Data Visualization and Infographics: Using Data to Tell Your Story

In this guest blog post, Amadie Hart (http://www.hartstrategicmarketing.com/) takes an in-depth look at the difference between "data visualization" and "infographics", and includes a few good examples of tools to help you create both.

Cause-focused nonprofits have a wealth of data that they can use to make their case to potential supporters, the media and policymakers. As the web increasingly becomes the hub of nonprofit communication and marketing efforts, the need exists to present that data in a way that matches up with how people consume information online. Instead of lengthy reports or white papers, nonprofits are turning to data visualization and infographics to engage, communicate and persuade potential donors and advocates. 

Data visualizations and infographics are tools to make difficult concepts understandable and easy to grasp. They help provide context, but also tell a story or make a case, and give supporters the power to share this information on blogs and social networks. The visual nature of today’s most popular social networks – most notably Facebook’s Timeline and Pinterest – means that these types of information are more prominently displayed, easily shared and readily noticed than text-based updates. For an example of some excellent nonprofit infographics, check out Beth Kanter’s Nonprofit Infographics pinboard on Pinterest.
 
Many people use the terms “infographic” and “data visualization” interchangeably. While there is much debate over the distinctions, there are a few key differences between the two concepts. Data visualizations take complex sets of data and display them in a graphical interface – for example, in a chart or on a map – which allows the user to gain deeper insight into patterns and trends. Infographics use data visualizations in concert with text and other tactics to tell a story, make a point or communicate a concept. 
 
For example, Feeding America has a great deal of data on food insecurity rates across the U.S. In 2011, they used this data to create an interactive “Map the Meal Gap” presentation that allows users to see and interact with county-level food insecurity data. This is an excellent example of data visualization, and the organization has used it for advocacy and awareness purposes.
 
World Wildlife Fund, on the other hand, has created a series of infographics to help tell the story of what is happening in the Coral Triangle region of Southeast Asia. These graphic assets help raise awareness about the threats to a region that is not familiar to a large subset of the U.S. population.
 
The following are some data visualization and infographic-creation tools that will help you create compelling presentations of the wealth of data you have at your fingertips.
 

Data Visualization Tools

Infogr.am – This is a free web-based data visualization tool that allows users to upload data files to create interactive charts and tables that you can embed on a blog or web page. The site is extremely easy to use, with Facebook and Twitter sign in and a simple user interface that gives you the ability to create a variety of professional-looking line, bar and pie charts. In addition, the tool provides five standard templates for displaying your charts in an infographic format. The tool is still in beta, so there are still some bugs that need to be worked out, and because the charts are interactive, you need to link back to the infogr.am site to embed them and are not able to download static images to use in PowerPoint or other offline presentations.
 
Tableau Public – Tableau is desktop-based data visualization software used by many large companies and media properties to create sophisticated visual representations of large datasets. They have now released Tableau Public, a free web-based tool that allows users to create and share interactive charts. The catch is that there is no ability to create private visualizations – all data that you upload to the Tableau Public site is publicly accessible to anyone on the web, and anyone can download the workbook (and underlying data) that you are displaying. The site has active forums, and is full of helpful information for people trying to get a handle on data visualization best practices.
 

Infographic Creation Tools

Easel.ly – Organizations that want an attractive infographic, but don’t have the budget to hire a design professional can turn to this free HTML5-based web app to create a sophisticated-looking graphics. You can start with one of 15 pre-existing themes or create your own from scratch. The tool has a good selection of customization options without being overwhelming, including 24 background choices, 10 categories of objects/icons to use and 19 font choices. There are some limitations to the tool – you can’t create custom charts (but you can drop in static chart images), you can’t change the color of objects in the graphic (but can change opacity) – but it is extremely intuitive and user-friendly. You can play around with the tool without registering, but registration is easy and fast if you would like to save your creations. You can mark your creations public or private and either view them online or download the graphic as a jpeg or PNG for use in presentations.
 
Venngage – This is a subscription-based online infographic creation tool that provides users with the ability to create and publish a variety of different infographics. The site currently offers five templates to use as a starting point, or you can create your own from a blank page. While there are a number of options for customization, there are fewer backgrounds than Easel.ly. Venngage does provide the ability to choose from a variety of chart types, and you can upload data as a CSV to create charts. The finished product can be embedded on a blog or website, downloaded as an image, or accessible online. The company provides a variety of pricing plans, along with a 14-day free trial for new users.
 

A Few Last Thoughts

The coolest data visualizations or the prettiest infographics are of no use when they’re not thought through beforehand. In order to create an effective, shareable content piece, you need to understand first what story you want to tell and how the design of the infographic will support. Once you have that in mind, you can go ahead and try your hand at the tools, but be sure to follow best practices for infographic design and keep it simple and easy to understand.