Seeing Is Believing: Persuasion via Data Visualization

This week's post "From the Executive Director's Desk" points out the growing importance of data visualization in the world today. What is your school doing to take advantage of this powerful tool? -- SD

[20-min read]

What’s the hottest job field in the US now?  The answer, according to Glassdoor and Infoworld, is that of data scientist, those who interpret and analyze data and then communicate those findings to the larger community. What’s the job of a data scientist? The role can be described as part database engineer, part sociologist, part statistician, part communications with a dash of historian.

When done well, data visualization presents all relevant information to decision-makers, both the negative with the positive. This presentation gives the viewer a contrast on which to base conclusions and subsequent actions. Most of us are familiar with the basic presentation style, a pie chart, a line graph, or even a basic infographic. However, data scientists have developed increasingly sophisticated visualization tools that make for compelling viewing. A wonderful site for sharing what the work of data scientists looks like is Information is Beautiful. Warning--you may lose several hours browsing the site.

Is data visualization new? Hardly. There’s a reason for the old saying “a picture’s worth a thousand words.” Artists have used political cartoons for centuries to convey complex conflicts in a few ink strokes. So what’s different now? I would argue that it is the combination of the sheer volume of specific data available along with the rapid changes our society is undergoing in every sector: education, politics, arts, business, and more.  

What role should data science play in independent schools? We have known for a while that we now live in an era in which we are surrounded by (drowning in?) massive quantities of raw data. While many of us may feel stymied regarding how to meaningfully respond to the data in our world, the technology already exists to sort, sift, and visualize this data in ways we couldn’t have imagined just ten years ago. What are the indicators and warning flags that we should have on our communities? Besides the anecdotal evidence we rely on, what dashboards are missing from our schools?

Recently, I had the chance to hear Donna Orem, NAIS President and ATLIS 2018 Keynote Speaker, speak at the Southern Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference on the topic of the Third Education Revolution. During her talk, Orem raised the point that “it’s hard for us to get our heads around what the massive growth in computing power will change next.” So, we’re caught in a paradox; we know we’re living in a time of dramatic change, but we don’t know what is going to change next. How can we avoid being paralyzed by the volume of data combined with this lack of clarity? Data scientists to the rescue!

One example Orem shared will resonate with anyone who has been caught in a traffic jam; the development of GPS gave us electronic maps, but the programmers of Waze brought us up to the minute advice on how to best get where we’re going. How can technology leaders adopt the methods of data scientists in order to connect with other campus leaders to clarify the path forward?

Scott Berinato is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review and the host of a series of webinars and articles focused on data visualization for business leaders. Berinato says “the ability to create smart data visualizations was once a nice-to-have skill. But in today’s complex business world, where the amount of data is overwhelming, being able to create and communicate through compelling data visualizations is a must-have skill.”

One supporter of this notion that visualization is a must-have skill is Kawai Lai, founder of VizLit. Lai believes that “the ability to think and communicate visually is our most valuable skill,” and that this capacity is not dependent solely on artistic talent, but rather on clear thinking and the ability to share that thinking visually, often by using technology. Her organization is focused on helping educators work with students to build their skills in communicating complex systems through simple visuals.

We’re not just talking the talk, but we are walking the walk here at ATLIS. For the past two years, ATLIS has offered our members the opportunity to implement the Technology Impact and Efficacy (TIE) Assessment. Participating schools receive a report that explains the strengths of the technology program at school along with targeted areas for growth. In the past, this report was focused on the supporting text and did not provide a graphic overview for readers.

For the 2018-2019 TIE Report, ATLIS worked with data scientists to develop a more visually compelling version of the assessment schools receive. This updated format is still based on the predictive analytics that provide insight into technology performance and still includes a number of pages of text. However, the more visually sophisticated format is one that technology directors can bring directly to an administrative team meeting. School leadership teams can then more quickly arrive at the “aha” moment that leads to both strategic decisions and tactical planning.

How will you build your data visualization skills this year?

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