More than ever, policy development and decision making are built on data. When communicating data, we must begin by understanding the value and limitations of the data. These steps come before we can even begin to communicate the meaning of the data through words and images.
In short, we cannot communicate data unless we understand the data.
This is the essence of data literacy.
What are data? Data are pieces of information that help us achieve something – understand, decide, explain. Not all data are equal. What our neighbour thinks about climate change is data. So is the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Unless our neighbour happens to be part of the IPCC, one of those pieces of data is likely to be more reliable than the other, and we must factor that into how we trust and use the data.
How can we know how strongly to trust a source of data? One useful tool is the Data Quality Framework, provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It lays out some important questions we must ask when reviewing data and conclusions from the data. For example:
- Who collected the data? Were the data collected and curated by an organisation with strong systems for ensuring the quality of its products?
- When and where were the data collected? Were the data collected at a time and place that make them useful? Are they new enough and collected often enough?
- Are the data coherent? Were the data collection methods consistent over time? (If not, apparent changes in the data might be due to changes in the method.)
Writing about data
When we have some data and analysis that we understand and consider valuable, we are ready to communicate those results.
Even then, we must take care to use the right words. Data analysis often uses the methods and terminology of statistics. We don’t need to be statisticians, but we ought to know some basics.
Terms like ‘average’, ‘significant’, ‘confident’ and ‘deviation’ have specific meanings when used in relation to data, and we must make sure we know what these meanings are and whether those words are suitable.
We must take care to avoid implying causation when we have shown correlation. ‘Soft drinks cause tooth decay’ is different from ‘People who drink a lot of soft drink are more likely to have tooth decay’. The first says soft drinks are a direct cause of tooth decay. The second just says the 2 things often occur in the same people – some other factor could be responsible for tooth decay.
Above all, we must be precise and unambiguous. What does ‘the evidence is weak’ mean? Does it mean:
- nobody has looked at this topic?
- some studies have been done but they show small effects?
- studies have been done but their results conflict?
Saying exactly what we mean by ‘weak evidence’ helps audiences understand the data accurately.
Using visuals is one of the most effective ways to communicate the results of data analysis. Visuals grab the attention and send their messages to the reader very directly, especially if well designed, simple and focused on a single message.
We could say ‘the frequency of extreme heat events is increasing’, but we could also show a graph:
The image is immediate. We see the rapid increase in recent years before we even know what the graph is about. We have both an immediate message that reaches people more quickly than words can, and a lot of detail should the reader choose to look more closely.
Getting the data visualisation right – for example, choosing the right type of graph and removing visual clutter that distracts from your message – can add a lot to the success of your communication.
If you would like help with data literacy or visualisation, infographics or content:
- Biotext are content experts specialising in complex content, including health and biomedical science, environment and agriculture. We provide content strategy and design, writing, editing, information design, data visualisation and infographics.
- Biotext training courses are available in ‘Fundamentals of data literacy and visualisation’, ‘Writing and editing complex content’ and ‘Infographics’.
Our Quick guide to effective content provides many tips on reaching your audience and running a content project.