Jock Mackinlay, PhD, Robert Kosara, PhD, Michelle Wallace

Data Storytelling

Using visualization to share the
human impact of numbers

................................................................................2 “The universe is made of stories........9 Storytelling to the People...................................................................................................3 Why We Tell Stories.............12 ... From Greek mythology to the Bible to television series like Cosmos. and comics................................................................................. why would we study the world if we didn’t want to know how we can—and should— influence it? Though many elements of stories have remained the same throughout history..........................................................6 Story Points........................................... This has changed storytelling styles—and perhaps most importantly.....................................7 When to Tell a Story.. not atoms........................................................................................................................................ such as printed books.................................. the impact of those stories—over the millennia.................. After all.................................................................................. Table of Contents The Tales We Tell......................................................... A key purpose of storytelling is not just understanding the world but changing it............................. movies.. stories have been shaping our experience on Earth for as long as we’ve lived on it................... The universe may be full of atoms........ But can stories be told with data....................................4 Storytelling through the Ages..............................................10 About the Authors.. but it’s through stories that we truly construct our world.............................................. we have developed better tools and mediums for telling them.......................... as well as with images and words? That’s what this paper’s about.........................”—Muriel Rukeyser (1913–1980) Storytelling is a cornerstone of the human experience.

but—when it comes to understanding the world. This dashboard shows their distribution around the world. 2011. 30 feet high—it’s the flow of the story that ties them all together. whisking away The 2011 quake off the coast of Tōhoku a magnitude 9. Merriam-Webster defines an earthquake as “a shaking or trembling of the earth that is volcanic or tectonic in origin. we’ve detected since 1973. That’s how many 4. Stories also add embellishments that make data more memorable. or an intriguing tale? It may seem unfair. Tokyo Indian Ocean quake theJapan quake of earthquakes are areroar being detected in reported. a 9.m. quake struck. 8.0 (Mw) underseaonto megathrust earthquake. Japan Magnitude 6.0 .0 near the east coast of Honshu. detected Pacific Rim But major earthquakes happening m and rumble of the temblor.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Earthquakes: Are they are on rise? Tōhoku. making them easier to relate to.1 Region of the World All s 16 See this story come together here.3 The Tales We Tell A little drama makes a big impact Which do you prefer: raw. Japan. shaking skyscrapers. They build connections and context around facts in order to make them more memorable.0 While facts and data form the backbone of this story—2:46 p. Data tells you what’s happening.being First came thethe earthquakes" in 2004. resulting in a catastrophic tsunami. On Friday. Then waves as was high as 30 feet rushed shore.0-plus-magnitude earthquakes Stories take advantage of human cognition. fields and highways. at least—your brain has an unequivocal preference for stories. earthquakes select Magnitude 9.attention athas 2:46 time. Words like “roar” and “shaking” add drama to the facts. March 11. Consider the number 131.m. Friday. As The New York Times Thousands of earthquakes are detected each year About two each year The megaquakes are Megaquake: The Megaquake: The More and more Most earthquakes qualify“On as "major what drawnp. and the 5th most powerful earthquake in the world. toppling furniture and buckling highways. It was the most cars powerful known earthquake ever to have hit Japan.824. unbiased data. you can understand it better.” Earthquake Date Time 1/1/2004 to 2/26/2014 Magnitude 8 to 9. Stories tell you why it matters. By relating to the concept.. and carrying blazing buildings toward factories.” But it’s hard to think about earthquakes without imagining the ground shaking beneath your own feet. 2011.

