Topic

Presenting data in stories

Topic Progress:

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What are the objectives of data stories?

This lesson has been adapted from materials prepared for the Sudan Evidence Base Programme, originally created by Eva Constantaras with support from the World Bank and the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

One of the biggest global achievements for global health over the last century has been the widespread introduction of vaccines to save lives.

Take this example: in the United States, a group of people who deny medical vaccines work, or claim they are harmful, are putting public health at risk.

The visualisation on this page has a few basic components: years from left to right, a black vertical line representing the introduction of the vaccine, US states from top to bottom, and coloured squares indicating the number of people who have died from that disease. At a glance, a viewer can understand that with the introduction of vaccines, millions of lives have been saved across the country.

The visualisation is a simple fact-checking exercise to quell public hysteria about a proven scientific fact.

What issues in your community could be addressed with data? How can that data be put into a form that people will relate to, that will help them understand how the data can improve their quality of life? Telling an effective story is key to transforming data into insight and action.

In this lesson, you will learn:

  • How to focus your data story based on your audience
  • How to use infographics
  • How to use charts
  • How to use maps
  • How to combine maps and charts
  • How to use news apps for data journalism

Understand your audience

The form a data story takes depends a bit on the audience and your purpose. The audience may be a policy maker who you would like to make a specific decision based on that data, a general public that you are trying to help understand the complexities of an issue, a group of researchers who are weighing factors before developing recommendations. In general, data stories fall into a few general categories:

  • Collect information that we can use strategically
  • Influence policy
  • Inform public debate
  • Expose wrong-doing
  • Create awareness and understanding of complex issues
  • Explore options for solving problems using data

Let’s look at a few common types of data stories and discuss the following aspects: audience, information retention, emotional impact, and call to action.

Using infographics


Infographics are graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge intended to present information quickly and clearly to illustrate patterns or trends. They enable you to package different kinds of information together to deliver an accessible message about a topic.

Take a look at this infographic from UNICEF, and try to answer these questions.

  • Who is the audience?
  • What information are they supposed to retain?
  • What creates an emotional impact?
  • What should they do after seeing this?

Using charts


Charts are the most direct way to display data findings but often require a bit of interpretation from the audience. A strong narrative can help readers identify the important findings conveyed by the charts.

Take a look at the chart above which was created by Forbes, that presents data from the refugee agency, UNHCR.

Now answer the same questions:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What information are they supposed to retain?
  • What creates an emotional impact?
  • What should they do after seeing this?

Using charts (2)

Here is another example of a chart from a survey company called Gallup that presents data from a poll of sub-Saharan Africans about their dissatisfaction with public needs in their communities (the original is here).


Again, think about these questions:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What information are they supposed to retain?
  • What creates an emotional impact?
  • What should they do after seeing this?

Using maps

Maps are representations of geographical data and enable easy comparisons between data in different regions.

Take a look at this interactive map published by the Council for Foreign Relations (the original is here, it’s just a screenshot below). It presents data about outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

Now think about these questions again:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What information are they supposed to retain?
  • What creates an emotional impact?
  • What should they do after seeing this?

Using maps (2)

Here’s another example of an interactive map that presents data-driven insights about migration from Africa and the Middle East into Europe. The size of each spot on the map represents the total number of migrants recorded to have died in that location over a five year period.

Again, think about these questions:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What information are they supposed to retain?
  • What creates an emotional impact?
  • What should they do after seeing this?

Using Maps 2

Combining maps and charts


Often, the objective of data stories is to explain the different factors affecting an issue. This lends itself well to explaining an issue in a series of simple charts that add complexity to the audiences’ understanding of the topic.

This could include a variety of bar, line and pie charts or maps that each add a layer of meaning to the topic.

Take a look at the two stories linked to below, and see how different formats have been used to pick out information.

Creating news apps

The most sophisticated form of data-driven journalism is the news app. This is commonly a microsite within a news website or a standalone mobile app which is given over to a single story with interactive elements.

This app shown below, which can be found here, was created by Code for South Africa/OpenUP for News 24. It is designed to show the cost of living for a domestic worker in South Africa, based on research and publicly available data regarding average wages and the costs of services.

OpenUp created http://living-wage.news24.com/wageCalc.html. with New24.

It creates maximum effect because it allows readers to start with the wages that they pay, making it a very personal experience.

Because readers enter some anonymous data about the wages they pay, Code for South Africa were able to generate follow-up stories based on what they learned.

Again, think about these questions:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What information are they supposed to retain?
  • What creates an emotional impact?
  • What should they do after seeing this?

The app wasn’t just about the Living Wage calculator either. It blends the app with traditional human interest storytelling in the form of interviews with domestic workers.