Make Your Data Visible


Nonprofits are lousy with data. But, like secretive hoarders, we are reluctant to admit how little data we actually use. We may pay lip service to “evidence-based practices” or “data-driven strategies”. But, if pressed, many of us admit that we care about the people and the programs and glaze over at the site of a spreadsheet.

Indeed, we are not wired well for processing data in spreadsheets.

Our visual system has evolved, over millions of years, to process images essentially in parallel. We don’t read the Mona Lisa from top to bottom and from left to right. We take it all in together and understand, almost instantly, that this is a picture of a woman in front of a landscape, sporting a dark dress and an inscrutable smile. Words and numbers, which only appeared within the last few thousand years, require our visual system to scan individual characters one at a time and piece them together to create meaning.

Data is encoded in words and numbers making it difficult for us to extract the stories they can tell. However, if we use visual elements (like bars, pie slices, and sloping lines) to encode the data, the story can come into focus more quickly. 

See other data tips in this series for more information on how to effectively visualize and make good use of your organization's data.

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(This data tip originally appeared on Philanthropy News Digest’s PHILANTOPIC blog.)