How data visualisation can have social impact
‘The Lady with the Lamp’ is an enduring symbol of the UK’s compassion and dedicated professionalism. Florence Nightingale is probably the most famous British nurse in history but what also stood out about her was her fastidious dedication to collecting data, then transforming her findings into hard hitting visualisation to sway public opinion and influence policy makers. This week we will explore how well organised data can have a social impact in conversation with our User Experience Designer, Jack Palmer and Implementation Manager, Zoe Banks.
Reducing complex collections of numbers and measurements into lucid and user-friendly interfaces has been a way that humankind have distilled the complex messages of data for centuries. One of the first ways of doing this, and one of the most recognisable data forms in the present day, are maps. When harnessed correctly and presented clearly, data and statistics can impact how communities behave and receive services.
Computers and digital tools have allowed us to track a huge amount of measurements and establish patterns and insights that the human brain just isn’t able to fathom. Jack Palmer explains that sometimes the human brain “just can’t. There is such a sheer bulk of numbers you couldn’t possibly sift through it all, you’d need some kind of assistance to get through it. Whereas tools allow people to say: ‘this is our number one priority’; it gives them enough information to make a clear decision.”
Looking at this in action, we can take the example of Florence Nightingale, a shining symbol of our country’s health system. During her time serving in the Crimean War, Nightingale was shocked at the number of servicemen dying not as a result of action, but from preventable diseases caused by the lack of basic hygiene practices. She transformed their fates by using techniques, which are today the foundations of the health system: hand washing and sterilising linen. Upon her return, her bids to the UK government to legislate these changes were largely ignored. So, using the data available to her, she evidenced the effectiveness of hygiene related practices on the frontline by releasing her Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East both to decision makers and to the general public.
The capacity of her design to illustrate the pain points that existed in frontline medicine assisted Nightingale in overcoming governmental inaction and achieving the commencement of a Royal Commission on the health of the army. The effects of which, revolutionised sanitation practices in war and civilian hospitals and are still integral in medicine today.
“It is not the technique of her crafts that makes her a hero. It is how she integrated them in successful service of her noble goal: hospital reform.”
Why is this relevant in today’s landscape? Put simply, understanding statistics and presenting them responsibly can persuade organisations to do the right thing. One of the ways in which we work in the development of our products at Housing Partners, is to take “raw data and work out if it’s trying to show a comparison, or basic count of information or a trend over time.” Jack explains that from there the aim is to work out “the best way to show that information off. Often simpler is better. Don’t try and re-invent the wheel! If people are used to a bar chart, then it might not be the most exciting, but use a bar chart.” Simple and attractive data visualisations should be aides to robust decision making. They should be easy to share with those that both support and oppose a particular strategy to “try and show [data] in a way that is clear, but, also concise. You don’t want to have a page that’s absolutely dripping with information because then it’s very easy to get overwhelmed by it.”
“The great frustration in social housing management is that a lot of the data housing associations could be tracking already exists, if only it could be accessed more readily and viewed in a way that delivers actionable insight. This might involve detecting patterns in data overlaid from different sources”
What the ‘Nightingale Rose’ achieved, was to condense social data into actionable insights that fuelled institutional change. Implementation Manager Zoe Banks describes how this approach works on our HomeSwapper platform: “The Reporting tools have data visualisation in the form of Venn diagrams called ‘Analytics’. Say if a manager was in need of some figures like, how many tenants are female, in employment and in over-crowded accommodation, to identify at-risk tenancies, HomeSwapper Analytics collates this information and pinpoints the exact number of cases. From there a customer can then decide who to prioritise or build an action plan for.”
We live in an increasingly complex, digital environment; the ability to collate information and create visualisations to evidence what we care about is essential to drive better decision making to improve people’s lives. “At the end of the day,’ Jack explains, ‘the people who are using our tools want the same things we do. We want to help as much as possible those who are in need of it the most. So, to be able to see clearly who you need to help, and then who is in the most need helps our customers in forming decisions and helps them to take action. You don’t know what you need to do until you can see the problem.”