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Infographics and Evaluation

Just over a week ago, I started taking a free online course on Infographics and Data Visualization, taught by journalist Alberto Cairo and hosted by the University of Texas at Austin’s Knight Centre for Journalism in the Americas. Although journalism is not one of Strong Root’s core activities, I’m looking forward to learning more about how to visually present data findings – after all, what use is research and evaluation if the data is locked up behind jargon and massive tables of numbers? Ensuring that the research methods are participatory and accessible to everyone whose voice needs to be heard is only the start: the findings should likewise be understandable and relevant to all key stakeholders.

Fortunately, there is a growing interest in infographics, data visualization, and graphic design in general for evaluation and research. The American Evaluation Association has a Data Visualization and Reporting Topical Interest Group (TIG), and I attended one of their sessions at the AEA conference this past fall. Today’s AEA365 Tip-a-Day blog features a post by Elissa Schloesser on Translating Evaluation Findings into Infographics, complete with an infographic on how to create evaluation infographics (very meta!)

One takeaway from both the course and Elissa’s blog post is the importance of purpose, audience, and message. Infographics that simply provide information without an overarching story may look nice but fail to impart any new information, especially if poorly organized. For example, this infographic from Mashable on social networks (provided as an example in the course) looks nice but is hard to draw any conclusions from at a glance: in response, one of my classmates, Carla Chabrowski, drew up a chart by hand that perhaps isn’t as good-looking but clearly shows the difference in size and gender ratio for the main social networking sites. These considerations are the first step in transforming any type of data (visual, numerical, or written) from a random collection of information into something meaningful and easy to comprehend.

Now, those who know me well are likely aware that my graphics abilities are subpar, to say the least (I can draw a decent stick figure on a good day), so don’t expect to see professional infographics on this site quite yet. That being said, I’m hoping the online course will help me develop my graphic design skills so that I can create some “functional art” (as our instructor calls it) to help make evaluative and research findings accessible and meaningful.

Updated January 22 to include a link to my classmate’s infographic – thanks Carla!