he was determined to “do whatever it took to help these kids overcome classism and racism and escape poverty. and end. but our brains are hardwired to find connections between events. If you turn them into a well-structured story. The flow of a story helps us spot causal connections.” . and by 2013 it had reached 22. it was a pretty big leap at the time. “In 2002. That’s when Aristotle claimed that all stories have a beginning. Texas for a decade. exactly.E. Getting to the root cause of an issue can be tricky.com. U. middle. Austin’s turnover rate has been higher than the national average for all but one of the past ten years. While this might seem like common sense. it can be easier to spot an underlying cause—and then to share your understanding of that cause. “many of the faculty had been hand-selected to revive the struggling school. avg. the year I started teaching at Pearce. a former teacher from J.3 percent.4 Why We Tell Stories The importance of understanding events from beginning to end What.” When he entered Pearce. you begin to understand why it unfolded that way. For instance. In August of that year.S. If you follow an event from start to finish. teacher turnover has been a problem in Austin.” he explains. we didn’t look at their structure until about 335 BC. Pearce Middle School in East Austin—an area with one of the highest poverty rates in the city—published his long-untold story on Salon. makes a story? While we’ve been telling them since the beginning of history.

and faster? John Savage wanted to influence change by becoming a teacher.0 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 If the leaders of Austin’s school system looked at this data in a meeting. step-by-step from beginning to end? And what if everyone left that meeting believing in the same story—a story founded in data? Could the students in Austin’s school system get to their own happy ending.0 Pearce Middle school 20. we’re constantly receiving information about the world around us. Since you receive each piece of data at a specific time. When you put them together. in the end he came to believe they were in vain.0 60.0 60. he had quit. step-by-step story and decide how to act. School name Avg. and stories tell you why. But what if the data told a complete story? What if it was told in a clear sequence.0 0.0 0.0 40.0 22. .0 Reagan High school 20. we do this too well. We identify patterns and causes that aren’t really there. sequential way so that readers can see important connections between facts.5 But within two years. His experiences led him to conclude that poverty—and not teacher quality—was the root cause that really needed to be addressed. It’s something our brains have evolved to do exceptionally well: We stitch data points together to turn them into a cohesive. With that story in mind. great change is possible. each of them might walk away with a different story about what’s causing this rate to increase. Each would write that story based on his or her individual experiences. Sometimes. As human beings. The amount of sunlight hitting your eye. the level of ambient noise in your current location—these are all data points that tell you something about the current state of the world. This chart shows the teacher-turnover rate at Pearce Middle School over the past decade. But now. he does that by telling stories.0 40. But what if he used data visualizations to help tell those stories? Data tells you what’s happening. they would each walk away from the meeting with separate ideas about how to act next. As a journalist. he shares information in a relevant. Turnover rate School type 10.0 Teachers 40.0 Mendez 39 Middle school 60 80 20.0 60.0 0. you automatically fill in the missing information between each moment. Why? Despite his qualifications and efforts.

Tableau’s Story Points feature is the next evolution of storytelling with data.6 Storytelling through the Ages Evolving tools for influential tales The Austin school district’s story hasn’t been resolved yet. So he came up with a new way to tell a data story: he plotted each death on a map of the city. And the rising action of a story arc makes it more engaging and memorable. and end. they decided to replace its handle. they immediately understood what the problem was: an infected water pump in an area with no sewage system. presented logically and fluently to lead to a conclusion. That’s why we’ve been telling stories for so long. And since the days of Aristotle. A clear flow turns a collection of facts into a compelling narrative. In 1854. s A story arc consists of rising action and conflict. The tools we use to share visual stories are only getting better with time. Dr. When he showed his map to the city’s leaders. It glues them Logical sequence or narrative Question or problem Conclusion or resolution together into a structure that makes sense. Germ theory was developed less than a decade later. And they’re exceptionally good at getting a point across. John Snow was an epidemiologist in London. but he needed a compelling way to tell this story to the people who were making the decisions. . Just a few centuries have brought us from hand-drawn visualizations—like John Snow’s map—to movies and computer graphics. Humans continue to build innovative ways to tell powerful stories. Snow had a hunch about how cholera was being spread and how it could be stopped. Since most of the deaths occurred near that pump. A good story also has an arc. middle. we’ve delved deeper into the structure of stories—and learned it’s not just about the beginning. They are excellent tools for passing knowledge from one person to another. a city in the clutches of a cholera outbreak. Dr. but one thing is clear: There’s nothing like a compelling plot to make people care.

