SA2020’s New Website: Storytelling with Data

We all care about our community. But sometimes it feels like we have to be a data scientist or policy wonk to fully understand the issues that we and our neighbors face. And for people who are data scientists and policy wonks, knowing how to communicate with regular folks can be hard. This is what makes SA2020 such a valuable nonprofit to San Antonio — because they understand how to take big, important, complicated issues and tell the story in a way that’s meaningful to everyone.

In 2010, our city set a list of goals for its future. SA2020 is the nonprofit that drives progress toward that shared vision for a thriving San Antonio. They report on community indicators, inform and activate the public, and align efforts toward the community’s goals. This January, they released their impact report for 2018. With the help of some amazing people (Chris Welch at USAA, Emily Bowe from Overland Partners, and Wes Dunn from right here at Jungle Disk), I helped them make that report into an interactive website.

One primary goal of the impact report, and particularly the website, was to share the data in a way that makes people think. Instead of seeing a number going up or down, we want people to think, “Why is this number going up or down? How was this number collected? What’s the rest of the story?” Ultimately, we want people to get so curious that they take action, and get involved.

I knew right away that we needed to visualize the data. Human minds process visual information faster than written information, and we know that we’re competing for our visitors attention down to the millisecond. It’s been reported that It only takes us 150 milliseconds to process a symbol, and 100 milliseconds to attach a meaning to it. Visuals also help us understand concepts better. One study found that people following instructions with illustrations do 323% better than people using instructions with text alone. We also have tons of evidence that shows, despite our best efforts, people just don’t read thoroughly online. A 2008 study found that “On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.” And that was over 10 years ago. We have to accept that online, people skim at best, or they skip past text altogether.

I also wanted our visuals to be interactive. In addition to just creating a higher likelihood of engagement in a noisy, attention-grabbing environment, we know from the psychology of learning that we learn the best when we can get our hands dirty. Even just hovering and clicking can invoke the perception-action cycle of the brain that results in deeper learning. I wanted people to be able to explore the full breadth of the information in a way that was exciting, led to deeper understanding and sparked curiosity.

To build the data visuals, I used Highcharts.js and customized each chart to suit the information therein. I also built a modular template structure with a CMS — because they are the master storytellers, they needed flexibility in their templates to be able to tailor their content to the story they wanted to tell.

This website is very exciting, but it’s just the first step in a process of really understanding how to design a digital experience that gets a community excited. As a UX professional, I know that doing research is the only way to know if our strategy was successful. We are actively tracking engagement with the site, and plan to conduct more user research to help us make improvements and refine the experience.

There are also many more stories to tell, and I’m very excited to get to help SA2020 broadcast those stories online. In fact, we are working on developing an API that would allow more projects to have access to SA2020 data, which opens up exciting new possibilities for the community to dig deeper.

The best part of this process is that we can continue to learn more about what works, and keep improving the impact that we can make on our community.

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