Economy · August 5, 2022

The art and science of data storytelling

WHEN I attend conferences on scientific and technical topics, I still get lost in the immense and hectic activity of many of the speakers’ presentations. What if the audience was made up of lay people? They will likely be drowned by the figures, charts and graphs.

This is where the art and science of data storytelling comes into play. It is a structured approach to communicate insights from a dataset using narratives and visualizations.

Data storytelling gained popularity in 2010 when data science began to spread into the mainstream. In the Philippines, it became fashionable in 2015 along with the concepts of digital transformation, design thinking and analytics. However, it quickly died as a popular topic in lectures because it was presented as an esoteric art that required a great “story”.

It is both an art and a science. There is a methodology – which can be learned – while infusing it with an artistic side. Data storytelling is the intersection of three elements: the visual aspect, the story and the data.

We humans are always looking for visual elements to perceive information. Our brain has a special part called the visual cortex, located in the back of the head, which processes the visual information we see, helping us grasp information very quickly.

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The way we perceive images follows the principles of gestalt perception. One is proximity, i.e. objects that are close or connected are perceived as a group. Another is similarity, in which objects that share similar attributes, color or shape are perceived as a group. The third is continuity, that is, objects that appear to have a boundary or continuation around them are perceived as a group. Then there is closure, that is, open structures can easily be perceived as closed and complete. These explain the pareidolia phenomenon or the human ability to see shapes or create images by chance.

Since the dawn of history, humans have combined images and stories to convey messages. This is what we call art, which manifests itself in elaborate sculptures, paintings and structures.

The advent of information technology in the 1980s ushered in the growth of data. In 1985, Microsoft launched Excel, a spreadsheet application in which data could be organized into columns and rows and manipulated to create graphs.

The graph is the intersection of visuals and data, which has helped humans convey messages about datasets. With advances in visualization technology, charts have been transformed to convey more messages through other visualization techniques. For example, a treemap is a very compact visualization that displays an exceptionally large amount of data in a small space.

The need to effectively persuade, influence and motivate an audience with the intersection of data and stories has been necessitated by the advent of the internet, mobility and social media. This is what we call a tale, narrative or story which is any account of related events presented to a reader or listener in a sequence of written or spoken words or images.

The intersection of history, visuals and data is what we call data storytelling. It is the infusion of art, graphics and storytelling to convey and convey a powerful message. The narrative construction in data storytelling consists in transmitting the ideal state, presenting the reality and the problem, offering the solution and outlining the next steps. Show a good visualization along with a narrative to convey the answer clearly and concisely.

Data storytelling is both an art and a science that anyone can learn and practice.

The author is the founder and CEO of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and cultural transformation consulting firm. He is a researcher at the Institute for Digital Transformation, based in the United States, and teaches strategic management in the MBA program at De La Salle University. The author can be emailed to [email protected]