “business world” about NGOs, Foundations and other “social stuff”, even though now more and more businesses create their own NGO or foundation or partners with one or several NGOs or Foundations as part of their business models. It shows that any opposition between the conventional businesses and development organisations is purely old-fashioned and not relevant. Let’s use data visualisation to demonstrate this a bit more!

        • Zenebe Uraguchi

          17 October 2017 at 15:20

          Dear Conilh,

          Many thanks indeed for the invaluable inputs. Coming from a multinational company — Toyota Motors — and now working for a development agency — HELVETAS – I fully understand your points.

          In particular, I do concur with your point and believe that what we do in development is not mere charity but “development as enterprise”. So for me, as development practitioners, we need to move to an idea of projects in development being temporary think-tanks rather than mere executioners. For this, we do need a vision of how the system that we try to improve or change will look like in the future, i.e. beyond the duration of the project. Projects don’t exist in a vacuum, and they engage and work with a number actors – be it private companies, governments, individual actors, etc. Indeed, these actors/players are the ones who must own the initiatives (e.g. business model) from the beginning and take it to the next level, through deepening and broadening the impacts. Therefore, innovative ideas generated, tested, supported and developed in the ‘think-tank’ should be taken further by those who are part of the different systems and not by projects.

          Best wishes,