This man says better data communication is key to making stronger city policy

"What’s important is to think about how a policymaker, a practitioner or a group within a local area gets that data and understands it to help them improve the policy they’re interested in," says the Urban Institute's Jon Schwabish.

From traffic flows to housing figures, researchers, advocacy groups and city leadership are collecting growing amounts of urban data to better understand the ways in which cities do and don’t work.

Making hard data useful and communicating it in a way that makes sense to policymakers and their constituents, however, is a skill in itself. And that skill is a speciality of Jon Schwabish, a senior fellow at Washington-based Urban Institute. Through his work at the institute and his website PolicyViz, Schwabish trains city officials and others in how to better analyze, present and visualize their data.

[See: Three ways cities are using data to guide decision-making]

Citiscope correspondent Brendon Bosworth spoke with Schwabish about how local authorities and others working on urban issues can improve how they present and communicate their data. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Brendon Bosworth: In discussions about global agreements on urban development, a common point is that local and national governments need to be making evidence-based policy decisions that are grounded in reliable, accurate, timely data. Having sound urban data is one thing, but being able to present it in a way that makes it useable and relevant to policymakers is another. How important is effective data visualization for policymaking at the local level?

Jon Schwabish: Conceptually, I would say it’s a little broader than just data visualization. It’s more about data communication. We’ve been visualizing data for a long time; we’ve been making charts for a long time. It’s now easier to make charts, because there are more tools and they’ve gotten better. What’s important is to think about how a policymaker, a practitioner or a group within a local area gets that data and understands it to help them improve the policy they’re interested in.

Let’s take a simple example: I write a blog post about the Sustainable Development Goals, and I include a column chart. We all see column charts every day. You can improve how that column chart looks with some basic design things, like not using 3-D and not adding all this other clutter. I think that’s all great. But to make a chart like that effective and more useful for people is to make it a more active chart. Instead of saying, “Figure 1: Column chart of the development goals for these 40 countries,” say something like, “In this figure, notice how this country has met the goals and these other 29 countries have not.”

[See: What do Quito residents think about Habitat III? This data project has the answers.]

Oftentimes, people spend a lot of time writing, and the graphic comes last — it’s just sort of whipped together in a few minutes. Those things should really hang together more; they’re a package. The visuals and the text work together to help convey the message that the content creator or researcher is trying to get across.

Q: What are the biggest challenges that policymakers face when it comes to data communication?

“Open data isn’t just putting data on the web but about making data usable for people.”

A: Policymakers, whether they’re local, state, regional or federal, have a lot of responsibilities and a lot they need to be paying attention to. Their attention for any particular topic may be limited. For those of us who are trying to get research or data in front of them, we need to be thinking about an audience that has limited time. We need to be thinking about the headline number, the bottom-line message, the statistic or fact, the thing that those policymakers need to help understand the topic or issue. Oftentimes, researchers get stuck a bit in the nuance and the weeds of the research, but for many policymakers, it’s about the bottom line. It’s about why they should do this, why should they enact this particular policy, how should they enact this particular policy and oftentimes, how much does it cost.

Q: On the flip side, what do you see as the challenges policymakers might face in explaining what they’re doing for the public?

A: At least in the U. S., more and more elected officials have websites. They may have some kind of “open data” portal. I think that’s a challenge at the local level, where the elected official may not have the skills or resources to build a website or a tool where people can get into the data.

The other thing is, a lot of times what one might call “data” is really a report from a committee or a bill. It’s a hard thing to visualize a 500-page legislative text. How do you distil that down, so that your constituents really understand what’s in the bill and how it’s going to affect their lives? That’s a big challenge, and I don’t necessarily know how to solve it. But I would say that transparency in general is one of the ways in which policymakers can help get information to their constituents so that their constituents can better understand the issues and how policy is going to affect their lives.

Q: What is the biggest mistake you see people make when presenting data?

A: I think the biggest thing that people do wrong is they don’t think about their audience. A lot of people, regardless of whether they’re researchers, policymakers or practitioners, think that every audience is the same and every audience has the same needs. That’s just not the case.

