On #datavis judging: Andrej Nosko’s advice

1 November 2013
SERIES Think tanks & data visualisation 12 items

Round 3 of the On Think Tanks Data Visualisation Competition is currently open for submissions. We’ve had some great entries in both Round 1 and Round 2, but this is the last open call for entries (the deadline is 20 November at 23:59 GMT!)!

The judges want it to be the biggest and the best round we’ve had so far so each of them has taken a minute to offer their advice when it comes to data visualisation — what works, what doesn’t, and what are they really looking for when judging the data visualisations. We’ll be posting their thoughts over the next couple of weeks.

Andrej Nosko, Think Tank Fund, Open Society Foundations
Andrej Nosko, Think Tank Fund, Open Society Foundations

In your opinion, what makes a good data visualisation?
A good visualisation does well if it achieves what it intends to. If it is a teaser then it teases; if it’s intended as an attention grabber then it grabs attention; if its intended as an illustration of a long report then it allows reader to switch from narrative learning mode to visual learning mode; if it intends to show-off a designer’s taste and skills it does that. But rarely can a visualisation do it all. For me, a visualisation is a tool and if that tool performs its function well then it’s a good tool. Functions, however, may vary.

What are your data visualisation pet peeves?
In the context of policy research the thing that can really drive me crazy when it comes to data visualisation is, if after I look at it, I want to ask ‘so what?’ If I feel the urge to do something, but there is no context, no ‘ask’ and all the energy that the visualisation generated in me is not captured by the ask, I’m really let down.

I also don’t like if the visualisation does not tell a story. If it’s pretty — but pretty in a post-modern way without conveying a narrative, without communicating a position, problem or trying to reshape the agenda, my position or behaviour — I just wonder what is the point!

What one piece of advice would you give to someone staring down a spreadsheet full of data and who is interested in making it more accessible?
Start with the big questions: with is the purpose, why are you staring at a spreadsheet? What is the problem you are trying to solve? Who is your audience that you try to reach? What story do you want to tell? What report do you want your audience to read? What link do you want them to click? What campaign do you want them to contribute to?

Once you have these sorted out than you can start asking technical questions: what media and form will communicate your substance and help you achieve your objectives the best? Do you want something snappy or do you want something comprehensive? Do you want evidence or do you want emotion? Do you want interactive or do you want static?

And last but not least, give it a kiss: keep it simple and smart!

Do you have a favourite data visualisation from outside the competition? What is it and why?
I prefer not to answer this at this point. If I would want to respond I would not be able to narrow it down to one anyways.