The Year of Data Visualization and Reporting

On the plane, heading back from the American Evaluation Association’s annual conference in Anaheim. Long plane rides such a great opportunity for reflection. What’s on my mind? The overwhelming success of the Data Visualization and Reporting Topical Interest Group. We had so much support in getting this group launched and we were so embraced by the rest of the conference attendees. Highlights:

1. Slide Clinic – The night before the regular sessions began, we held an open clinic where attendees could bring their conference session slideshows for some quick diagnosis and triage. I recall a few years back, when I sat through a workshop given by someone who attended the clinic. Helping her choose legible fonts – improving her communication of her otherwise very insightful charts – was damned rewarding.

2. Ignite the Night – We held our required annual business meeting as an Ignite session. You know about Ignite, yes? Fast-paced, 5-minute talks where the slides auto-advance every 15 seconds, whether or not the speaker is ready. Never has that much fun been had without alcohol at a TIG business meeting, I’m sure of it. Video will be posted soon.

3. Data Visualization and Reporting-sponsored Conference Sessions – Audience size at our sponsored sessions was a clear indication that evaluators are becoming increasingly interested in good communication and reporting. We had the good problem of overcrowded rooms at all of our sessions – beyond standing room only, sitting on any open floor spot, spilling out into the hallway. For our first presence at the conference, we sure made ourselves known.

As founding chair of the TIG, I stepped aside after our business meeting, turning things over to the new chair, Amy Germuth. This year’s total rock star debut will keep feeding my soul until next year, people, in Minneapolis.

Juice Analytics

Zach Gemignani, of Juice Analytics fame, gave the keynote at the AEA/CDC Summer Institute yesterday. I had followed their 30 Days to Context Connection list earlier last year, so I was super excited to witness the fun in person. His keynote speech focused on the 10 steps to becoming a Data Vizard. Yep, vizard.

Good tips in there, too. One was to follow the leaders – meaning, check out the awesome folks who have cut down some of the hard work out there on data visualization. Though I thought his list was a little slim (okay, he only had 45 minutes), he did point out the range of leaders out there, from Stephen Few to Jonathan Harris (Side note: Why only white men getting to lead the field of data viz?)

My favorite tip was to think like a designer. He said there’s a thin overlap of folks who are both data junkies and designers (that’s me). But those more on the data junkie side can make tiny adjustments to normal presentations that will help make a bigger impact. For example, choose one color for emphasis and use it to actually emphasize, not decorate. My hack job of his slide, illustrating this idea, is below.

Another tip was about choosing the right chart. For help on that task, check out Juice Analytics’ chart chooser. It’ll guide you through your data needs and let you download a chart template for Excel that is designed for clarity and beauty. Cool!

Data Visualization and Reporting TIG

Evaluation use is a hot topic, but no one is looking at the role of graphic design.

Guidance on graphic design of evaluation reports in the literature of our field is sparse. Typically, discussion of use of evaluation findings (or lack thereof) focuses on types of use (i.e., conceptual, process, etc) and factors affecting use (i.e., relevance, timing, etc.) but graphic design is notably absent. Texts on the topic of communicating or reporting evaluation findings are also limited in this regard. They tend to limit their discussion to knowing one’s audience and formats of reporting (i.e., brochures, newsletters, oral presentations). Some texts acknowledge the role of graphic design in reporting, but give it a cursory address, such as suggesting that one hire a graphic designer, or “use white space” with no direction on how to make that happen. A couple of evaluators have advocated for the “methods-oriented report” that emphasizes results over the traditional layout, but these have been short on the details of how to enact their recommendations in a word-processing program. Only a few texts have attempted to give guidance on graphic design, such as providing direction on how to create charts or structure a report. However, the resources are all dated. In fact, if one takes into consideration contemporary teachings on graphic design principles, the evaluation texts have the potential to be miseducating.

In my last post, I said I’d develop a checklist for the use of graphic design in reporting. Yep, its coming. In the meantime, I am working on the proposal for a new TIG (Topical Interest Group) within the American Evaluation Association. Its time to bring consideration of data visualization and communication to the mainstream in evaluation. If you’re interested in being a member, send me an email.

And in that meantime, check out how data visualization is developing in other fields. (A shoutout to Humphrey Costello for sending me the links to these blogs, none of which are written by AEA members.)

Andrew Gelman’s blog, which makes statistical translation look easy.

Nathan Yau’s blog, which also has a link to the periodic table of swearing, FYI.

Shawn Allen’s blog, which is designed for a course but we can peek anyway.

Let’s bring this same caliber of work into evaluation. Let’s be interesting. Join me.