This is a guest blog post by School & State Finance Project. At the CTData Conference 2019, School & State Finance Project presented on Turning Dollars Into Sense: Using Data Storytelling to Understand the State Budget and shared some of the tips and tools described below. 

Empowering people to engage with data is one of the largest challenges facing policymakers, businesses, and community and advocacy organizations. For many individuals, “data” can be an intimidating word that brings to mind an indecipherable spreadsheet or conjures up memories of high school algebra. 

As a result, helping people overcome their discomfort with data is no longer a preferred quality for data analysts, it’s a required qualification. To achieve their goals or objectives, data analysts must be able to break down barriers, communicate information through an accessibility lens, and effectively engage the public with data.

To help data analysts in their mission, we’ve created the following four quick tips for engaging people with data.

1. Know Your Audience

To successfully engage people with data, data analysts have to know their audience. Knowing an audience means appreciating its comfort-level with data, understanding what is important to the audience, and recognizing how the audience dictates how data and information is presented. Knowing the audience is the first step toward building a plan for effectively engaging people with data.

2. Make Data Digestible

Avoiding data overload is essential to having people engage with data and feel that the information you’re wanting to get across is accessible. You don’t want your audience to choke on the data you’re providing. You want your audience to be able to take its time, digest the data, and reflect on what it means. Breaking down data into key findings and takeaways allows individuals to understand the data points you’re wanting to get across without overwhelming or confusing them.

3. Bring Out the Fun in Data

To engage people with data you have to make data engaging. Data cannot simply be a spreadsheet or a chart or talking points. Making data interactive and visual is key to engagement. To capture an audience’s attention and time, data must come to life and should be presented in a way that sparks an audience’s interest and motivates them to learn more or explore the data further.

4. Connect Data to Real Life

The connection between data and the real world should never be lost. Data should not exist inside a vacuum where numbers are talked about absent real-life implications. To engage people with data is to connect them to how the data impacts them, their family, their community, or their world. Data must resonate with people for it to be engaging, and a key way to do this is by bringing the data “closer to home” and showing how it personally impacts your audience. 

Effective data engagement is not a one-time event nor is it simply having people remember talking points or key facts. It’s a process that involves an audience trusting you and your data and growing more and more comfortable interacting with the information you’re presenting. In many ways, data engagement is a teaching and learning process, and if you follow these four tips that process will be successful and you’ll be empowering your audience to engage with data.

One of the ways we’re engaging users with data at the School & State Finance Project is through our Budget Analysis Tool, which allows users to explore Connecticut’s biennial state budget for fiscal  years 2020 and 2021. Specifically, the Budget Analysis Tool shows users how the state’s revenues and expenditures have changed over time; agency spending and revenue streams; fixed costs in the state budget; and aid provided to each Connecticut city and town.