Data Unbound: Visualizations Breed Engagement

August 3, 2015 12:00 pm PST | Data Apps & Visualization, Data as a Service

Open government champions and data experts seek the important stories residing in datasets. They want to share those stories, across jurisdictions as well as with the public, to help government workers carry out meaningful projects in efficient, fulfilling ways, and to spark citizens’ participation in democracy. A persistent refrain in their effort: Say goodbye to static pie charts, and start creating cool visualizations anyone can understand and act upon.

That’s all well and good, but doing so takes resources of expertise and funding, while many governments toil under tight budgets. Are visualization projects worth the time and money? Does data really need to leap the divide from tabular PDFs to dynamic presentations, to appeal to wide audiences?

Just ask the data scientists.

What Would Jonathan Schwabish Do?

We’ll admit, we’re completely stacking the deck in favor of visualizations by pointing to Schwabish. As a Senior Researcher and Data Visualization Expert at the Urban Institute, and a Data Visualization Specialist at, Schwabish’s a go-to guru for data workers who want to leverage the power of visualizations.

In his 2014 Socrata Customer Summit talk on visualizations, Schwabish emphasized the need not merely to display data, but to communicate. “It’s important for us as producers of data — as people steeped and rooted in data — to think carefully about the needs of our audience and how our visualization efforts can help them do their jobs better,” he explained, pushing data experts to consider “What does your user need, what does your audience want to see?”

Schwabish’s HelpMeViz provides a visualization idea factory for data workers, and his Graphics Continuum helps them sort through different categories of graphics and their meanings and uses.

But, Wait: Can You Afford Visualizations?

Don Kettl, governance expert and a Professor at the University of Maryland, thinks so. Kettl shows how visualizations don’t have to be heavy on graphic design budget. They just need to reveal patterns and stories that help government to do better, more relevant work, and to engage the community.

In talking with Socrata customers, Kettl shared the stunning success of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) straightforward work with data visualization. BIA took four reservations’ violent crime data out of thick, opaque data stacks, put it in editable form, and displayed it in terms of day, time, and place. The effort provided a roadmap for predictive policing and community engagement, which “transformed everything and brought violent crime down 35 percent” on the four reservations, Kettl explained.

Automating the maintenance also keeps costs of visualizations in check. Samantha B. Wolfe, Senior Analyst for the city of Gainesville, Florida, points to the city’s enthusiastic adoption of Socrata’s Data Lens. “We can identify new data, upload it, and within a few minutes at most we’ve created” an updated visualization, she explains. The automation leaves agency workers freer to focus on the data itself and resulting policy work.

Widening the Circle of Democracy

Ultimately, visualizations are the right thing to do. Not all members of the public can or will slog through tabular datasets. Very few citizens are going to track down, let alone scrub, locked PDFs and transform the data into a user-friendly, free-to-all open app.

As Kate Bender, Senior Management Analyst with Kansas City, Missouri, points out, her county government’s diverse constituency means instead of geeking out on rows of statistics, “we have to think very carefully about who’s in the room,” she explains, to create data visualizations that communicate clearly with all stakeholders — including elected officials, leaders of community groups, and interested citizens.

In King County, Washington, public health analysts use mapping visualizations to make statistics on school immunization rates easily available to families and health workers alike. Anyone can go to their laptop or local library, open up the immunization maps, click around, and see the relationships between immunization rates and geographic location — targeting public-health outreach efforts, as well as helping families decide where they want to live and in what schools they want to enroll their kids.

Well-organized data, made accessible through visualizations, is quietly and busily changing lives. As Jonathan Schwabish says, “If we can do a better job of communicating information, we can improve the world around us.”


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