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Indexes Are the Next Wave In Visual Storytelling


Guest Post: Ryan Reynolds

Indexes are handy ways to track and report progress. You can’t beat the Dow Jones Industrial Index to follow the ups and downs of stock prices. Ditto the Consumer Price Index, which compares the cost of goods and services from year to year.

But what if you want to track progress on important social issues? Thanks to troves of data available these days, nonprofits are increasingly using indexes to communicate about their work and their underlying causes.

Just last week, for example, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published this index showing the barriers to opportunity African American, American Indian and Latino children face on the path to prosperity compared to White and Asian American children. Then there is this one that ranks how well countries perform on protection of human health from environmental harm and protection of ecosystems or another that tracks social progress, country-by country

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Ryan Reynolds

The reason nonprofits are turning to indexes to help their communication efforts is a recognition of the challenges they face in building deep and meaningful relationships with audiences. It used to be that when nonprofits wanted to get people to take action on hunger, for example, their appeals would almost always feature pictures of starving children—images that even the most removed audiences found hard to ignore. Similarly, to sound the alarm on climate change, a shot of a polar bear on a floating iceberg would melt even the coldest hearts.

One-shot appeals only take you so far and after a while, they lose their punch. To move audiences beyond immediate responses and help them to see the “bigger picture,” indexes can be very effective. That’s because they do two things: they help the people develop deeper understanding of causes and provide evidence they need to be convinced.

Indexes

A word of caution: even though sophisticated audiences demand hard evidence, you can’t just throw a lot of data at them. Too much data, the less accessible it becomes. In fact, it’s that tug between too much and too little information that helped spawn the infographic boom as organizations have tried to package vast amounts of it in appealing ways. The result has been an explosion in designs integrating qualitative and quantitative content with statistics and data visualizations.

To be sure, infographics can simplify the complex and present compelling, graphically rich stories. But that strength can also be a weakness: compelling narratives that work best present a clear and conclusive case. On the other hand, a narrative that selectively highlights data to create drama, as is often the case with infographics, also introduces a bias that can erode the integrity of your argument. Indexes reject bias and embrace context; they deal in grey, not just black and white. Indexes also excel at revealing complex dynamics and giving audiences a deeper, more nuanced understanding of an issue. Also, instead of asking audiences to digest volumes of data, they get the gist in a neat little bite-sized piece.

For example, the earlier mentioned Yale EPI measures environmental performance for 178 countries across nine issue areas and 20 different indicators. By itself, the raw data they’ve amassed is all but incomprehensible. But distill all these numbers down to a series of scores via a robust and transparent index methodology, and all the sudden you have an elegant system that allows you to compare apples to apples for a wide variety of criteria.

This leads us to another key advantage: indexes provide empirical context for complex systems and dynamics—lowering resistance to the facts and resulting in better policies and practices in the process. By themselves, raw statistics don’t mean much. You say that some country put X million tons of C02 into the atmosphere last year? That sounds like a hell of a lot, but as a lay person, I really wouldn’t know. But roll that data into an index score, and you can tell not just how well a certain country is doing right now, but how their performance compares to their peers and their own historical performance. By creating an environment of greater context and useful comparison, organizations unleash the power of data to create competition and promote progress towards meeting our greatest challenges.

As one of our clients once told us, “stories get their interest, but metrics get their buy-in.” Imagery, narrative and anecdotal evidence are an important part of communicating your cause and persuading your audience. But when you unleash the meaning behind data with an index that simplifies the complex and create context, you democratize the information and allow your audiences to combine data with their own assumptions and experience and draw their own conclusions. Then the metrics cease to just get buy-in; they tell a story of their own. Now that’s a powerful idea.


Ryan Reynolds is Design Director at Constructive in New York City, where he specializes in design strategy and development of integrated design systems for clients in the nonprofit and academic sectors. Here are examples of how three different nonprofits are using indexes to tell their story: Securing America’s Future Energy’s Oil Security Index, The Yale Environmental Performance Index, and the recently launched Justice Index by the National Center for Access to Justice

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