Data visualization and storytelling


How data visualization can help you communicate effectively

We recreated some of the IPCC's climate charts and this is what we learned

“An image is worth a thousand words” the saying goes, but when referring to data visualization that number quickly scales. The power of graphics relies on their ability to quickly communicate considerable amounts of data in a fairly small space and, sometimes, even at a glance. Good charts show trends and insights easily, but even better charts give the reader the chance to explore those findings further.

The recently published “Climate Change 2021” report is a great example of how data visualization can help get your point across. Published by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), the report has been called “a code red for humanity” by UN Secretary General António Guterres. Given the importance of this topic for all humans, it was of utmost importance for this report to effectively communicate its point accross the world.

Besides the quality of the research and its accessible writing style, the document includes several charts that demonstrate the current and future state of the planet, making its findings quickly available to readers. These charts provide more depth into an already complicated topic while also making some of the insights more digestible for readers. The steep lines and dark red colors depict a scary reality: the planet is warming quickly.

American statistician and data visualization master Edward Tufte said that charts achieve a level of graphical excellence when they manage to communicate information clearly, effectively and precisely to others. In a previous blog post, we went over some of the elements that can make a chart more compelling and accurate. Now, we’ve decided to showcase the communicative power of data visualization by recreating some of the charts from the “Climate Change 2021” report and sharing some of the lessons we learned while doing so.

Zooming in: from general context to specific details

Let’s take a look at some of the graphics we recreated using Flourish’s Line, Bar, Pie template.

The report claims that human actions have warmed the climate at an unprecedented rate in the last 2000 years and we can see this clearly represented by the steep increase of the lines since 1850, which have been highlighted in the X axis.

In the second chart, we take a closer look at the past 170 years, almost as if we were zooming into the previous chart. By focusing on this smaller section we can better understand what's driving the increasing temperatures in the planet. We now know greenhouse gas emissions are one of the main drivers of temperature increase, but how much?

This chart compares the role of natural factors in the temperature increase of the planet,

to human and natural factors. This effective use of color and stacked lines help readers compare the two factors and it draws a clear conclusion: human activities have played a much higher role in the planet's increasing temperatures.

With these two charts we went from seeing an overview of the historical temperatures of the Earth and how quickly have they been increasing, to understanding how much humans have got to do with that phenomenon.

Single chart comparisons: using color to highlight differences

Besides looking back at what has happened, the report also glances forward to what our future could look like. More specifically, the report presents the so-called “Five futures,” which are simulations that model the global temperatures from now until the year 2100 depending on different factors such as population size and CO2 emissions.

Each of these scenarios is called a Shared Socioeconomic Path, an SSP, and they are ordered from most to least desirable. Let’s see how thew all look:

Each line represents one path and they are each colored depending on much the temperature increases. The lighter blue line simulates a cooler future, whereas a darker red one represents a worst-case scenario with scorching temperatures.

The first path relies on zero emissions by 2050. This is the most optimistic scenario and probably the hardest to achieve. Even after cutting emissions, the planet would still see a temperature increase of around 1.4º Celsius in the coming decades.

The second path also relies on cutting greenhouse gas and CO2 emissions to net zero by 2050, but it estimates temperatures 1.8ºC hotter by the end of the century.

The third path, which estimates greenhouse gas and CO2 emissions staying roughly the same as they are now but not reaching net zero before 2100, is the first scenario to surpass the 2ºC warming mark.

The fourth path is the second worse scenario projected. Here, temperatures could increase by an average of 3.6ºC by the end of the century.

Lastly, the fifth scenario showcases a bleak future with a planet 4.4ºC warmer on average. These scorching temperatures could arrive if the current emission levels double by 2050 and 2100.

After looking at this chart, not only are readers more aware of the potential futures humanity could face, but they become more conscious of the differences between each scenario. The decimal numbers of future temperatures are put into context.

Simplification: less data doesn’t make a message less compelling

So far we’ve seen charts with a high data density. However, the report also includes good examples of “lighter” charts that also carry strong messages. A series of hex maps in the report represent the global scope of climate change. We’ve recreated them using one of our premium templates. (Get in touch with our sales team to learn more!)

Each hexagon represents a geographic region and they change colors depending on whether that region has seen changes in their weather or climate extremes. This simplified version of a world map allows us to see patterns more quickly.

For example, here we can see how almost all regions on Earth have already seen increases in their highest temperatures or hot extremes, which is a driver to natural disasters like wildfires.

Agricultural and ecological droughts have also risen on most regions, affecting Africa, parts of Asia and Europe the most.

Similarly, Asia and Europe have also seen increases in heavy precipitation, made evident by the recent floods in Germany and China.

Including these charts truly amplified the report’s message and it also helped readers understand the underlying data better.

Far from allowing us to showcase our data in an eye-catching way, the main purpose of data visualizations should always be to communicate something and to explain complex ideas to others. Alberto Cairo, a professor at the University of Miami and Knight Chair in Visual Journalism, wrote in his book The Functional Art: “The first goal of an infographic is not to be beautiful just for the sake of eye appeal, but, above all, to be understandable first, and beautiful after that; or to be beautiful thanks to its exquisite functionality.”

When used correctly, data visualization can make a difference to how our ideas are interpreted and understood. Is there something you are trying to communicate to others? Perhaps a chart is the solution you are looking for.

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