Stories to bring data to life

May, 2021

Margarita Vaca
​​Data for Sustainable Development Unit Researcher

Never has so much data been produced and with so much variety as today. This has promoted a high demand for analysis, especially aligned with the follow-up of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. However, for many, the way data is presented can become a barrier to comprehension and an impediment to connecting with the narrative behind it.

Thus, data stories become a unique tool to communicate in a simple way the relevance of the evidence-based information being presented on a specific topic, which generally aims to expose the needs, priorities, challenges and lessons learned of a population group or territory.

What is a data story for sustainable development?

A data story for sustainable development is a story based on data focused on presenting the lessons learned, good practices and challenges in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of a territory or population group. Its narrative is characterized by using different dynamic resources such as images, infographics, videos, photos and data visualizations that allow the reader to delve into the subject in a simple and pleasant way.

According to Cepei, through a data story it is possible to awake interest in data and promote an increasingly robust data culture. Likewise, it is easier to create awareness on a specific topic to inform, debate and trigger actions, particularly towards the fulfillment of the SDGs (Inter-American Development Bank, 2017).

The use of inputs such as censuses, administrative records, sustainable development reports, articles and blogs, is what makes data stories create a sense of belonging towards the measurement and visibility of the SDGs in the regional, national and local context.

Why write a data story?

Data allows us to make evidenced-based decisions, find the causes and consequences of a specific event or phenomenon, and identify improvement actions. However, when data is not communicated in an understandable way, all of these benefits can go unnoticed or lead to confusion among readers, users, or decision makers.

Therefore, data stories are the bridge between the vast amount of information contained by data and its correct interpretation by users. The combination of data, analysis and narrative focused on territorial realities generates a higher level of trust than other formats written only in technical language or based on experiences.

In this way, data stories allow us to translate figures, statistics, trends, among others, into evidence for the implementation of measures at the local, national, regional or global level, motivating all types of actors, from gubernamental to non gubernamental, to take action towards the achievement of the SDGs.

How to write a data story?

We all learn and apply our knowledge best when we have a good story to read. For this reason, it is essential to identify which are the relevant messages that we want to convey to the public and how are we presenting them beyond the narrative: Videos, infographics, illustrations, visualizations or any other format depending on what we want to communicate.

Here are some suggested steps to build your own data story:

Identify your audience. The first point is to define who we want to address with our data story, what this user is interested in learning and how they want to be informed.

Define the key message. It may be one of the most challenging steps, but it is the most relevant, since it will guide the structure and narrative of your data story. For this, we must define what is the message we want to convey to our readers and what we want them to do with it: Read it, share it, multiply it, among others.

Define the theme - the heart of the data story. The theme must have a clear and specific spatio-temporal cut, and be associated with at least one SDG. It is pertinent to bear in mind that data stories seek to turn something abstract into something that is easy to understand and remember. Therefore, it is important to keep the narrative simple.

Analyze the data. Identify reliable sources that have updated data on the selected topic. Before processing the data, carry out a quality review: Use of commas and periods in numerical data, completeness of the data - blank spaces, generation of new categories if required, among others that you consider pertinent to guarantee the quality of the data. Think of different ways to present your data: Graphs, infographics, visualizations, tables, etc. Find here the top ten tips for data analysis by Jeremy Taylor.

Organize and write. When presenting your data, always keep your audience and the language you speak in mind. Avoid using too many technicalities or unusual words. Start by presenting the basic analysis, relying on descriptive statistics and a narrative that is complementary, but not repetitive, to the graphs, tables or visualizations that you decide to use. Do not forget to maintain a clear structure and use key words or phrases. In addition, it is very important to incorporate images, photos, videos or podcasts that energize your narrative.

Share your story and get feedback. When we work over and over again on the same document, the details can go unnoticed. Therefore, it is appropriate for a third party to read your story and provide feedback on the relevance of the topic, the key messages, its structure and understanding, the tools used to make it more dynamic, among other aspects that allow you to enrich your data story.

Share your story. DataRepública is an open data platform for all users to publish their data stories and advocate for the power of data to describe a problem with the purpose of exploring its solution.

Do you want to publish a data story with us? Contact us via email: