Page last updated at 12:38 GMT, Monday, 21 March 2011

Top tips on data visualisation

By Hanna White
Data visualisation producer, BBC News

Two pumpkins show growth in pumpkin sales
Colourful graphics designed to engage readers

There's an old saying that goes "a picture is worth a thousand words" and it could equally be said that "a picture is worth a thousand numbers".

When it comes to telling a story, which involves a lot of numbers - you may have come across the phrases "statistics" and "data" in Maths lessons - journalists often paint pictures with numbers.

Also known as 'data visualisation', it is a way of helping your audience to understand and absorb data quickly. Here are some top tips on how to go about gathering data, analysing it and conveying it in a creative and meaningful way.

Make it accurate

Make sure your data is a true reflection of the facts.

First, always use data from a reputable source - a large organisation such as the Office of National Statistics.

If you are collecting the data yourself by doing a survey, for instance, ask as many people as possible to make your statistics meaningful.

Second, be careful how you analyse data - beware of comparisons, known in the stats world as "correlations". You risk coming to the wrong conclusion based on two or more sets of figures that are not actually linked.

Take speed cameras. In 2003 the Department of Transport claimed "Deaths and serious injuries fell by 35% on roads where speed cameras have been in operation". But they did not take into account that the number of accidents on the roads always varies - and speed cameras may or may not affect those numbers.

Read more on this by BBC reporter Michael Blastland, who also writes a regular feature on the BBC website called Go Figure.

Here's an article he wrote on interpreting statistics.

Last but certainly not least, make sure that all the words on your chart are spelled correctly. Sure, the main focus is on the numbers but if the words are incorrect, then your readers may think the numbers are wrong too.

How to get your data to tell a story

If you think data visualisation is just a fancy word for bar charts, then you are wrong. There are many ways of making sense of data in a visual way. The main things to remember are - keep it clear and use the right graphic for your data.

Bar charts, line graphs and pie charts are the most straightforward ways of letting the data tell a story.

You can highlight relevant bars on a bar chart to tell your story more clearly. For example if you have a chart showing the number of pupils in schools in your area, you could use a darker colour for your own school.

Data visualisation can be stunning to look at and draw you into a subject that readers might normally think was too boring to bother with. This beautiful graphic illustrates the rather dry subject of the European budget.

The BBC news website has a whole team of graphic designers and programmers who can produce a vast range of maps, graphics and 'interactives'. Here's a list of examples that may give you ideas and inspiration for your own project.

The rise in popularity of Halloween cleverly illustrated with a witch line graph and proportional pumpkins and moons.

• Proportional poppies - battles around the world for Remembrance Day

The Chile mine rescue - size, distance, time.

• Which country has the best brains ?

A regional snapshot of GCSE results - Thematic map.

Finally, allow the reader to see the raw data

Always name your source on a graphic. Also, if possible, make the raw data available to your reader by linking to your original Excel/Word file.

Lesson: Turning statistics into stories
09 Mar 11 |  Teachers' resources


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