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Alberto Cairo's tips for more effective data visualization​

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Alberto Cairo's tips for more effective data visualization​

Daniel Suárez Pérez | May 15, 2014

While infographics are a great way to help readers understand complex topics, journalists should avoid the temptation to make information appear to be simpler than it is.

"Stories are always more complicated than they seem at first," said data visualization expert Alberto Cairo. "Don't try to oversimplify data or stories."

Cairo, a University of Miami professor, shared his tips for visualizing data in a more effective and focused way at the recent Chicas Poderosas conference in Miami. He shared four guiding principles to remember when preparing a visualization or infographic:

1. Add context

  • Users need more than just graphics to understand a topic. They also need additional details and information to make it more understandable.
  • Leaving out context is like presenting an article with only a title, without the story to offer more details.
  • An example of infographics surrounded by context is the book Reinventing American Health Care. The author, Ezekiel Emanuel, publishes several charts with statistics, but what stands out about the book for Cairo is that it uses many of its 386 pages to explain the graphics and provide the reader with context.

2. Look for patterns, but don't oversimplify

  • Cairo shared this quote from American physicist Richard Feynman: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool."
  • The best way to give the user a clear story is to analyze, drill down and understand the information before turning it into an infographic. At the same time, avoid oversimplification.
  • Don’t mix oranges with apples. Some figures are not comparable. It’s good to ask yourself: "What is this information being compared to? Who is it being compared to?"
  • Finding patterns removes noise from facts and attempts to find meaning. To learn more about this, Cairo recommends reading Michael Shermer's book The Believing Brain.

3. Be creative, but also be skeptical of creativity. Stay focused on the facts

  • The confusion of being immersed in a sea of data can make us lose sight of what we want to display.
  • In some cases, it is appropriate to represent the same data more than once and in a different way.
  • Visualizations are not made to be seen but to be read, so that the user takes command as he or she navigates through the story.
  • Annotations serve to guide and explain the story to a user.
  • Think about the purpose of the visualization.

4. Focus on what matters

  • Keep the medium in mind. When presenting visualizations on mobile, the challenge is that you can't show the information as a whole, but must display it in sequences and layers.
  • Keep the audience in mind. Our first responsibilities are to the planet and humanity, and next to customers, employers and your inner artistic world. Before you can even think of becoming a great artist, you must be a creator of devices that make the world a better place.

You can watch video of Cairo's full presentation below.

Daniel Suárez Pérez is a reporter who covers Colombian armed conflict for VerdadAbierta.com. He is the event manager for Chicas Poderosas.

This post was written in Spanish and translated into English by Jessica Weiss.

Chicas Poderosas empowers women to learn about, work with and lead newsroom technology throughout Latin America. The Miami conference was the first U.S. event for Chicas, which was founded by interactive designer Mariana Santos as part of her ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellowship.

Image of Alberto Cairo courtesy of Chicas Poderosas.

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