What is data storytelling?

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Definition of data storytelling

Data is expanding in all directions, with huge volumes growing alongside almost every aspect of our lives. This makes the task of data analysis complex in itself, and coupled with this is the need to identify the most relevant information and communicate it in a clear, compelling way. This is data storytelling, the final component of data analysis and potentially the most important task.

Currently, there are plenty of business intelligence software options, all of which aim to help organisations analyse their most important data. But these tools usually have limitations. They tend to depict data using graphs and numbers, lacking the narrative that explains the trends behind them. Often manual analysis of the data is required, for instance by exporting it into Excel. And in-house IT departments can lack the resources to meet all an organisation’s reporting requirements.

The alternative is data storytelling. It builds a narrative to explain the “why” as well as the “what”, based on the data. It typically uses narrative text and visualisations to inform the audience:

  • A narrative, or story, is used to explain the data. Usually in the form of text, the narrative can also add context and recommend actions;
  • Visualisations, which are visual representations of the data, such as diagrams or maps, help to clearly communicate the main insights from the data.

The data becomes more engaging and more actionable. As researcher and author Brené Brown has noted, “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.”

Good examples of data storytelling

The impact of a record-breaking heat dome: Sparkgeo has created a data story about the effect on nature of the heat dome that formed over British Columbia in the summer of 2021. The story uses a range of formats to quickly convey the changes that occurred to wildlife and the landscape. It describes, using maps and text, how the heat dome created the warm and dry conditions needed to fuel the wildfire, which became the third worst wildfire season on record in terms of area burnt. The story also illustrates, using satellite imagery, that an unusually high number of fires came very close to populated areas.

Russia’s logistical issues in Ukraine: The Washington Post has created a simple, clear yet detailed story using text, graphics and satellite images to explain why the Russian invasion of Ukraine initially became mired in logistical issues. Graphics show the scale of weaponry and support logistics required by a typical military formation, supported by photographs and detailed text.

Food trends: Google uses its search data to create stories about all kinds of trends. In this story on food, interactive visualisations enable the user to explore seasonality across a range of food from chocolate mousse to rhubarb. Users can choose different months of the year, investigate defined categories such as year-round food and special occasion food, and click on each visualization to see more detailed analysis.

Extinction rates: Investigative journalists at ProPublica have created a highly visual story showing the rapid rate of extinction of Earth’s mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. The story uses interactive graphs to identify which species are most at risk. Sliders enable readers to look at the extinction risk of species families and then down to individual species. Text compares current extinction rates with historical rates.

A year’s charity work: Oxfam has created a compelling data story that uses maps and text to show the impact of the charity’s work across the world. Users can scroll through the maps to see the different types of support provided in the countries in which Oxfam operates, followed by information cards that show successful outcomes.