Bringing Data Into Vision

In this week’s Thursday Night Insight, Oliver Truman tells us how a night in front of the box provided an insight into presenting market research data.

The bitterly cold, dystopian winter suffered by most of the Northern Hemisphere recently has given me the perfect opportunity to indulge one of my favourite pastimes: The fine art of staying in of an evening.

Just as summer is characterised (some might say romanticised) by long, action-packed days outdoors and lobbing another shrimp on the ‘barbie, winter presents the perfect opportunity to over-indulge and be lazy. This includes the doyen of all inert pleasures, slobbing out in front of the television.

When I’m over visiting our US office, I am spoilt for choice with latest episodes of my favourite stateside shows. Whether it’s gritty crime procedurals like the Law and Order franchise, comedies like 30 Rock and Curb Your Enthusiasm or rollicking police brutality courtesy of “Sheriff” John Burnell in World’s Wildest Police Videos, there’s sure to be something that tickles my fancy. And when back in Blighty, there’s nothing quite like a weekend afternoon spent watching the telly, shouting obscenities at overpaid men kicking around a bag of wind.

The researcher reading all of the above could be forgiven for segmenting my viewing behaviour, and putting me squarely in the “Trash TV” bucket. However, I do occasionally like to indulge my intellectual side. This typically consists of gamely attempting to get a single correct answer in University Challenge, employing such stellar strategies as “shout Verdi whenever there’s a question about opera”. (This worked. Once.).

In the UK, the BBC have set up an entire channel devoted to worthy, arts-based but ultimately under-watched programming – the sorts of programmes I should be watching. It’s called BBC4. In a recent surf around the electronic programme schedule, I happened across a programme they had on entitled The Beauty Of Diagrams. The market-research-report-writing part of my brain couldn’t resist.

This particular episode in a series of six was about Florence Nightingale. It turned out that not only was the Lady of the Lamp a celebrated nurse, she also had a gift for statistics and the visual presentation of data. In her studies of sanitary conditions during the Crimean War, Nightingale took great interest in statistics related to soldier mortality rates and causes, convinced that observations on the ground could somehow be proven powerfully by data.

William Farr, then Compiler of Abstracts at the General Registry Office, had long put together tables of data related to the deaths of soldiers in combat. However, Nightingale was not looking for a straightforward, sober presentation of the facts as many of her contemporaries might have chosen to do. She wanted impact to ensure that her work effected real change.

In her 1858 monograph Notes on matters affecting the health, efficiency and hospital administration of the British army Nightingale produced one of the first of that most celebrated diagrams – the pie chart. Although William Playfair could probably lay claim to the first pie diagram around 50 years earlier, “Nightingale’s Rose” (shown below, click the preview for a larger version) nonetheless showed dramatically and accessibly the impact that infectious diseases had on mortality rates in the theatre of war. Each segment of the pie represented a month, with the size of coloured segments within each sector being roughly proportional to the cause of death: Blue denotes death from infectious disease, red indicates mortality due to wounding and black shows all other causes.

Nightingale's Rose

The sheer magnitude of the blue sectors, their peak and then subsequent decay with the introduction of better sanitation gave strong visual testimony to the ends that Nightingale was seeking to achieve. At the same time, however, the diagram was also an exaggeration of the true picture. The sectors were not proportional in area to the rate of mortality, rather the data was mapped to the radius of each segment. By having the blue infectious disease sector as the outermost portion, Nightingale had (unwittingly or otherwise) exploited the geometry of the circle to subtly accentuate certain parts of the data. As this article shows, when Nightingale’s Rose is recalibrated to show area alone, the effect is far less pronounced.

Leaving aside the precise accuracy of Nightingale’s diagram, the wider point to make is that appropriate presentation of data is a vital component of report writing, both in general but especially in our realm of market research. A compelling piece of market intelligence relies not only on storytelling, but also our ability to paint vivid, memorable, but nonetheless accurate representations of the data we have gathered.

The discipline of data visualisation is a growing one, particularly in an era of ever-more-complex computer graphics capabilities. I’ll leave you with some of my favourite examples of data visualisation from around the web:

If there are any further examples you’d like to share, please contribute them using our comment section below. And, who knows, these might just provide the inspiration for B2B’s next market research report – just as a lazy night in front of the telly provided food for thought!

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