what has drawn attention Megaquake: The Indian Ocean quake in 2004.1 Magnitude 8 to 9. It seems that earthquakes are not on the rise. Magnitude 8 to 9. Earthquake Date Time 1/1/2004 to 2/26/2014 8.0 .0 But major earthquakes are not happening more oft. But when you’re looking at a complex data set—whether in a research lab. and your presentation tool stays connected to your data. After surveying areas such as Japan. like the one that struck near Tōhoku. Earthquakes: Are they are on rise? Earthquakes: Are they are on rise? Thousands of earthquakes are detected each year About two each year qualify as "major earthquakes" The megaquakes are what has drawn attention Megaquake: The Indian Ocean quake in 2004. More and more earthquakes are Thousands being detectedof earthquakes are detected each year are being detected in About two Rim each year the Pacific qualify as "major earthquakes" earthquakes are not The megaquakes happening more are oft. we’ve improved our methods for detecting them. and then focuses in on some of the larger quakes we’ve recently seen. but most of the increase is actually coming from lower-magnitude quakes.7 Story Points Telling and discovering stories with the same tool Story Points provide a framework for arranging data visualizations sequentially. this does nothing to lessen the human impact of larger quakes. being detected the Pacific Rim Earthquakes: Are they are on rise? Most earthquakes But major Megaquake: The Japan quake of 2011. But is the number of quakes around the world actually increasing? At the top of this visual. More earthquakes are being detected than ever before. By clicking through these annotations—like pages in a book—a series of interactive visualizations appear.0 near the east coast of Honshu.0 (Mw) undersea megathrust earthquake.0 earthquakes selected Magnitude 9. Here’s an example of how Story Points works: More than 131. We’ve also seen many recent high-impact quakes.. 2011. and the 5th most powerful earthquake in the world. With Story Points... More and more earthquakes are being detected Most earthquakes are being detected in the Pacific Rim Earthquake Date Time The 2011 quake off the coast of Tōhoku was a magnitude 9.0 8. middle and end—even with large and complex data sets.0 and they often cause significant damage and lose of live.0 (Mw) undersea megathrust earthquake. A big reason people are more aware of earthquakes are the recent "mega-quakes".0 Magnitude 8 to 9. Thousands of About two each year The megaquakes are Megaquake: The earthquakes are qualify as "major what has drawn Indian Ocean quake Megaquake: detected The Most earthquakes eachMore yearand more earthquakes" attention But major in 2004. a trend pops out of the visual. a board room. Immediately. It was the most powerful 1/1/2004 to 2/26/2014 known earthquake ever to have hit Japan.0 Region of the World All 16 16 earthquakes selected Magnitude 6. These quakes are those whose is ever The 2011 quake off the coast of Tōhoku was a magnitude 9. It was the most powerful 1/1/2004 to 2/26/2014 Earthquake Datehit Time knownmagnitude earthquake to have Japan. Megaquake: The Japan quake of 2011.0 near the east coast of Honshu. or somewhere else—you need to be able to decide how you’ll act upon it.000 earthquakes have been detected worldwide since 1973. Japan in 2011. a series of annotations (shown above) guide viewers through their exploration. Japan quake of earthquakes are are being detected in earthquakes are not happening more oft.1 Region of the World All Region of the World All Magnitude 6. you can tell stories with data in the same tool you use to analyze data. it turns to overall trends of earthquake detection. Japan Magnitude 9. greater than 8. Of course. This story begins at the global level.1 16 earthquakes selected Magnitude 6. so that you can tell stories with a beginning. Japan 8. rather. and the 5th most powerful earthquake in the world.

