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How data visualization turns scientists into storytellers

As scientists continue to work with increasingly large data sets, data visualization has become an incredibly important asset in their tool belts. This is especially vital when they must communicate across interdisciplinary lines with other scientists or when promoting their science to the public.

Jonathan Hoekstra, Senior Scientist at the Nature Conservancy and co-author of The Atlas of Global Conservation: Changes, Challenges, and Opportunities to Make a Difference, uses data visualization almost daily — constantly creating new and interesting ways to communicate data to his many audiences.

“I approach it from the perspective of a storyteller,” Hoekstra said. “Data is our evidence, and we’re packing it up in a way that makes a quick and compelling point.”

Data visualization requires clarity and focus, especially in the science field. Often scientists present an overwhelming amount of information, and the message can get lost. Hoekstra prefers to show some restraint when working on a data visualization project, always zeroing in on the needs of his audience.

“I think first and hardest about who the audience is and what I want them to learn,” Hoekstra said. “You can show scientists bar charts and tables with statistics, and they’ll get it. I can take advantage of being shorthanded in that way. For an academic audience, I might use a really rich graphic that maximizes the information density because people care to look at it, study it, and compare details. A non-technical audience might only need to understand one point, and adding in too much detail is just clutter and confusion. So I might distill it down and convey it in as simple of a way as possible. At the heart, it’s a very simple representation.”

Once Hoekstra is clear on his audience, he moves onto the data. It comes down to assembling the strongest pieces of evidence to make the point and finding the best way to present it.

“That’s where data visualization tools come in,” Hoekstra said. “It’s a mixed bag. I really like maps. They’re the single most powerful and common tool I use because information systems are becoming so accessible. When I started in conservation science, GIS was something that needed its own room, batch of computers, and staff. Now I can do it on my phone. The tools are getting easier to access, and it’s unleashing more creativity.”

Hoekstra’s largest data visualization project to date, the Atlas of Global Conservation, was an effort by the Nature Conservancy to identify global priorities for the organization. After spending years developing an extraordinary database of information about how nature is distributed around the world, how things were changing, and what people were doing about it, it was time for the team to organize it in a dynamic and effective way.

“We started with this notion of an atlas as a way to present a diverse and rich amount of information in a highly visual way,” Hoekstra said. “Maps give us a shorthand to convey information to people very quickly, easily, and consistently.”

For many scientists, it’s less about the data being a challenge, but more so about designing and visualizing it. They know their audience, they know their data, but choosing how to present it can be the most challenging part. Often, the devil is in the details.

Many in the science field have just recently gotten comfortable moving away from the Excel spreadsheet and into more creative data visualizations. No matter what design route you decide to go, Hoekstra thinks your game plan should always be the same.

“Approach it like storytelling,” he said. “Know what you want the punchline of the story to be. You want it to be clear, you want it to be compelling, you want it to be simple, and you want it to be memorable. Be deliberate about that. It’s a very creative process- it’s an intricate process that can be hard but it also can be fun.”

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