4 Data Visualization Approaches Any Researcher Can Take

9 June 2014

[Editor’s note: This is a great example of what can be done with new digital tools. Jeff Knezovich, from the On Think Tanks Data Visualisation Competition, has produced a Buzzfeed on the winners. It is worth checking out on two accounts: it outlines really interesting examples of data visualisations and it show how we can use Buzzfeed to discuss serious issues. More than a discussion on data visualisations, however, the post is about how to use them -and this is the most important issue.

A new competition has been launched: On Think Tanks 2014 Data Visualisation Competition is now open for applications]

If the World Bank can’t get people to read their PDF reports, what hope has anyone else got? Making data more available and accessible through data visualizations might be one approach. Check out how other researchers have gone about it!posted on May 

1. Hold government services to account by making their actions more transparent

Hold government services to account by making their actions more transparent

Otevrena spolecnost / Via ttdatavis.onthinktanks.org

This type of interactive visualisation is probably something that governments themselves should be attempting, but they might need some outside experts to help them get it off the ground. Sometimes just seeing what is possible is a powerful first step in the right direction.

In this visualisation from the Czech Republic, the think tank worked closely with the government to get a first version of Mapping Czech Crime. It proved so popular that the police actually volunteered information for the second version. It also helped to build the reputation of the think tank, which focuses on policing and security issues, among the public and their target audiences.

Of course, if the government isn’t as keen on collaborating, there’s always Freedom of Information requests.

2. Use social media to find trends among key audiences

Use social media to find trends among key audiences

ethos Public Policy Lab / Via ttdatavis.onthinktanks.org

Social media like Twitter and Facebook are a great way to find out what is being talked about at any given time among certain audiences. Most of these media have ways of accessing their information, known as an API (application program interface). But you don’t necessarily need a lot of programming knowledge to access those APIs. Easy-to-use applications like ScraperWiki and Netvizz can help scrape the raw information into a usable format.

In this visualisation, #Mexicoen140, ethos Public Policy Lab in Mexico scrapes the Twitter feeds of key opinion shapers there to see what some of the main topics that are driving the conversation.

3. Make the invisible visible

Make the invisible visible

Igarapé Institute / Via ttdatavis.onthinktanks.org

This approach is easier said than done, but compiling information that wouldn’t otherwise be put together in the same place and making it easily accessible through visualization is where this genre shines.

In this visualization, Mapping Arms Data, Igarapé Institute and its partners does just that. There were many who said that it is impossible to actually track this data, but with a bit of patience and attention to detail, they were able to do it. And the impact was huge — the visualization was much discussed during UN negotiations on arms trade regulations.

4. Of course you could always go to where the numbers are readily available… like budgets.

Of course you could always go to where the numbers are readily available... like budgets.

The Budapest Institute / Via ttdatavis.onthinktanks.org

Making the invisible visible is great, but it can be a lot of work. Sometimes it’s just as important to start from places where lots of numbers are available, like with budgets, and make them more tangible.

In this visualization, the Budapest Institute show in one very easy-to-undersatnd graphic how the Hungarian government allocates its budget. It also compares the 2011 budget to the one in 1996 to see how budgets have changed. And it’s great that it puts things in context.

Did you know that the Hugarian government spent less on Research and Development in 2011 than Will and Kate’s wedding? Now you do!

Looking for more ideas?

Looking for more ideas?

Check out the On Think Tanks Data Visualisation 2013-14 Compilation for more visualizations and resources.