Thinking about data visualization

Earlier this week we have received the final assignment for the MOOC on infographics and data visualization. Alberto does not spare his students, writing: “This time, I am giving you the freedom to do whatever you want.” My first idea was a slight jubilation, everything is possible. Then we get 7 steps: starting with making a headline and gathering the data and ending with getting the results back. While commuting to work I saw  a small headline in one of the free newspapers: “Well-off people live longer in good health”.

Statistics Netherlands (in Dutch CBS) collects and processes data “in order to publish statistics to be used in practice“. Their website has a nice series of interactive infographics, and already years ago they were one of the first that introduced a webmapping interface to their statline website. For many of my GIS classes I have used their data. So a very useful source of wonderful data. But let me return to the assignment, the first step: getting a headline.

life expectancy based on data from

A Simple Headline … but Tease the Information

This week someone in my tweet-lists posted a tweet on a Webinar: How to Write Headlines for the Web. After watching the webinar I understood that my headline could make or break my great story. A good story without a catchy headline will been read less on the web. It should contain big numbers and they should be easily digestible. Wow… as a non journalist this is quite a challenge. And according to Alberto Cairo I need to “Try to find a focus, a headline.” In the webinar one of my favorite techniques is used: free association, with in the back of my mind the main question: what the story is about. If not just with a blank sheet of paper, I often use a MindMapping tool (in my case the fabulous Freemind) for this process.

The general scope given by Statistics Netherlands is: “Men and women from high-income households on average live about 8 and 7 years longer respectively than their counterparts in low-income households.” Far to long for a headline. In Dutch we have a proverb “Riches alone make no man happy” (or “Money isn’t everything”). This is what my associations led to. Leaving me with a number of keywords: Riches, happiness, long live, income, and 7 and 8 years. What about “How to earn an 8 years longer life?” Is it simple enough? There is another great tool that I love to browse: the urban dictionary. Wealthy has many hits: moneybags, ballers. So… “Baller gets 8 years extra”?

Gather the data … Combinations and Context

The next step is to think about the story I want to tell. In this case I will focus on the Dutch data first. My mind wanders on: it would be nice to get data for another country. There must also be some historical data on this subject. The Dutch Economic-Historical Archive (NEHA) has this kind of data, also the Statistics Netherlands have data back to 1899 in its historical series. While talking about the subject over dinner my son came up with the fact from his history class: the average life expectancy of a worker in Manchester during the industrial revolution was very low (an average of 17).

Another idea may be to link the data to the life style. There are lots of data on that subject too. On the other hand it is more difficult, and the context may be a lot harder to give. The Statistics Netherlands also mentions good health and good mental health. This may be subjects to include, but not as a main subject for the assignment for now.

So the plan…

What is the story I want to tell? There is enough historical data available. I want to tell the story of the rich, the poor, and the middle class at different moments in time. The turn of the 20th century, the 1930′s crisis, the after war period, the late 1970′s where many patterns changed, and now the 21st century. This approach will tell many stories. It will tell about prosperity, the working class, history, and many, many social elements that make a culture.

My story will be about culture and people, based on historical statistics. Now the next step is to think about the form.

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2 thoughts on “Thinking about data visualization

  1. You have some very good considerations going here. Looking forward to follow your assignment.

    I currently work as a consultant for UNFPA – United Nations Population Fund – and one of the topics some of my colleagues look much into is ageing. I don’t know if you could use that perspective for anything. It would be interesting in the class example, I think.

    If you want to look at the historical perspective, you could also look at rich vs. poor countries (or between continents) or something to that effect.

    HelpAge have some good Ageing Data.

  2. Thank you René! That link to is data that I was looking for. They have some great dataviz on the website too. The final assignment must be handed in next week, I will put it on my blog again.

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