Data Visualization 101: Five Places for Associations to Start

Want to build a simple chart? Aiming to get ambitious with interactive graphics? Something in between—or entirely different? Data visualization has value for your association.

Whether your goal is to better explain an issue to your members, highlight an interesting trend, or just get a better handle internally on how your organization works, data visualization is an effective way to simplify complex information.

But if you don’t already have an internal staff or team for it, data visualization can feel like a massive lift on top of an already busy cycle.

There are different strategies to bring data visualization to your organization and its members. Some of these can be simple, while others require more groundwork. Read on for a few starting points:

1. Build a Simple Chart or Graph

Let’s say you have some data points in an Excel file that you want to visualize in some way. Once you grasp the basics—say, understanding when to use a bar chart over a pie chart—you’re left with a simple, powerful way to share data in a basic form.

A great place to start if you just want to build something without taking a deep dive into data-visualization software is the typeface FF Chartwell, a tool that helps users produce line graphs, pie charts, and bar charts without a bunch of additional work. It can be a great shortcut for presenting data in a social-media-friendly format.

Another helpful tool is Canva, which offers drag-and-drop graphic capabilities that someone without a thorough understanding of data visualization can use. (PowerPoint and Excel can also work for this in a pinch.)

Of course, if you have a graphics pro or two on your team, you can scale up your ambitions, perhaps via tools such as Adobe Illustrator. After all, data visualization really came into its own thanks to the infographics that appeared in newspapers and were built using Illustrator and other tools.

2. Use a Business Intelligence Tool

A simple chart can be a DIY project. But when you’re working with a larger amount of data, it may be worth investing in technology that specializes in parsing complex information and rendering it in an easy-to-digest format. That’s where a business intelligence tool comes in.

In recent years, Tableau and Microsoft’s Power BI have emerged as powerful tools for transforming data into engaging formats that allow for additional context that the numbers on the page might not offer on their own.

Using these cloud-based tools to further slice and dice data points can also help dig into complex data sets and potentially highlight trends that might not be obvious on their own—the fundamental element of big data.

3. Lean on Your Research Team

If your association has a research squad, ask them what research they most want to see in the world and let their expertise guide you to the right format for your audience. And remember that data visualization can expand that audience to members, partners, journalists—when your research is available in a comprehensible way, you further your goals without burying the public in data. A good example of this is CompTIA’s new Quick Stats feature, which allows the association to share curated data points (presented in both simple and more complex graphical forms) with its members and the public.

4. Build an Interactive Dashboard

Data visualization comes in handy when tying data to organizational operations. People who are closely involved in the ins and outs of your operations may benefit from business intelligence tools on this front, but others may find it a bit dense.

Those people might appreciate an interactive dashboard that they can easily refer to at the drop of a hat. For example, a dashboard connecting website visits to member engagement can paint a clear picture of the operational impact of your organization’s work for your board and staff. While these can be built through more complicated means, they’re also key features of platforms such as Google Analytics.

It can also be a way to help skeptical leaders make better decisions, as Association Analytics CEO Julie Sciullo told Associations Now in 2020.

“If you can understand the data behind a business and how it ties to the operations, you could really understand how to control the outcomes you’re going to get,” she said.

5. Tell a Data-Driven Story

This one may be a stretch goal, but it’s worth it: Have you ever dug into a New York Times chart or map and found yourself with a far deeper understanding of an issue?

Your association can do the same, taking what can feel like a dry or data-heavy topic and making it approachable. By explaining important information in an accessible way, you increase understanding and encourage people to share the information more broadly than it might be if it were just text on a page.

This can take lots of roles—the visualizations can be presented within industry reports, as white papers, or even as interactive graphics within journalistic reporting for your association’s outlets.

The results can be used for marketing, advocacy, even fundraising—strong data presentation can make for a more compelling pitch to donors by tying mission to impact.

A data-driven story still needs to be a story, though. Resist the urge to overcomplicate the data points. If a chart is confusing, find ways to simplify it so the key points are clear.

(Fourleaflover/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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