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Data Storytelling 101: What it is, and why it matters for higher ed

October 16, 2020

The pressure on higher education institutions to allocate resources efficiently and contain costs while advancing student progress is growing, placing more importance than ever on data-informed decisions. Data storytelling can be a powerful tool to guide data users in their decision-making.

This post introduces the concept of data storytelling and why it matters for higher education—as well as three barriers that make data storytelling difficult to accomplish on many campuses.

What is data storytelling?

Data storytelling is a method of communicating information that pairs data with visualization and narrative tailored to a particular audience.

Data storytelling in action

To illustrate, I’ll start with two seemingly unrelated examples: a 19th century cholera outbreak and a digital music service.

166 years before the New York Times and the Centers for Disease Control were tracking our current pandemic with interactive digital maps, a physician in London used a hand-made prototype of those data visualizations to stop the spread of a particularly severe outbreak of cholera. Author Steven Johnson details the story in his book The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World: In 1854, John Snow used a combination of data visualization and patient stories to prove that spread through contaminated water and not—as was commonly thought—dirty air. Snow used a map to plot the location of known cases, finding them clustered around a particular water pump. Working with a local minister, Snow interviewed patients and their families, learning how local habits were perpetuating the outbreak.

Another interesting example is Spotify’s Year in Review. Every year, the music platform shows users their own listening history in a series of visualizations. Paired with personalized copy like “we’ve spent some serious quality time together” to describe how many minutes of music you listen to per year, what could be dry data becomes exciting. The Year in Review is also easy to share—and, indeed, Spotify visualizations take over many social media feeds when the feature appears each December.

This isn’t just fun data visualization: it’s effective marketing for Spotify. After the 2019 Year in Review campaign, The Verge published an article highlighting Apple Music users on Twitter who wanted to switch to Spotify to get their own “year in review.”

Why does data storytelling matter for higher education?


According to psychologist Jerome Bruner, people remember stories 22 times better than facts alone
According to psychologist Jerome Bruner, people remember stories 22 times better than facts alone

Data storytelling can help improve the decisions people make with data. Effective visualization points data consumers to the most important trends or figures, while the use of narrative creates a connection between people and data. Humans respond instinctively to stories, and sharing experiences makes your point more personally meaningful for your data consumer. Visuals and narrative engage both sides of the brain, helping to cement new information. A commonly cited statistic from cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner suggests people remember stories 22 times better than facts alone.

The ability to present data in a clear and compelling way is crucial as institutions increasingly turn to data to provide answers amid shrinking budgets and enrollment decline. Data storytelling helps data consumers home in on the most important information and focus on the impact of decisions.

What makes data storytelling difficult?

Data storytelling begins with data—it requires consumers and storytellers to be able to access, understand, interpret, and trust institutional data. But many campus data teams struggle to provide data for decision-support due to these common barriers: 

A complex technology ecosystem limits data access

As the number of data and analytics systems on campus grows, data is increasingly siloed. Data users must rely on source system experts to get the data they need, leading to a backlog of ad hoc requests.

Lack of central data governance leads to inconsistent figures

Without a university-wide strategy that spans people, process, and technology, institutions often operate with different data practices and definitions in each unit, leading to conflicting figures.

Different levels of data literacy result in misinterpretations

Without training or support, less data-savvy stakeholders may attach the incorrect meaning to data, cherry-pick data to support their points, or struggle to formulate the right questions for analysis.

Adopting data storytelling as a way to communicate data can help leaders across campus understand and use data better. As higher education enters an era of rapid change, being able to pair data with narrative and context will help leaders remain focused not only on data but on the broader impact their decisions have on students and institutions. We continue to explore how our partners are using data storytelling on campus and we’ll be sharing strategies in an upcoming blog post.

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