you can decide how to act.8 This story was built using visualizations connected directly to the data source. Magnitude 4 to 9. but the story guides you to an understanding of why.1 16K 15K 14K 13K Since 1973 there has been a steady increase in the number of earthquakes being recorded with a particularly strong increase in 2003 to 2005... Stories help you understand what’s going on beneath the surface. The data tells you what’s happening. the visualizations in the story will update to include the new data. . From start to finish. Megaquake: The Japan quake of 2011. 1800 1600 1400 1200 1000 800 600 400 200 0 1973 1974 1975 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 Number of earthquakes But major earthquakes are not happening more oft.1 2000 Region of the World APAC EMEA North & South Am. they walk you through a series of events so that you can see what’s causing them to happen. Megaquake: The Japan quake of 2011. As earthquakes continue to be detected around the world. More and more earthquakes are being detected Most earthquakes are being detected in the Pacific Rim But major earthquakes are not happening more oft. And once you understand that cause. Earthquakes: Are they are on rise? Thousands of earthquakes are detected each year About two each year qualify as "major earthquakes" The megaquakes are what has drawn attention Megaquake: The Indian Ocean quake in 2004.. More and more earthquakes are being detected Most earthquakes are being detected in the Pacific Rim Magnitude 5 to 9. 12K Number of earthquakes 11K 10K 9K 8K 7K 6K 5K 4K 3K 2K 1K 2013 1973 1974 1975 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 0K Earthquakes: Are they are on rise? Thousands of earthquakes are detected each year About two each year qualify as "major earthquakes" The megaquakes are what has drawn attention Megaquake: The Indian Ocean quake in 2004.

00 $3. will die f rom In 2013 an est imat ed 627. they’re already pretty darn good at what they’re usually designed for. And if you notice a change or problem in your data. shows cases of malaria around the world. Highlight af f ect ed count ries by number of cases or deat hs Cases Just as Dr. Total Worldwide Cases : 207. userfriendly way..00 $4.t hat means over 1700 children. t hat s one f or every minut e of every day Item City Ticket t o t he M ovies Det roit Bost on Seat t le 3 gallons of gas Denver Long Last ing Insect icidal Net Washingt on One mont h subscript ion t o rdio Deat hs f rom M alaria Port land Pharrel Williams New Album Oklahoma Cit y 5 Dunkin Donut s Cof f ees Las Vegas Kansas Cit y 10 KFC Hot Wings At lant a 0K 50K 100K 150K 200K 250K 300K 350K 400K Population 450K 500K 550K 600K 650K 700K $1.00 $9. Snow adapted a versatile medium—paper. Let’s take a look.420. We can. When it comes to monitoring your data—keeping its daily pulse—an interactive dashboard is a great tool.000 people.00 $7.. you can help viewers understand the context and make useful connections between each point.00 $2.. $8. day. Once you see what’s going on—that malaria is mainly striking Sub-Saharan Africa—chances are you want to know why. By putting data in a sequence. Francis uses a series of visualizations to guide readers through a thought process in a focused.00 $6.00 $5. And then you want to tell that story. But when you need to communicate your findings to others—when you need to convince them to take action—you need to show them why. Concent rat ed around t he equat er Sub-Saharan Af rica has t he largest problem. but they’re nothing new.000 However.00 . So why can’t we just use dashboards to tell data stories? M alaria af f ect s over half t he world populat ion. you can use a dashboard to investigate the cause. s This visualization. t he equivalent of 32 school buses. by Matt Francis of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.. t hat s almost t he ent ire populat ion of Washingt DC.00 $10. but stories explain why. . John Snow’s cholera map makes that clear. t he map below shows t he cases and deat hs due t o M alaria f or each count ry. so too can dashboards be shaped into compelling visual stories. 90% of t hem children under 5 died f rom What could you spend $10 on? malaria everyonsingle M alaria.00 $11.9 When to Tell a Story Dashboards versus data stories Data stories may be groundbreaking. and ink—to share a data story. pen.00 Dashboards tell you what’s happening.

