How to tell a story with data

How to tell a story with data

Stories are all around us. Growing up, we come across stories in books, in libraries, or through our parents and grandparents. But did you know you can tell stories with data? Join the Librarian Kevin says as he explores what data visualization is and how it helps tell stories about the world we live in.

As anyone who has looked at endless rows and columns in a spreadsheet can attest, collecting data is one thing; making sense is something else.

To help us understand and process the collected data, data scientists turn to what is called data visualization. It is usually a graphical representation of project results or data.

The data (usually in a large, bland table full of plain text and numbers) is translated into a visual form, allowing us to understand and interpret the data more easily. These visualizations help us explain data to an audience that needs to understand it better. Whether for stakeholders, potential customers, or students, data is visually illustrated to explain, elaborate, or elucidate—essentially, to tell a story.

Data visualization is not new. Think of the pie charts and bar charts that modern spreadsheets can easily create. However, nowadays we are able to go far beyond a simple pie chart. Technology has developed new ways of understanding and presenting data, resulting in more interactive and engaging ways of storytelling.

Augmented and virtual reality devices now allow us to explore data almost physically in 3D space. Take, for example, this TikTok video, which explains two simple patterns of how COVID-19 spreads. The data literally comes to life in front of you through augmented reality through your device, and you can physically walk around and interact with it. The result is an immersive and engaging way to understand an otherwise dry and academic subject.

Screenshot of an augmented reality demonstration of super-spreading events contributing to an R-value of 2 for a virus. Credit: Michael DiBenigno (, 2020. “Thank you @epidemiologistkat for continuing to communicate research-driven ideas…I’m just helping visualize them and share a story. #datastory #AR” . TikTok, November 4, 2020,

With a little creativity, almost anything – emotions, feelings, or even mundane topics – can be presented in beautiful visualizations. In 2015, two information designers Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec embarked on a data drawing project that presented their daily stories via data in postcards. The year-long project saw the two designers describe their lives to each other – even mundane details such as how often they laugh in a week – on postcards sent weekly. Postcards are a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns that could be an art form in themselves. They also released a book of the same title documenting their project.

A week of visualized laughter, and how to create or read it. Credit: Lupi, Georgia, & Posavec, Stefanie. 2017. “The Project”. Dear Data. Accessed November 10, 2022.

At, researchers aim to characterize a happiness index over a period of time. This is done using Twitter’s text mining and crowdsourced sentiment analysis. Changes in happiness are also measured by looking at how often positive or negative words are used. The daily index is labeled for significant incidents, so you can guess the state of happiness on special occasions and compare it with other days. Visually, this presents the pulse of the overall state of happiness over time.

Hedonometric graph of average happiness for Twitter in 2020. Credit: Computational Story Lab. “The Hedonometer.” Hedonometer. 2022.

This approach can even be applied to books or movie scripts, giving us interesting insight into the emotional highs and lows as readers or viewers progress through a story. A complex story like Wretched by Victor Hugo is naturally quite emotionally chaotic, whereas children’s films and animations tend to be less emotionally turbulent.

Happiness hedometer table in Wretched (left) and Wall-E (right) on the length of the respective book/script. Credit: Computational Story Lab. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Hedonometer. 2022. Computational History Lab. “Wall E.” Hedonometer. 2022.

Almost anything can be considered data. A little creativity is all it takes to imagine and visualize data in interesting ways, while technology makes this visualization a reality through the use of the latest software. This New Atlas article provides some examples of interesting applications when we transform data (such as air traffic, wind patterns, photographs, movie scenes, even time travel patterns) into beautiful works of art. ‘art.

“Air traffic paths over North America visualized in color and shape.” Credit: Aaron Koblin. “Flight Patterns” accessed May 11, 2022

I first discovered the beauty of data in 2006. Artist and computer scientist Jonathan Harris and his partner Sep Kamvar had produced “We Feel Fine”, a website that managed to beautifully and creatively capture insight of the world through the use of digital data. For example, tweets were visualized as circles or squares colored according to the emotions mentioned, forming a swirling rainbow mass of particles that can be filtered and explored, bringing a world of textual data to life. The same particles can be organized into rows of shared sentiments, sorted by the length of each tweet.

Messages organized into movements called “Madness” and “Mobs”. Credit: Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar. “Movements.” We Feel Fine, accessed November 17, 2022

Harris presented this work at a TED talk in 2007, after which he influenced some of the projects mentioned here.

Credit: Jonathan Harris. “The Secret Histories of the Web”. Also available on TED, March 2007

Data visualization has become even more important as data sets become even larger and more complex. Thanks to the proliferation of microchips everywhere, modern societies have the ability to collect vast seas of data on just about anything. Making all this data comprehensible has become a much more difficult task as a result.

In April 2022, I shared about big data and its relevance at A Librarian’s World, the National Library’s lecture series led by librarians. You can also find more interesting data visualization examples on the Information is Beautiful website. With the right understanding and a touch of inspiration, you too can produce your own creative data visualization, revealing a hidden story in the ever-growing world of data.

Further reading:
Adam Frost, Communicating with Data Visualization: A Practical Guide. (London: SAGE Publications, 2022). (Call number 001.4226 BOF)

Chip Heath and Karla Starr, Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers. (Avid Reader Press, 2022). (Call number 001.4226 HEA). Also available in eBook format.

David McCandless, Beautiful news. (London: William Collins, 2021). (Call number 031.0222 MAC). Also available in eBook format.

David McCandless. “The information is beautiful.” The information is beautiful, last revised April 21, 2022.

Dick Murray, Infographics: A History of Data Graphics in News and Communications. (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2020). (Call number 001.4226 DIC). Also available in eBook format.

Kevin says is a Librarian at the National Library of Singapore, where he oversees the business, science and technology collections. His interests lie in the overlaps between science, technology and society. In addition to managing the collections, its responsibilities also include content development and the provision of reference and research services.

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