How can organizations successfully marshal data to elevate the importance of an issue, push for policy change, or achieve other impact in the social sector? Transforming facts into action—an admittedly hard task—seems to be on everyone’s mind these days, and this topic certainly was front and center at Velir’s first-ever Data Roundtable in Dec. 2017. At this summit, Velir’s clients and close partners from higher education, philanthropy, advocacy, and government, many of whom have been leaders in the field of data visualization for years, shared the challenges they face to make facts stick. They also discussed the tactics they’re employing to educate with data and persuade external constituents to take action from facts.

Here are some of the pearls of wisdom that attendees shared:

  • It’s no easy task, attendees agreed, to narrow your audience and focus on building a tool to meet unique needs. Someone commented that you may need a data display that’s malleable enough to effectively reach multiple audiences and their sometimes discrete use cases. Either that, or we build data tools and visualizations focused on achieving a specific result, rather than meeting multiple aims. What have people tried to achieve success when catering to audience data needs? There’s no easy answer, and we intend to explore this topic in the coming months.
  • It’s vital (and too often forgotten) to have a call to action at the end of a data story/visualization and to craft copy for the decision-maker who can take that action. We often become so focused on finding, analyzing, and visualizing data that we have little left in the tank to think about calls to action. But if people aren’t asked to take a next step, why would they?

"Those of us working in the social sector with data visualization need to remember that we’re the mediators and translators of often complex concepts, so the onus is on us, not others, to explain the data in clear, concise, and compelling ways."

  • It’s true that data analysts aren’t typically known for their writing prowess, but could they partner up with communication experts to find messaging that has some punch? Collaborations like these may help us ensure our facts are used to better the public good.
  • User research can quickly and cost-effectively be done by performing A/B testing through Facebook advertising—e.g. by seeing whether an emotional, story-based headline achieves more attention than a numbers-oriented headline. Might this be just one example for how we can easily prototype and iterate? After all, it’s one thing to apply such easy methods of testing to, say, headlines or functionality on a website, but could we use this methodology to help us understand what aspects of a data visualization work well for our users?
  • One person observed that it’s human nature to focus on the negative, and that’s often how our data are framed—that is, they often measure deficiencies. Yet if the message conveyed by data is so negative, we can paralyze ourselves from taking action. How, this person asked, do we pivot?
  • Attendees identified a number of tactics to pivot from negatively-framed data to solutions, including annotating charts with arrows and short blurbs that explain why a trend improved; leading with a positive message—e.g. via a headline or a social media blurb—to draw the reader in and then describe the full nuances once you’ve captured their attention; and, of course, generating content that can guide users from seeing the problem exposed by the data to case studies and policy solutions that others have taken. Do people have the attention span on the web as we guide them through lengthier explanations like these? It may all depend on how successful we are at packaging the information in engaging ways, with design and copy that sparkles.
  • Measuring impact of a data visualization or data story, everyone agreed, is no easy task. As one person asked, how do we know if that initiative informed, changed minds, or moved policies? Web usage analytics, she said, can’t get you there.
  • A number of people noted the importance of doing field work to get a grasp of usage and impact—that is, being out there in the community among your users and forging partnerships with them, After all, one attendee noted, if you build data displays for in-person as well as digital use (e.g. a printed fact sheet), you put yourself in a strong position to collect tangible information that helps you grasp impact.

Attendees included individuals from the following organizations:

  • Ariadne Labs
  • Atlantic Media Strategies
  • Brandeis University – diversitydatakids
  • City of Somerville, MA
  • Commonwealth Fund
  • Consumer Reports
  • Harvard Library
  • International Monetary Fund
  • Kaiser Family Foundation
  • Kauffman Foundation
  • Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health – kidsdata
  • Massachusetts Budget & Policy Center
  • MassIT Digital Services
  • Metropolitan Area Planning Council of the Boston Area
  • MIT Initiative for Health Systems Innovation
  • Pew Charitable Trusts
  • Population Reference Bureau
  • Results for Development/the PHCPI initiative
  • Solutions Journalism Network
  • The Boston Foundation
  • USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism

We plan to reprise this event in 2018. If you’re interested in learning more, contact us at info@velir.com. Events like this are just one of the many ways that Velir’s data practice wants to help educate the social sector on communicating effectively with data, enabling clients to move from presenting findings to developing tactics that can transform facts into impact.