Every domain has its indispensable tools. What would astronomy be without the telescope and, conversely, how would a biologist get their work done without increasingly powerful microscopes? Social media platforms have become critical to the work of most marketers. And what author would think of writing their next novel without a strong cup of coffee (or tea) and their laptop computer?

As we explore the domain of applied innovation on this platform, we have to ask ourselves, “What are the indispensable tools for an innovator at work?” I would like to propose that data visualization is one of the most important tools innovators have in their toolbox. I believe its role is critical because innovators must look for the unique moments in human history where new ideas can flourish. Data is essential to spotting these moments and making the most of them.

The process of developing “fresh thinking that creates value” (Richard Lyons, Chief Learning Officer at Goldman Sachs), requires us to look at information from many sources, analyze it quickly and look for the “ah-ha moments” that will lead to an innovation worthy of investment. That level of data analysis cannot happen in spreadsheets or buried in paragraphs of prose. The data needs to come to life if it is going to serve the innovator and lead to breakthroughs. When making this case, three key reasons for its importance seem worth mentioning.

Identifying New Opportunities

Most new ideas are hiding in plain sight. They could be hidden in an existing approach, a way of working in another industry or a grassroots workaround to an aging system. Whatever the case, the opportunities for innovation are discoverable. The issue becomes, “How do we discover them?”

This is where data visualization comes in. Take a look at this chart below from Canalys. By comparing number of units sold annually with annual growth percentages, we can quickly see that while hundreds of millions of units are being purchased, overall growth has stalled. The implications of this simple fact could be significant for an innovator in China’s mobile space.

Whether we are looking at 10 years of mobile phone usage across 20 countries, comparing the average distance people commute to work or which urban centers are expected to see the greatest population growth in the coming decade, each of those examples (and thousands more) hold the key to opportunities for new products, services, and social programs.

But we can’t scroll through reams of paper or thousands of cells in Excel to find those hidden nuggets. The data has to be synthesized, animated, presented and made accessible. When this tool is put into the hands of a motivated innovator, the new opportunities will pop off the page.

Another example is The Year in Language 2016 data visualization released by Google News Lab. This visualization allows us to explore the top words people searched for definitions on. By crunching through gigabytes of data, Google is giving us access to what words people were curious enough about to search for a definition. What opportunities does that uncover in people’s interests, trending topics etc? Take a minute to explore them and see what you learn.

Reframing Assumptions

Sometimes the job of data visualizations is more focused on reframing things we think we are very familiar with. Many of us have assumptions about when creative people do their best work. But this infographic from Podio shows that the creative work of some of the world’s most well-known creatives was all over the map. This might impact how an innovator develops their organization’s schedule and culture of creativity.

Many times, we struggle to gain insight because we think we have nothing left to learn about a certain topic. W.B. Yeats wrote, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” The majority of people accept a very peripheral understanding as all they need to know and miss out on the deeper understanding that is available on any number of subjects.

When we visualize data that is commonly known by combining it with other data points (showing it geographically, highlighting the same data over a longer period of time, and countless other approaches), we take something that people shrug and accept and ask them to imagine it very differently. One example is urbanization data. Most people know that a majority of the world lives in an urban setting. What they don’t realize is that much of this growth is happening in Africa and Asia.

Unicef’s animated bubble map showing geography and urbanization together makes that point in a powerful way. Seldom does that process fail to produce new insights if someone is looking for them.

Quickly Communicating Value

One of the keys to an innovator’s success is their ability to communicate their ideas quickly and convincingly to an ever-growing group of people. With the decline in time people are willing to read, visual communication has never been more important. I have worked on countless projects that had a long report as well as an infographic as part of the deliverables. Without fail, the infographic got more attention and moved the cause forward more effectively. That isn’t to say that we didn’t need to write the long report, however, that was not how we were going to communicate with the majority of those we needed to influence.

A good example of this is the UNHCR’s report on Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017. They provide an extensive report to review, but much of the data is synthesized into a series of visualizations that bring it to life. In this graphic we quickly see the top 4 countries receiving refugees and where they are coming from.

Data visualization allows for the increasing complexity of our interrelated world to be presented simply for specific purposes. One of the great values that data visualization provides to innovators is the ability to do what Oliver Wendell Holmes championed when he said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Data visualization makes simplicity on the other side of complexity possible as few other tools do.

The Catch

While data visualization is a powerful tool to equip innovators in their work, there are a few catches that I must warn the reader about:

  1. Not every important innovation can be discerned through data. There are many ways of knowing the Truth and scientific analysis is but one. Data visualization will never eliminate the moment of intuition, late-night conversation or key moment of experiential insight. But even if your next idea comes from one of these other ways of knowing, data visualization will be a key to understanding what you have learned and finding out how you will leverage it.
  2. Data visualizations are only as good as the data going into them. The amount of work we need to spend in data collection, cleaning, analysis and presentation is something that few in our discipline fully recognize.
  3. When you bring data scientists, storytellers and designers together to visualize the data, know that immediate harmony will not ensue. Data visualization takes transdisciplinary collaboration that means people will come at the effort with very different skill sets, assumptions and values. To make sure that insight is the outcome, you will need determination as you help the various people involved exercise their gifting and benefit from the skills of the others.

As you move forward in your innovation efforts, consider how data visualization fits into your work. What new opportunities can you discover? What assumptions can you debunk? What new people can you bring into the fold? Data visualization is the tool that can take your innovation work to the next level.