Join Bill Shander for an in-depth discussion in this video Making everything relatable, part of Learning Data Visualization.
Imagine you were dropped into a village in the Amazon, and you had to describe to the people there who you were and you were from. Would you start with a joke about the most recent celebrity scandal, maybe segue to your resume and maybe your academic career? Nevermind the content. Just speaking English, of course, would be a problem, right? Like in all communications, in data visualization you have to connect with your audience. You have to speak their language, literally and figuratively. For data vis, there's a very subtle analog to that, in that data is inherently confusing.
It can be overwhelming and unrelatable. Even if you share the same culture and language, you really have to take extra care to make the abstract data that you're talking about relatable to people. In fact, it's really your primary job to make that data relatable and understandable, which are very strongly correlated. So I was doing a visualization on forest sustainability. And it had a few different stats in it. This is one of them. So the stat is that the demand for wood worldwide, is going to triple by 2050 to more than ten billion cubic meters.
So numbers like this are very recognizable to people who are in the industry, but this infographic was for public consumption. And so how do we take this number, 10 billion cubic meters, and turn it into something that people relate to? You know, they can sense that it's a large number, but they don't really know what it means. So maybe 10 billion cubic meters is half the forests on Earth. Or, maybe it means all the wood burned in every fireplace in the United States for the past 20 years, I'm making these up. Maybe it's all the wood you would need to replace the carpets on every floor, every house in Cleveland.
These are very tangible metaphorical ways to relate that number to something. So, my client gave me a different metaphor, and their metaphor was that it's the equivalent of 10,000 Empire State Building's full of wood. Now this is a pretty good start. I can actually visualize that to some degree. Right? I know that the Empire State Building is a very large thing. I've stood next to it, and I can sort of imagine, or maybe it's the fact that I can't imagine it but I can imagine how overwhelming 10,000 of them would be.
So, it's a good start, right? What does it mean? 10,000 Empire State Buildings full of wood. I can definitely visualize it, which is half the battle, but I would argue that it's not the best metaphor in this case because it's not really on topic. Seeing that there are a 10,000 Empire State Buildings worth of wood doesn't help me think of it in terms of sustainability. So let's move on to the next example from this project. The next stat was that global forest carbon stocks are estimated to be 861 billion tons. So what this actually translates to is that all of the forests on Earth store the equivalent amount of carbon as 861 billion tons, okay? So, that's what this means.
So again, thinking about it, the client gave me this metaphor, this comparison. They said that, that number is the equivalent of 27 years worth of fossil fuel consumption. So, in other words, 27 years of people driving their cars and heating their homes, et cetera. So now I get it. I now know that if I took every forest on Earth, and cut it down and burned it, it would be like immediately releasing 27 years worth of driving and heating your homes, et cetera. So, coming back to what does that mean, that number, 27 times the world's carbon emissions.
It's on topic, right, this is about sustainability, so I've got the other half of the battle won on this one, but I would argue again it's not really visualizable. I can relate to it but I can't quite see what 27 years means. But it's almost there. So the third stat that they had was that the world currently has two billion hectares of land that is degraded or deforested. And the point for this stat was that degraded and deforested land is, therefore, available to be reforested.
Right? So, this is something that I can work with in terms of sustainability. So it's really an important idea. But what I can't remember is, what is a hectare? Right? A hectare is something to do with a certain number of acres. I certainly can't visualize what two billion hectares means. I just don't have a concept of what that really means in real terms. But my client again gave me the example. And so, what they said is that's the equivalent of the land mass of the United States plus China. So that feels like a lot of space. I know what the Earth looks like. I know now what sort of roughly percentage of the Earth's land mass that means.
So, the fact that there's that much land that is ready to be reforested and made into sustainable forestry is a really big deal. And so, in this case, it's both relatable and visual as well as on topic. So I think that this is one of the better examples of how to make abstract numbers and abstract data relatable to people. This project actually had a lot of examples of data that was sort of hard to understand and make relatable to your average person.
But you know if you think about your audience, you think about what they know, and more importantly think about what they don't know. Assume they know less than you, and provide extra context, provide extra information to make sure it's clear. Remember to speak their language and provide references that they can relate to. So just remember, there are no Empire State Buildings in the Amazon. So if you were dropped into the Amazon and had to explain to the natives where you came from, talking about the Empire State Building might not do the trick.
- Channeling your audience
- Understanding your data
- Determining the information hierarchy
- Sketching and wireframing your ideas
- Defining your narrative
- Using typography, color, contrast, and shape to convey meaning
- Making your visualization interactive