Collecting and deciphering data is important, as was discussed in the first Alliance Summer School webinar, but what should you do once you have the data? Figuring out how to use and present that data was the topic of the July webinar, “Using Data to Solve Problems.” Alliance director of research and insights Rebecca Frank led a conversation on how to communicate about data. Frank focused on sharing data internally, while reporter Jennifer Peters advised viewers on how to best deal with data when presenting it for an external audience.
What lessons about sharing data should you be paying most attention to?
Develop a strategy. Frank noted that before you even begin collecting data, you need to figure out why you want that data and what you hope to use it for. “‘We need data’ is not a strategy,” she explained. “You need to figure out what your problem is and how using data can help solve it.” That means looking closely at what can – and what cannot – be captured through data. Can you track the information you’re looking for? What are the numbers you need to look at to better understand your problem?
A good strategy involves knowing how you’re going to keep track of and store your data. Will you need new technology or infrastructure? How will the data be accessed, and by whom? Figuring out your needs is a key first step to being able to successfully utilize all of the data you’ve captured.
Understand that there is no perfect metric. Everyone tracks page views and minutes of engagement, but what’s the “perfect” number? According to Frank, there isn’t one. Focus instead on the story the numbers tell. You could have 10 million page views this month, but if you had 20 million last month, that could seem horrific. On the other hand, if you had 250,000 page views last month and you have 350,000 this month, you’ll probably be pretty pleased. So, don’t focus on the numbers as much as the movement. Are the figures heading in the direction you want? Are people spending more time on your website or clicking more links in your newsletter? Once you’ve tracked the trend, you can use that information to start your problem-solving, looking at what you’ve done differently to affect those numbers.
Make sure your data is clear. One of the hardest parts of sharing data is making sure it’s actually clear and usable. If you’re sharing data internally, are you doing it in a giant spreadsheet that features every bit of information you’ve obtained? If so, there’s a good chance no one is opening the file, let alone understanding it.
Meanwhile, Peters said, if you’re sharing data externally, such as in an article, you need to make sure it’s clear and concise for your readers. Are you explaining the data collection process well? Are you telling people what the data means? Are you presenting the data in a non-biased way, using accurate charts and graphs?
How you present data matters as much as, if not more than the data you collect, Peters said. You could poll every single person in the country, but if you present it in a misleading fashion, you’re doing a huge disservice to your audience. Always be clear about your findings and methodology, including any weaknesses or confounding factors that could explain the results.
Let the data lead you. Too often, we turn to data to support our assumptions, so we look for data that matches our expectations. But that often leads to biased information. Instead, to present good data, you need to let the numbers provide the answer regardless of your preferred outcome. Only then can you really put the data to work for you.
Members of the News Media Alliance staff have contributed to this post.