“A lot of people, regardless of whether they’re researchers, policymakers or practitioners, think that every audience is the same and every audience has the same needs. That’s just not the case.”

The other thing people tend to forget is that they’re well versed in the topic that they’re talking about, but that the people who are reading it or listening to them talk may not know anything about the topic. That’s the biggest thing I see: a failure to recognize that audiences have different levels of expertise, different levels of interest, and sometimes you need to guide the user, reader or audience through a particular topic. Not dumbing it down, but just walking them through so they can follow the writing or presentation, and be able to make better decisions and understand the content.

[See: Multimedia project shows the ever-changing shape of cities]

Q: How can city leadership go about creating and nurturing a culture of data in local governments?

A: One thing that’s really important is to have knowledge- and information-sharing. You have cities that have done a really good job of creating open-data portals, working with small business and practitioners, and other cities can learn from those experiences. Those cities, while they’re successful now, I’m sure they went through some learning curve and had a lot of missteps along the way.

You have new technologies, new data and new ways to release data and information to people. It may not be the case that people on the staff of a city government know how to use those technologies, or they may not know what the best technology is. Information-sharing is one of the most important things that cities can use to release information and data to the public.

Q: If a local government asked you for advice on putting together a data communications team that would be responsible for analyzing and presenting city data to the mayor, other policymakers and the public, what would you recommend they do?

A: I could give you a list of people, like they should build a whole team, but the problem is not everybody has the money to hire six people or whatever it is. Staffing concerns are an issue.

The important thing is to not try to find a [single] person to do everything. A lot of people think they’re going to find this “unicorn” [Schwabish refers to people who are good at programming, design and statistics but “don’t exist” as unicorns] that’s going to be able to do all the great data analysis, the great data visualization and create the great interactive thing, all the social media and the blogging — I think that’s not the way to go. It’s about building teams and getting those teams close to the analysts but also getting them close to the decision-makers so they can get the information.

[See: Photo-powered ‘urban diaries’ offer visual tool for guiding change]

For data visualization, there are three core skill sets: statistics, design and, for interactive visualizations, programming languages. But that’s just for data viz, so there are obviously more: For data analytics, collection, editing, you might need photo and data visualization for online stuff. A lot of these skills can be learned, so it’s not always necessary to find a person who does [one] thing. It’s not necessarily about hiring new people. It’s about finding teams and enabling people within the organization to feel free to think creatively and more strategically about how they’re going to communicate their data.

Q: In recent years, we’ve seen a bit of a shift towards open data, including in city governments. How can city governments make sure that the data they release through open-data initiatives is usable for citizens?

A: Open data isn’t just putting data on the web but about making data usable for people. There are two parts: One is making the data useful, which means not necessarily using PDFs if it’s quantitative data. The second part is that the interface that’s used is easy to use, familiar and intuitive. CSV files might be useful if your goal is to reach researchers, but it might not be easy for the random dad who wants to understand traffic patterns in his neighbourhood, or how many kids go to his kid’s school or something like that. There are lots of new technologies, companies and portals that are trying to make that easier to do. Again, it’s all about thinking about the audience.

Q: With governments and the private sector collecting and working with increasing amounts of data, how do you see the future of data visualization playing out when it comes to policymaking?

A: When I started really getting into data visualization, I helped created an infographic on a 60-page research report. When the author of that report went to brief the policymaker, the policymaker and the staff walked in with printouts of the infographic. They didn’t bring the report — they brought printouts of the infographic. I think that demonstrates for policymakers where we’re going to evolve. We’ve now gone from the 60-page paper to the infographic. I think now what we’re going to see is that policymakers and their staff are going to be bringing in their computers or tablets to look at the visualization or look at the data in real time.

[See: Yes, ‘govtech’ can change the way cities function]

Fairly quickly we’ll be getting to the point where they’re going to want to explore [the static infographic] even more. So you’re going to have the infographic that has a little column chart on it — they’re going to want to be able to click on the columns, and it will drill down a little bit. It goes back to what I said earlier: They have limited amount of time. But if you’re giving them an infographic or the top-line numbers and the bottom-line statistics, now you’re enabling them to drill into it.

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Brendon Bosworth is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Cape Town. Full bio

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