How to make statistics dance

1 Mar

“Imagine the world as a street. All houses are lined up by income, the poor living to the left and the rich to the right. Everybody else somewhere in between. Where would you live? Would your life look different than your neighbours’ from other parts of the world, who share the same income level? Welcome!”

This is Dollar Street, an online visual tool that makes everyday life on different income levels understandable. An invention of Anna Rosling Rönnlund at Gapminder, Dollar Street is an example of how data can be brought to life.

For not-for-profits, data is indispensable to effective communication. But the gap between using data and effectively using data is a wide one!

Most not-for-profits bung in a statistic in communication materials and expect the statistic to grow a mouth and tell its story.

Let’s put this to test.

Organisations that work on child sexual abuse in India often quote this statistic on prevalence:

More than 53% children in India report facing one or more forms of sexual abuse. (National Study on Child Abuse, April 2007)

While horrific to people working in the field, the statistic by itself does nothing to drive home why it is so.

But try telling it like this…

Every second child growing up in India has been sexually abused in one or more forms.

… and the appalling reality of child sexual abuse becomes instantly clear.

The first thing you can do, therefore, is: Bring your statistic to life. The simple act of rewriting the statistic above makes it much more real.

You can also add another layer of clarity by depicting the statistic as a visual. Even a simple illustration, as above, helps the reader visualise the extent of the problem.


The second thing you can do, therefore, is: Give your statistic a face.

And then you have a completely different level of use of data, where your data tells a story, paints a picture, illustrates a complex problem, often all of these at the same time.

See below a Slate infographic that shows how different groups of people in the Syrian war relate to one another. This infographic is all the more ingenious because it uses easily recognisable emojis to express how the different actors view one another.


Which brings us to the third point: Make it dance.

The Dollar Street example that we started with is an extreme example of the third level– it’s data that you can see and almost touch. It’s data that’s now a story.

Send us a statistic that you often use for your work – and we’ll pick the first one we get and turn it into a walking talking creature.

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