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Harnessing the Power of the Visual

By Kim Ammann Howard

Recently, I’ve been thinking about new tools that can help present information in a visually engaging way. More than ever before, we are able to easily and cheaply gather and share such information. This has generated vast amounts of visual content; on YouTube alone, 24 hours of videos are uploaded each minute. However, as we know, more of anything doesn’t always equal better; sometimes it just means more. Below are some examples of tools that visually present information in a way that made me stop and think about an action I could take, how I could incorporate the tool into my own practice and colleagues who might have an opportunity to use the tool:

  • Wordle is a free online service that creates “word clouds.” The site analyzes imported text and generates visual displays of words that appear most frequently in the source text. The images show the most common words with greater prominence by increasing font size and using color. The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently surveyed nonprofit fundraising staff about their favorite blogs in the nonprofit world and created a word cloud based on the results.
  • GapMinder is a free online tool that people can use to create maps that show the progression (or lack of progression) in human development. Through this program, users choose among hundreds of indicators (e.g., unemployment, literacy, life expectancy rates) to create maps that move and shift along a timeline. For example, taking advantage of the attention on the World Cup, one user asked the question whether rich countries are better at soccer by creating a visual display through GapMinder that shows qualifying nation’s soccer ranking relative to the nation’s income per person.
  • HealthyCity is a free online California mapping tool that allows users to locate public services, analyze demographic and residential data, create easy-to-read maps and share data projects across organizations. Recently, the Advancement Project utilized their Healthy City mapping tool to coordinate efforts for the 2010 Census and ensure a better count of “hard-to-count” communities.
  • Prezi is an online tool to create visually stimulating presentations. Prezi allows users to follow a story line through a presentation and zoom into specific sections for emphasis. In 2009, writer James Geary utilized Prezi at the TED Conference to visualize his presentation about the influence of metaphors on people’s thinking.

Many of the existing tools, those above and others, are easily accessible through the Web and in most cases are even free – something that is critical for many of the nonprofits with whom we collaborate. As we identify and experiment with new tools, and maybe even create our own, let’s share our experiences about how they help us to tell important stories of change.