Some years ago I saw an infographic that changed the way I manage my organization’s social media presence in terms of frequency and interactions. Who Rules Social Media? A Look at Social Media Impact by Nonprofit Issues was developed by Craig Newmark and is still one of my favorite infographics of all time: stock-full of information, organized, attractive.
It was there that my love of infographics – or “data visualization” or “information design” – started. Simply put, it means taking data, organizing it, and making it visually digestible by converting it into various types of graphs, flowcharts, timelines, and maps. In my work I found them the perfect way to capture the complexities of technical information (which can become boring in a nondescript slide presentation) to audiences such as board members, funders, and the general public.
Why do infographics work well for development communications?
Using infographics to influence development policy is not new (think John Snow’s London cholera map in the 1850s), but is becoming increasingly popular as its power is unleashed by digital technology. This trend is expected to continue as we move towards what Heeks called a “digital nervous system for development”, a time when technology is no longer just a tool to enable certain aspects of development, but the platform that mediates development.
This increase in the importance of the ICT4D area might mean more data, and better analysis for understanding the causes and effects of complex issues. Development and humanitarian agencies face some of the most challenging problems confronting humankind, what ODI calls “wicked problems”: those difficult or impossible to solve because they’re complex, interdependent, and even contradictory. However more data and technology hasn’t necessarily been accompanied by better communication. I see it often when experts try to explain the Syrian war, the arms trade, or why inequalities keep growing despite decades of aid.
Infographics can give a helping hand in distilling development and aid issues. Research shows most people feel that infographics help them “think deeply about a subject” – have any of us thought about population in the same way after seeing Hans Rosling’s legendary talk? (“look at Bangladesh go!”)
Without having to read large amounts of text, the viewer can easily process information and is given the chance to explore a topic in a highly engaging way. Infographics have also been shown to address some of the problems caused by the disconnection between audience and technical authors, and audiences that don’t share languages and cultures.
Also, the human brain is hardwired to process visual information faster and retain it longer. In fact, the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual. Visualization can inform more efficiently and economically than a written or spoken narrative. This is especially true in the digital age, as research suggests a trend towards the reduction of attention and concentration spans, especially among heavy media users.
Risks of using infographics
We can easily argue that infographics promote transparency, since they share information and data generously and show rather than tell. But there’s another side to that argument. As Read, Taithe and Ginty pointed out, data visualization may be a less familiar form of rhetoric, but is non the less rhetorical: every infographic has authors and data gatherers with an agenda behind it. In a book I read recently, Ralph Schroeder also pointed out that states and the media currently have a particularly big role in the collection and shaping of data, especially the big data often used in development and aid-related visualizations. Whenever producing and distributing infographics, practitioners should take these influences in consideration.
My 4 favorite infographics for development (apart from Who Rules Social Media)
Are we spending too much on development and aid? Let’s put things into perspective with this eye-opening infographic by Information is Beautiful. Be prepared to go down the rabbit hole, as you explore their infographic collection, such as the classics Colours and Culture and 20th Century Death. For another great visualization on military vs. aid spending, see Grenade or Aid.
This extraordinary interactive visualization by Nikola Sander, Guy J. Abel & Ramon Bauer allows you to explore migration flows between and within regions for five-year periods, from 1990 to 2010. I hope an update is in the works!
This infographic by USAID proves that you don’t need interactive bells and whistles to deliver successful visual storytelling. It creates a clear and strong narrative with attractive visuals.
Perhaps less visually attractive than most, the Shit Flow Diagram is a classic in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector where I work. Funded by Gates Foundation and led by Arne Panesar, it’s an easy-to-understand advocacy tool that offers a way of visualizing excreta management in cities, to be used in presentations, reports and publications. Every city can develop its own Diagram by filling out a simple questionnaire.
Want to build your own infographic? Some free tools:
- 13 incredible tools for creating infographics
- Webinar: Illustrations and Infographics for Digital Storytelling
- Google tools for infographic creation
- Ebook: How to make an Infographic
What are your favorite infographics for advocacy in development or aid? Do you use infographics in your work and have any tips to share?