data comics
March 22, 2022

Data Comics meet cricket data in the irrepressible “Data to Stories”

By Paul Laughlin

Do you love cricket enough to share your family’s experience of the Cricket World Cup in a Data Comic? Well Richie Lionell v and Ramya Mylavarapu do! Thankfully they also share the fruits of their labours with us in their new book “From Data to Stories“.

I was delighted to receive a copy of this book as a result of pre-launch publicity on LinkedIn. My enthusiasm was partly because its topic promised to be so relevant to our recent focus on data storytelling. Martin shared with us his lessons for data visualisations from the world of comics & graphic novels. This was an opportunity to go one step further & explore actually using that comic book style as the visual media for telling data stories.

The book has lived up to what I hoped it would be. A very practical example of an alternative way to engage your audience with data stories. All too often analysts feel limits to a few traditional chart types (bar, line, radar, scatter etc). This book demonstrates that other more creative approaches are possible and can be effective. What’s more, it steps you through the steps to achieve this.

What to expect in this comic book + Excel tutorial

With Foreward by Data Viz legend Andy Kirk, I should have expected this short book to be a star. As Andy highlights this book both reveals the blossoming of sports data analysis & positive progress in more creative engaging visualisations of that data. It also has the benefit of being a quick read as a book. It is only 102 pages long and about half of those are in graphic novel format.

This book is divided into two sections (if only it was football data, the pun about ‘a game of two halves’ would have been irresistible). Part One is a data comic that Ramya & Richie have created based on India’s progress in the Cricket World Cup 2019. As I share more below, it is very engaging and shares far more than just the stats from each match. It is rooted in human stories & relationships, so that data is shared in a context. This helps guide which insights are relevant & so shared.

Part Two then goes behind the scenes. The authors share how to create the form that you read in the first half. They do that through an Excel tutorial of how to prepare and analyse publicly available cricket data to focus on the topics of interest. They supplement this with the open-source comic strip creation software ComicGen (available from Gramener co-publishers of this book). Finally, they share some useful links to other resources for you to continue this creative journey.

Learning about Data Comics from a full length example

The power of part one of this book is that it is a full-length story. Over 62 pages we follow the comic strip characters Ringo, Priya, Dey & Dee as they follow India during the Cricket World Cup. The first great lesson from this form is that the primary focus is on the human story. The authors include a lot more backstory that is supported by just the data. We see their highs & lows, mistakes, relationship breakdowns & reconciliations over a range of geographical locations. That means when we see cricket data we understand why it matters to the heroes of our story. We know what is at stake. This humanising of the data story is too often missed by analysts.

The authors also take the opportunity to pause the story at different points to share data, insights & lessons learnt. This can be another effective technique. During Part One, we pause 6 times for inserted pages that highlight different ‘comic book tips‘. We also see 22 different charts shared in context, supported by not just annotations but also character comments & reactions. These draw our focus to what matters most as well as sharing almost all the relevant data as a context. Where possible achieving that in your Data Viz design allows for more engaging & accountable dialogue.

Finally, this data comic is not only visually interesting and varied (including effective chart designs) you want to read on. This is because, as Martin argued for in his recent posts, as much attention has been given to the story. We see what the data, insights & implications mean to our heroes. We see actions by our characters beyond the data that make us need to know what happened next. As the authors share in Part Two, thought has gone into the narrative arc of this story as well as each panel.

Learning how to do it yourself with Excel + Powerpoint + Comicgen

Hopefully Part One inspires you as a reader to want to try this approach to data visualisation yourself. That is certainly the effect that it had on me. Once you’ve finished the story you can see how it would be a new & different way to engage your audience with data they need to understand. The good news is that Part Two really is a step by step guide to how to approach this.

Where this section shines is in helping novices complete the basic data prep needed to be ready for chart creation. Those who are less familiar with Excel will find all sorts of handy tips here to complete this stage quicker. It may also highlight considerations that they are currently missing. The analysis side is light, as the focus soon moves on to identifying insights (or relevant/interesting information in this context).

But even fully proficient Excel analysts can learn from the section on creating a comic story. A helpful & brief section on selecting your narrative arc is followed by an introduction to the Comicgen software. Then it is apparent how some copy & paste together with careful alignment can create a more interesting visual form via Powerpoint. Analysts would do well at this point to think how more widely they could use this layout approach to vary the content they present. Rather than classic slides, what combination of different visual elements could be combined to tell your data story?

What are you going to do next? It’s not just for cricket data

Before I finish I should also that a genuine passion & love for cricket shines through this story. Those who also love this sport will enjoy the perspective of two writers from the subcontinent where it is practically a religion. The vast majority of fans will also learn some new insights from the data presented.

But even though the cricket & human stories are engaging, this book is really about so much more. The approach outlined here could also be used to bring otherwise dull or repetitive data to life. I can think of Financial Services businesses, Retailers or Government departments where this could breathe fresh life into tired dashboards.

So, I recommend you give it a go. At the very least it will encourage you to think about the human stories behind your data. To identify insights & pertinent facts that have implications for the people you have in view. Plus, I hope it encourages you to get more creative in how you annotate & support your charts. I would love to see the data comics that you create as a result.