November 6, 2009, 4:04 pm

Making Your Data Intuitive

By Lisa Agustin

How can we make data intuitive–that is, so it “hits home”?  We’ve posted previously on the technique of making large numbers meaningful by using a clever or shocking image.  But this method has its limitations.  A big number explained with a visual analogy may get people to say “Hey, you’re right, that IS a big number.”  But in order to get the audience to act (rather than just react), it takes extra effort to translate that statistic into something they can relate to on a personal level.

Consider the funding coming through the U.S. government’s Recovery Act: $787 billion. Sure, that sounds like a lot of money.  But is it too much?  Too little?  It depends.  Authors Dan Heath and Chip Heath explain it this way:

How can you relate to this monstrous figure in the daily-life zone?  Well, there are roughly 112 million households in the United States, with a median household income of about $50,000. So an $800 billion stimulus works out to be the rough equivalent of seven weeks’ income for an American household. Is that worth it? By way of comparison, we already work three or four months a year just to pay our federal, state, and local taxes. So maybe this seems like a no-brainer to you: seven weeks’ worth of work to stave off a potential depression. Or maybe you’re appalled. Regardless, we can finally have a real argument, because we have a better idea of what we’re arguing about.

Well said.

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Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Visual Explanation

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