Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

Visualizing Data: How Images Can Help Us Understand Complex Ideas

Communicators know that that one of the quickest ways to convey data is through visualization, such as charts and graphs, or an infographic. A well-designed chart can convey in a glance what may take hundreds, if not thousands, of words to explain.

This is why one of the most important skills that a measurement pro has is the ability to understand how to convert a data set into the most useful and easy-to-understand image.

A recent podcast on Data Stories explains in detail how Bitcoin works, and how visualization can make this abstract concept make sense.

This is a good example of how visualization can convey a complex topic. Money and financial markets are opaque to many people to begin with, and when you take those markets and introduce a concept that doesn’t have a physical manifestation—there are no “bitcoins” being minted and distributed—it can be tough for laypeople not involved in these markets to grasp.

The project described in the podcast had several objectives, as described by researcher Dan McGinn.  One objective was simply to “bring Bitcoin to life”; as noted above it is an abstract concept that people still struggle to understand clearly. Another was McGinn’s interest in the “interaction between human behavior and algorithmic behavior.”

Communicators should listen to this podcast for a few reasons. First, if you want to wrap your mind around Bitcoin, this is a good primer. Next, the effort to use visualization to explain a complex topic is an excellent example of how to do so—even if you don’t have the high-level computing knowledge and equipment, what McGinn describes can be applied to other concepts and topics. Finally, the idea of using a podcast (a listening medium) to explain a data visualization project is one of those multimedia ideas that might seem counterintuitive at first (why not just jump to a YouTube video and show the process?), but it makes sense: by describing the visualization, we gain an understanding that might be missed if we’re trying to process images, rather than listening to the explanation.

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for just over 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR work, content creation, digital and social communications, and media analysis.
Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips
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