com published a piece called "I taught at the worst s...10 Storytelling to the People How to be a game-changer with data What if you’re not the one making decisions with data? In 1854. it’s clear that Austin’s east side struggles more than Austin's teacher Teacher turnover is a its (wealthier) west. Texas.. 2013 Reach program schools NO YES Teachers 6 50 100 161 Avg.0 .. "Multimillion-d Use the slider to see rate.0 Savage also alludes to recovery efforts in Austin’s schools. 22. an article in the Austin American-Statesman reported on a new study that claimed teacher quality was higher in the west than in the east—and that at Reagan High School in Northeast Austin. In 2014 the S wrote. but needed to convince the city’s leaders too. John Snow believed that water was spreading cholera in London. the former teacher John Savage—who recently wrote about Texas’ struggling schools—has a major hunch about what’s causing their problems. turnover rate has problem across been above the nati.. although the. dive into the data. "At Reagan. “19 percent of teachers were giving lessons in subjects for which they were not certified. Did they work? About six years after he left Pearce.. The problem is particularly actue at some schools.” It went on to describe an incentive program aimed at improving teacher performance. and tell a life-changing story with it? Savage’s story impacts teachers all over the east side of Austin. Austin. A struggle between teachers and a principal drove high . Snow did in 1854: follow his instincts. Salon. 19 of teachers were giving lessons in subjects f. Turnover rate 10. And if Austin's Teacher Problem you look at regionalTurnover data. Likewise. Could he do what Dr.

From improving public education to preventing disease and better understanding natural disasters. With a data story. And the turnover rate at Reagan only went up after that article was published. What would happen if there was an explosion of authorship around the world? Imagine the impact of billions of people telling their stories with numbers. not teacher performance. And in today’s world of information overload. . stories motivate action. it’s much easier to understand what’s going on beneath the surface.0 Pearce Middle school 20. The data can tell you what’s happening.0 60. the Statesman reported that millions of dollars spent on teacher incentives had done little to fix the problem. Turnover rate School type 10.0 40. data stories have unlimited potential. we’ve been using stories to conserve and pass on information. Perhaps most importantly. actionable decisions with all of your data. and a story can elucidate the cause.0 60.0 60. hundreds of millions of rows can be distilled into a single narrative.0 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 About three years later. State data would show teacher turnover to be higher than ever before. it’s crucial to be able to make informed.0 0. though.0 0. With game-changing inventions like the printing press.0 0. By following that narrative.0 Teachers 40. School name Avg. Since ancient times. We’re also seeing an explosion of authorship around the world today.0 Reagan High school 20.0 Mendez 39 Middle school 60 80 20. By telling this whole story—from the emotional impact it’s had on real people to the data that points to the true cause—a single person could change the game for teachers and students across Austin.0 40. Stories have always been for everyone. widespread access to information has become a reality.0 22.11 But Savage believes it’s poverty that needs to be addressed.

Robert has created visualization techniques like parallel sets and performed research into the perceptual and cognitive basics of visualization. his research has focused on how to communicate data using tools from visualization. . where he collaborated with the User Interface Research group to develop many novel applications of computer graphics for information access. Prior to Tableau.” Much of the fruits of this research can be seen in his book. At Stanford University.12 About the Authors Jock Mackinlay Jock Mackinlay is Tableau’s Vice President of Visual Analysis. Before he joined Tableau in 2012. he was a professor of computer science at UNC Charlotte. where she tells stories about how thought-leaders around the world are making an impact with data. Robert Kosara Robert Kosara is a researcher in Tableau’s Visual Analysis group.” Jock has a PhD in computer science from Stanford University. She holds a BA in English from Western Washington University with a minor in astronomy. coining the term “information visualization. Recently. He joined Xerox PARC in 1986. Michelle was a magazine writer who covered local interests and histories around the United States. he pioneered the automatic design of graphical presentations of relational information. “Readings in Information Visualization: Using Vision to Think. and visualization. Michelle Wallace Michelle Wallace is a product marketer at Tableau Software. and how storytelling can be adapted to incorporate data. interaction.

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