Hans Rosling: Effective Presentation of Visual Information

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Information Overload

Members of a collaborative policy process usually need technical information on major issues before setting to work. For a layperson , however, most of the presentations that try to provide this background are – let’s face it – boring. The content is fine, but it’s offered up in mini-course lectures, with some Q&A, and “illustrated” with slides full of text-heavy bullet points that are really notes for the speaker.

A great many of these presentations may be offered during early meetings to “bring everyone up to speed.” An overload of information is the common result, and participants new to the subject matter find it hard to sort out the essential material they need to know. Often the group members will ask for presentations on the same material later in the process when they’re ready to apply it. What they need instead of lectures are summaries of a few key points made memorable by effective visualization. Hans Rosling is one of the masters of this art, and the video above is a brief example of his approach.

Turning Data into Visual Information

Let’s set aside Rosling’s unique personal style (how many of us can match that?) and look at the way he visualizes data. He starts with tables of statistics that wouldn’t mean much to anyone but another specialist. He then pulls from this vast dataset (i.e. U.N. data on the entire world) those particular subsets that can illustrate key changes and feeds it into software that greatly simplifies the visualization process.

The result brings out the major trends that any viewer can remember – even a casual visitor on YouTube. The animated graphs require only brief explanations from the speaker. There’s no attempt to give a mini-course on statistical analysis, the methodology of data collection or background on world health and economic development. The focus is on those few trends and facts that are most important.

The prevalence of conventional bullet point presentations is not the fault of the technical experts. They’re doing a conscientious job of sharing what they know, and many do that quite well. It’s really a system issue. Most technical training does not focus on communication with the public – though on-the-job opportunities are becoming more widespread.

Moreover, the skills of converting raw data into easily understood visual information may seem beyond the grasp of most of us who aren’t graphic artists. The training issue, of course, will take time to address, but a great deal can be done by improving the software tools we now rely on to prepare all those bullet point slides.

The Need for Better Software

PowerPoint and its siblings are capable of extremely powerful visual presentation, but their prepackaged templates make it too easy to opt for a fill-in-the-blanks approach – often augmented with razzle-dazzle effects that catch the eye but rarely serve to put emphasis where it’s needed. The excellent output these programs can produce takes too long to learn. (It begins with forgetting all the prepared templates and starting with a blank slide. How many of use would know what to do then, especially under the pressure of a tight deadline?)

But better software tools are in the works. Rosling’s Gapminder organization has an online version of the software used in the video. It allows you to create presentations but is limited to its own datasets on world conditions. However, a desktop version is now in preparation. That will likely make this type of visualization much more common.

The software is called Trendalyzer and was sold to Google a few years ago. Google has been developing its own version called Motion Chart. So far, it’s available as a free “gadget” that works in Google’s own online applications. Another version can be downloaded to any website, but there is no word on a possible desktop application.

Fortunately, there is software of similar functionality available. It’s called Trend Compass and can be downloaded for desktop use in a free version (alas! Windows only).

These tools greatly simplify the process of turning data into effective visual information, and more of them will become available in the next couple of years – many in online versions. There are, of course, a great many applications in both desktop and online versions that help organize conceptual data in the form of charts, mindmaps and less structured graphic formats. There are many sophisticated add-ons for spreadsheet software, but they most have a significant learning curve. Converting raw data into visual information is a complicated task. Software alone won’t solve the problem, but it can be a big help.

We’ll be covering a lot more on this topic in coming posts.

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