Using Data Visualization to Get People to Care


By Andrew Quist

Psychic numbing causes us to feel indifferent to the suffering of large groups of people. We care greatly about a single, identified life, but statistical lives are an abstraction to us. Can data visualization be used as a tool to get people to care? That is the subject of a talk given by Lisa Rost at the Chaos Communication Congress. In her talk, “A Data Point Walks Into a Bar,” Lisa argued that there are strategies graphic artists can employ to get people to care about the individuals that data represents. Lisa’s strategies are summarized below.

Use color

The most emotional data visualizations make an impactful use of color. A great example is the graphic “Iraq’s bloody toll” by Simon Scarr, which documents casualties of the U.S. war in Iraq. The use of bright red columns reaching downwards as a metaphor for blood stirs emotion in the viewer.

Show what the data would mean for your experience

Data visualization can also make people care by linking the data to the viewer’s own experience. For example, certain data visualizations allow the user to enter information about themself, like age or location, and then see how the data affects them personally. A related strategy that evokes compassion in the viewer is interactive experiences like this game produced by BBC that puts the user in the shoes of a refugee traveling from Syria to Europe.

Zoom into one dot

Print journalism pieces often begin with an anecdote about one person and then transition into talking about an issue at a higher level. This grounds the reader in the experience of those affected by the subject of the article, whether that be the opioid addiction epidemic or the refugee crisis. Data visualization can do the same thing by highlighting the experience or attributes of one person represented in the larger data set. This strategy works because of a psychological phenomenon known as the identifiable victim effect. While we are numb to the suffering of statistical lives, we are greatly moved by the plight of a specific, identified victim. As Lisa states in her talk, “Data about millions of people is a statistic. Data about one person is a story.”

Show what you’re talking about

For example, show data about people using symbols of people. This graphic by the Washington Post uses images of people and guns to illustrate data about mass shootings in an emotionally impactful way.

Show the mass as individuals

Translate the data into a unit of measurement that uses one person. For example, “Eight-hundred thousand killed in the last 800 days” can be translated to “One life lost every 11 seconds.” This use of singularity is effective at evoking compassion. Recognizing that the scale of the holocaust is hard to image, holocaust survivor Abel Hertzberg is quoted saying “There were not six million Jews murdered; there was one murder, six million times.”

Click here to watch Lisa Rost’s talk.

View Lisa’s notes on her talk here.