Getting Data Visualization Right

Ella Duncan, Search for Common Ground

Created 08/11/2014



Data visualization

Data visualization has become the accepted and expected method of communicating data to funders, supporters, stakeholders, and beneficiaries. The question then becomes, how to make data visualizations effective? 

Yes, data visualizations (data viz) can be beautiful and eye catching, but that is not their main purpose. Their primary purpose is to communicate information. Data viz only adds value when you are communicating clearly, when your data is accurate, when you are honest about the limitations of your data, and when your visualization connects to your project purpose.

In the field of peacebuilding, through good data we have an opportunity to provide hard evidence that peacebuilding policies and programs are critical, and have an impact. Good data strengthens the case for our work, leading to greater investment in peacebuilding programs in conflict-affected communities and fragile states.  It is therefore, crucial that we present our evidence in an effective way. 

This post is meant to guide you through a series of steps and tips to make your data visualizations more effective, and to add value and clarity to your presentations.  

Data Visualization Preparation Checklist

Here are a series of questions to ask yourself before you make a data visualization piece. The answers to these questions will inform how you frame your data.

1. Do you understand the data you are trying to visualize, including its size and cardinality (the uniqueness of data values in a column)?

2. Who is your audience? How do they process visual information? Which visual will convey the information in the best and simplest form for your audience?

    a.What levels of tech savvy/data literacy do they have?

    b. How will cultural understanding color their view of symbols?

3. What type information you are presenting? Is your visualization going to: 

    a. See relationships among data points?

    b. Compare a set of values?

    c. Track rises and falls over time?

    d. See parts of a whole?

    e. Analyze a text?

    f. Make geographical comparisons?

    (For examples and in-depth descriptions of how each subcategory can be visualized, please visit IBM’s Many Eyes site)

4. What is the background/ context of your data? 

Presenting Data In-Context

Data without context is worse than meaningless, it can misrepresent your findings. Data presentation is meant to simplify complexity, but that should never be done at the cost of coherence and accuracy. John Grimwade, graphics director of Condé Nast Traveler magazine, stresses the importance of an “annotation layer”, one that gives context and instructions for how to navigate the data being presented.  

Below is an example of an infographic that successfully represents data from the 2008 elections in Nepal. The infographic provides specific context by highlighting election violence and vulnerable populations.


Data Visualization Creation 

Hiring designers can be expensive. If you decide to take on a data viz project yourself, there is a steep learning curve, but there are also many resources available to help you along the way:

Ross Crooks of HubSpot has created a list of 10 common data visualization mistakes to watch out for, and their remedies. His main takeaways are to:

1. Make the organization of your data as intuitive as possible 

   a. Put pie chart segments in descending order 

   b. Order categories alphabetically, sequentially, or by value

2. Make the representation of your data accurate and easy to compare

   a. Avoid 3D charts

   b. Use visuals that are consistent and have accurate scales

The authors of Visualizing Information for Advocacy, a book for advocates and activists on how to best utilize visual elements, have been testing out free-to-use data visualisation tools and profiling them. These tool reviews will help you decide which tools and design strategies are best for the visual you are creating. 

Stephanie Evergreen is a data visualization professional who shares her work and insights on her popular blog. Especially useful to someone creating their own data viz is her Data Visualization Creation Checklist.

I hope this post was helpful for making data visualizations more useful and effective. 

If you have any personal tips or experiences you would like to share, please add a comment below!  

Suggested Viewing:

Ted Talks with Hans Rosling:

In this talk Hans Rosling presents global development data in an invigorating and engaging way. Hans and his work provide an excellent example of how data visualizations can be compelling and communicate important development stories to a wide range of people. 


Cairo, Alberto. “The Infographics Gentleman.” The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization. Pearson Education, 2012. 212-230. Print.

Corlazzoli, Vanessa. “ICTs for Monitoring & Evaluation of Peacebuilding Programmes.” <i>DME for Peace</i>. Search for Common Ground, 1 May 2014. Web. 10 July 2014. &lt; and M&E _DFID.pdf&gt;.

Crost, Ross. “Why Most People’s Charts & Graphs Look Like Crap.” <>. 28 May 2014. Web. 5 Aug. 2014.

Mack, Andrew. “Measuring Peacebuilding Performance: Why We Need a “Data Revolution”” <i>Accord: Accord Title: Legitimacy and Peace Processes: From Coercion to Consent</i>. Conciliation Resources, Jan. 2014. Web. 5 Aug. 2014.



Ella Duncan is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Her academic background is in community development and conflict resolution. Ella has professional experience as a teacher and healthcare coordinator with The Global Child NGO School in Cambodia, and as an Organizing for America fellow specializing in community engagement. 

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