When interpreting data visualizations and graphics, read the fine print

Alberto Cairo, Knight Chair in Visual Journalism at the University of Miami School of Communication and a veteran expert on news information graphics.
 
By Kristian A. Rodriguez

Alberto Cairo, Knight Chair in Visual Journalism at the University of Miami School of Communication and a veteran expert on news information graphics.
 

When interpreting data visualizations and graphics, read the fine print

By Kristian A. Rodriguez
Alberto Cairo, a visual communications expert in the School of Communication, explains how data journalism is helping the world to understand the impact of the coronavirus.

Shocking statistics are so prevalent these days, but you need to pay close attention to what a graphic is attempting to convey. 

This is the advice of Alberto Cairo, the Knight Chair in Visual Journalism at the University of Miami School of Communication and a veteran expert on news information graphics. 

As COVID-19 continues to spread across the globe, data visualizations can help us better understand the impacts of this public health and economic crisis. From interactive maps about the virus’s global dispersion to iconography about national unemployment rates, visualization specialists are finding novel ways to display an influx of ever-changing data. 

“Visualization isn’t just about seeing the information alone,” Cairo said. “It is about helping people make sense of the information that you’re presenting, particularly when the information is technical. So, you need both visuals and words.” 

Cairo said it helps to see data visualizations as a visual argument. In other words, graphics can be used to present complex data in a way that can influence behaviors and public opinion. Through the “flatten the curve” model, for example, experts were able to convince the public that social distancing was one way to slow the outbreak and relieve the pressure on the health care system. Through maps and interactive graphs, data is being used to help the public gain insight into the spread of COVID-19 and help policymakers craft and communicate responses to the tough challenges ahead. 

“Math doesn’t lie, but the way the information is presented can sometimes be misleading,” Cairo said. 

In fact, many of the numbers that have been tracking for weeks do not reflect the actual number of people with COVID-19, Cairo said. With testing and contact tracing lagging, the exact number of cases in the United States remains unknown. Most of today’s visualizations are datasets of tested and reported infections only, which can vary widely by state based on how transparent states have been about reporting their data, he said. 

“You need to read the fine print about what the graphic is actually measuring and how the numbers are defined,” he said. He notes that it is up to each news organization to identify and communicate the limitations of the available data to its viewers or users. 

Who provides these numbers is just as important. These days, Cairo relies on the data sourced by Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, as well as analysis from The New York Times and the Financial Times. 

As we move deeper into examining and explaining the long-term health and socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic, Cairo reminds journalists and news organizations to not get lost in the abstraction of the numbers. Charts will always show trends and patterns, he said, but in this crisis, we cannot miss the opportunity to highlight the human toll and people behind the numbers. For example, as efforts to track the coronavirus’s impact on long-term health care facilities and nursing homes continue, the grim statistics should be used to highlight the human side of the data, he said. 

“Whenever we create an informational package, we exemplify the numbers through the personal stories that may be illustrative of what the numbers represent,” Cairo said.

The human experience makes the overall story of suffering more informative and more persuasive, he explained, especially when trying to move public sentiment and effect policy changes. 

Cairo is confident that over time the data and analysis will get better, and some visualizations will have permanence. The latter will help audiences approach official models with more confidence because they will be more familiar with what they are measuring and what they are not.   

Follow Alberto Cairo’s commentary on his blog, www.thefunctionalart.com and check out his latest book “How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter about Visual Information,” due out in paperback later this year.