A significant 200-page report on climate change, a doctoral thesis on a promising line of investigation of infectious disease, a relevant survey on consumption habits carried out on more than 30 million people. The data is there, it surrounds us everywhere, and it’s potentially fascinating. But data doesn’t say anything on its own. Someone has to help it tell a story. Something that Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, an industry leader who founded storytelling with data (SWD), knows well.
Cole and her team at SWD have built and boosted a growing online community of people who are eager to learn how to communicate effectively with data. Together with Z1’s team of engineers and designers, SWD has created a low-risk space for people around the world to practice and hone their data storytelling skills. It’s a perfect shelter to practice, get feedback, and iterate, which is the best way to learn how to visualize data effectively and weave it into a compelling story, according to Cole.
The data surrounds us everywhere, and it’s potentially fascinating. But it doesn’t say anything on its own. Someone has to help it tell a story
SWD has operated since 2010, when Cole began to combine her job at Google as People Analytics Manager with the creation and delivery of workshops on data visualization and storytelling around the world. Her passion for this topic was on the rise until 2013, when she bravely left Google to dedicate herself entirely to her project.
Until last year, the website functioned as a repository for all the content Cole and her team generate: blog posts, podcast episodes, books, workshops, etc. She had thousands of followers on Twitter, and thousands of people had attended her workshops, read her books and visited SWD website. She wanted to go one step further. Her goal was to bring data visualization lovers together to the same place—somewhere to improve their capabilities interacting, sharing opinions, and learning from each other.
Cole got in touch with Z1 to create a dedicated place on her website to bring data visualization lovers together
Cole got in touch with Z1 to create this dedicated place on her website for data visualization storytellers. As an entrepreneur she has a very tight schedule and no time to waste. She needed a team she could trust and rely on; a group of experts who could help her prioritize and get things done.
She and her husband, Randy (who is an advisor to SWD), visited the Z1 team in Seville during the design process. “This was very helpful for brainstorming and ideating in person and simply getting to know the team on a more personal level”, recalls Randy. “Outside of that trip, we do regular Zoom meetings and always have conversations going on Slack. The team comes up with great ideas, helps us focus on our end users, and is super responsive”.
Hosting a community was the missing link for Cole. She feared that people would read one of her books or attend a workshop and see things in a new way, but then go back to how things were done before and have nothing change. “That thought would keep me up at night!”, she confesses.
One of the first things Z1 did was help to integrate the SWD community into their virtual sessions in a seamless way to enhance learning, before, during, and especially after a workshop, with the community as part of their process throughout.
This was accelerated by the lockdown due to Covid-19. “The pandemic was a challenging period for the team”, remembers Lucía, product designer at Z1. “So much of SWD work has historically been in-person workshops and these all stopped basically overnight. They felt fortunate that they were able to quickly pivot to virtual offerings because we’d already been doing some work in this space together, through the Office Hours, the AMA, and other features of the SWD community. It was great to be able to bring the people directly into the workshops when they transitioned to virtual.”
Lucía, product designer at Z1: "SWD was able to quickly pivot to virtual offerings during the lockdown due to Covid-19 because we’d already been building some of the features of their community together"
Data visualization is not new at all. As Professor of Psychology Michael Friendly points out in his book A Brief History of Data Visualization, graphical display of quantitative information has deep roots that date back to the 16th century with the creation of the first maps. However, doing it in a genuinely useful way has turned into a necessity for some years now.
During this time, data collection has increased exponentially, making it more important to be able to transform it into useful information. “When we take data, and we make it visual—we turn it into something that others can see— we can make it more accessible and inform people in an entirely new way,” points out Cole. At SWD, their goal is to help more people do precisely that: make graphs and weave them into action-inspiring stories.
According to this CEO and bestseller author: “When you pair data visualized well with the magic of a story, this can be very powerful. You can get your audience to see the data and also focus their attention on the important pieces, increase understanding, and drive action.”
The data visualization industry expects a growth rate of 9% for the period 2019-2027
We can inform smarter decisions when we communicate with data effectively. In fact, the growing need to make sound decisions quickly, is one of the key factors driving the data visualization industry, which expects a growth rate of 9% for the period 2019-2027, according to a report by Research and Market.
However, the report also says this growth could be diminished by the shortage of professionals in the field. In fact, in the past few years, there has been an emphasis on investing in technical skills to explore and analyze data at the expense of learning to communicate the results effectively subsequently. People who can do both parts of the process—use data to understand something in a new way and also communicate that information to others—are and will continue to be in high demand, especially during these days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The SWD community is the place to be if you want to be part of this increasing industry. It has approaching 5,000 members, growing at the rate of 500 new users per month on average since it was first launched in late 2019.
Each user has a personalized file with their bio, achievements, and goals, and can perfect their skills through exercises based on real cases and monthly challenges. SWD also encourages community members to add visuals they are proud of to their member galleries, and then all of those visuals become search and discoverable to help others who might be looking for examples or inspiration.
Asked for one of her favorite features, Cole says she loves using the discovery tool: “It’s a great way to quickly see a ton of varied data visualizations shared by community members (there’s some great search and filter functionality if you’re looking for something specific, too),” she says. “Also the activity heatmap we’ve recently added. I love how seeing the visualization of the community’s recent activity helps drive their engagement!.”
The SWD community is the place to be if you want to be part of the increasing data visualization industry
“We were lucky to have a fantastic group of early adopters since the beginning who provided great feedback that we used to quickly iterate and refine”, adds Lucía. “Now we continue to learn from how people are using all the features and we’ll work in partnership to make it a go-to resource for anyone who is interested in visualizing data or communicating visually”.
Z1 has become an extension of the SWD family. We’ll continue walking side-by-side to help the SWD community grow and tell even more stories with data. Especially, in these troubled times, when data storytelling serves not only to reliably explain what is happening and order the chaos, but to take action to solve problems.
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