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Humanizing Numbers: How Dataviz Can Change The World

Visual communication brings light to facts in the age of misinformation.

The truth is, most of us can’t comprehend big numbers, yet our brains are increasingly flooded with them. The total emotional impact of the difference between one million and one billion, for the majority, is simply the letter ‘b’–when the reality is anything but so insignificant (just ask a billionaire!). So how can we spread awareness of the real, tangible effects of huge global issues? Climate change activists, social advocates, and political organisations are using more and more data visualizations to illustrate their points.

From the United Nations to the Vis for Future competition, and for-profit companies like Periscopic and Vizzlo, dataviz is making trends, consistency and ratios clear and bringing objectivity back to news stories in the post-truth era. Data visualization is so effective in communication because it lowers the cognitive pressure on the person/s we are communicating with. Seeing an image is a wonderfully quick and efficient process for the human brain, taking far less effort and conscious thought than cognition (the process we need to understand language)–and when there are vast, complex issues to unpick, any area we can make more efficient has a positive effect on understanding. Not only can we use the power of visualization to make sense of factual, quantitative data, but also to convey the psychological abstract. I’ve volunteered as a grief counsellor for 13 years now, often using visuals to aid the comprehension of complex emotions. One example that always stood out to me, and helped many shift their expectations of how they ‘should’ be grieving, is this:

When most people come to bereavement counselling the grief they feel is often consuming their lives, letting little of the joy from life through (as depicted by the yellow being obstructed by the large, black circle). They often do everything they can to minimise these feelings of grief (as in the expectation diagram, with the ‘grief’ circle having reduced in size). This causes many feelings of guilt, punishment, and a longing to ‘get over it’. When we transform thinking to the ‘reality’ diagram, to acknowledge and accept the size and importance of the loss and to stop expecting it to change, we can stop punishing ourselves for our sadness and put energy into growing our lives instead. The grief may never really go away, but with time our lives will grow and change, and we may end up with more joy than we thought possible, all without ‘forgetting’ or ‘moving on’.

One of the first examples of dataviz being used to effect social change saved thousands of lives during the London cholera outbreak of the 19th century. Until a map visualizing the number of individuals suffering with cholera was put into environmental context, the disease was erroneously thought to be carried by air. Once the correlation with distance from water sources (‘pump’ on the map) was proved irrefutable, the real cause of transmission could begin to be treated. We can find examples of hundreds of innovative, arresting data visualizations today within the project Viz For Future.

The best of these not only make the numbers regarding the climate crisis easier for the average person to understand, but also have the strength to directly inform and encourage action. The effects of global warming might not feel real to you until you see an image of your home-town drowned, or the absolute definite correlation between temperature changes and co2 emissions.

Vizzlo’s Promise.

At Vizzlo, we believe in data visualization as a tool for good that should be accessible to all. Communication, understanding and respect are results of not only the best dataviz, but a world educated in tolerance and compassion. This is why we have decided to offer a free premium lifetime membership to all registered charities that apply–in the hope that we may be a part of encouraging the exchange of truth, facts and community spirit in this new decade. Please contact our customer support angels or find out more on our website.