Four Fundamentals for a great Data Visualization: Insights From a Data Journalist
September 6, 2023
Reflecting on his time as a judge at DataFest Africa’s VizQuest Challenge in Kampala, Uri Ludger shares the basics of what makes for a great data visualisation and how to take your story to the next level

At the end of June, members of the Africa Data Hub team joined Pollicy’s VizQuest Challenge event in Kampala. The challenge provided participating individuals and teams with mentoring and support as they created data visualisations on key local issues. The one-day in-person event was both the adjudication and prize-giving ceremony of the eight teams. You can read more about the event here

As a judge of the contestants, I had the incredible opportunity to witness first-hand the uptake of data storytelling in Uganda. I found myself immersed in a world where data visualisation took centre stage, sparking excitement and anticipation in me (and I am sure others) for the future of data journalism.

What is Data Visualization?

Before delving into the insights gathered from VizQuest Uganda, let's take a moment to understand what data visualisation actually is. At its core, visualising data  is a powerful technique to represent complex data sets visually, using charts, graphs, maps, and other visual elements. The goal is to make intricate information more accessible, understandable, and engaging for a wide range of audiences.

Picture this: You're presented with a spreadsheet with a company’s running expenses; full of numbers, dates, and percentages - data that might seem overwhelming and confusing at first glance. Now, imagine that same data is plotted across different years and you can immediately pick out the trends, comparisons and patterns over time. This process of simplifying and clarifying data through visual representation is the essence of data visualisation and can be applied to any context. 

Data visualisation has served as a fundamental tool in the journalist's arsenal for decades, helping to transform complex information into understandable narratives. In an era characterised by an unprecedented deluge of data and information, the role of data visualisation in journalism has become even more pivotal to help audiences understand the story. 

While delivering the verdict from the many great submissions at VizQuest, I highlighted four fundamentals of data visualisation to elevate your story and have the impact you’re looking for. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a good starting point in your journey. You can also check out the winning Data Viz presentations from Viz Quest to get an idea of the challenge we had as judges (First Place, Second Place)! 

The Four Fundamentals of a Great Data Visualisation:

  1. Simplicity:
    In a world bombarded with information, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. A compelling data visualisation should effortlessly guide the viewer's eye and mind, unravelling complex datasets with clarity. Less is often more, and the art lies in carefully curating the information presented. A cluttered visualisation overwhelms while a well-organised one invites exploration.

    By using clean lines, careful colour palettes and well-chosen elements, you can transform intricate data into an accessible and easy-to-understand narrative. Simplicity also extends to the choice of chart types. Remember to always opt for the graph that best aligns with the data's message and avoid the allure of unnecessary embellishments.
  1. Test for Instant Understanding (The Two-Second Rule)
    Imagine a passerby glancing at your visualisation for a mere two seconds - would they understand it immediately? If not, it's time to refine your design. A successful data visualisation should be instantly understandable with the main takeaway jumping out effortlessly to your reader. Testing your visualisation on others and allowing their feedback to clarify your design will ensure that the narrative isn't lost in translation. 
  1. It’s All About the Story
    Data visualisation isn't just about presenting facts; it's about weaving those facts into a compelling narrative. A powerful visualisation connects the dots, revealing insights and trends that might have otherwise remained hidden. Consider your visualisation as a part of a broader story and ensure that it aligns seamlessly with the story you're trying to tell.

    Much like a writer builds tension and resolution in a story, a data visualisation should take the viewer on a journey - from curiosity to understanding. Your visualisation should be a visual subplot within a larger context contributing meaningfully to the overarching narrative.
  1. Credit Your Data Sources (to Build Trust and Transparency)
    Data is the backbone of any data visualisation and acknowledging the sources from which you draw your data is paramount. By crediting your data sources, you not only validate the authenticity of your visualisation but also promote transparency, integrity and trust in your story. In an age where misinformation spreads easily, maintaining credibility through proper sourcing is a crucial step in establishing trust with your audience.

Remember that data has the power to change your story, but poorly represented data may distract or confuse your reader from your carefully crafted narrative. Applying these principles has the potential to take your story to the next level and can therefore drive change, inspire action and reshape perspective.

Are you working on a story and need support with your data visualisation? Reach out to us on for hands-on support.

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