Visualizing data

Visualization of the size of the community

I have always been a favor of graphs and charts; I have always gone beyond the bare bones offered in most statistics textbooks to have students learn about good and bad graphs, and to learn how to create a good basic graph in Excel.

In the last few years, I’ve been taken with the growing art of data visualization – going beyond graphs and charts to find more creative ways to present information. This week, I created my first visualization.  It was effective for its audience – and it also helped me to get a better sense of the data.

I was asked to help our monastic community consider our demographics and future projections.  I thought we needed a way to bring in a sense of the past – the experiences that shaped each of us in community. But just posting the numbers – from the 31 who founded the community to the 520 who were here in the mid-1960s and the smaller number now – would not achieve that purpose.

In the end, I settled on a system of dots, bright blue for the younger, darker blue and then gray-blue for the older.  I did not want the visualization to look mechanical, but it needed to be regular. I turned on the grid in Photoshop Elements and chose a round brush and adjusted the spacing so that it would draw regularly spaced dots in a straight line – but I purposely did not perfectly match the starting point of each line, so they have the hand-drawn look I wanted.

I was able to paint a layer of white over the dots for each of the years – I didn’t have to draw them dozens of times! – so that it represented the sisters alive in that year. This let me choose the shape of the layers at the top.  I was surprised, once I figured out the system for doing this, that it only took a couple of hours to make all the graphs.

Most surprising – but it shouldn’t have been – was the the impact on the viewers, many of whom are not “numbers” types of people.  Memories of past days flooded out, people shared experiences and feelings, they thought through the changes they had lived through.  The dots – unnamed – conveyed the sense of real people in a way that numbers could not have done.

I was already enthusiastic about data visualization. Now I’m sold.

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