Giving Data a Friendly Face

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By Kat Friedrich and Paula Cohen

Have you ever struggled with making data speak persuasively to an audience? You’re not alone. NetSquared Boston co-hosted a workshop called “Fighting the Bar Chart” on April 17 at the MIT Media Lab to help nonprofit tech professionals solve this problem.

Rahul Bhargava, research specialist at the MIT Center for Civic Media - which co-hosted the event - captivated a full house of around 60 attendees with his engaging and innovative techniques. His approach is creative, interactive and personal. 

We live in a world where data are created and used everywhere. But data can be both empowering and intimidating. Though data can be a very powerful organizational asset, presenters often find it challenging to translate data into information that speaks to their audiences visually and emotionally. Viewers’ eyes glaze over at the sight of some bar charts.    

Bhargava uses his sense of playful humor and his knack for visual experimentation to break through these barriers in his international research and workshops. He calls his blog datatherapy: creative data presentation tips for non-data people.

Kat Friedrich, co-organizer of NetSquared Boston, developed the title “Fighting the Bar Chart” during a conversation with Bhargava. The title is a direct quote from one of his comments about the importance of trying alternate presentation techniques.

Some of Bhargava’s favorite techniques include:

- Three-dimensional models such as a soda bottle partly filled with sugar
- Dramatic visuals such as a photograph of an attractive junk food machine placed next to a shelf of health promotion brochures
- Hands-on activities such as using Legos or pipe cleaners to show data
- Data murals which both communicate information and engage communities
- Charts that he adjusts to highlight relevant or eye-catching information
- Questions or puzzles
- Hand sketches that make information user-friendly

Before Bhargava begins a data storytelling project, he considers whether to use qualitative or quantitative information, asks who the audiences will be, identifies goals, and then considers which techniques to use.

Bhargava uses many software tools to help him present data creatively. These tools include Prezi, Omnigraphsketcher, Wordle, and many other online and offline resources.

The group participated in a playful activity during the workshop. Bhargava asked us to produce models showing statistics about Somerville, a community near Boston. The resulting graphics are posted on his blog. Check them out!