Communicating a vision of the future with data

Make data tangible by discussing how it will affect big issues in our lives: where we live; how our children learn; how we buy, consume and make decisions about our money; and how we form and maintain relationships. Credit: Fabrice Florin, published under a CC BY 2.0 licence

Data can’t be seen or heard but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it to paint a vibrant vision of the future with some focused communications.

Working in the field of technology and data means we’re often dealing with data that isn’t visible, and technologies that are still in development. This calls for some creative thinking when it comes to making data issues relevant to business and the wider public, and answering the perennial question, ‘What’s in it for me?’

Everyday data

When data has powered the products and services we know, love, use and see every day the challenge is less. Think tracking your latest run on Strava, or sharing playlists on Spotify via your mobile phone. These data experiences are now very common – 9.6 activities were shared on Strava every second in 2016 – and the benefits they bring us very evident and very immediate: Strava allows us to track our own performance and compete with friends, Spotify lets us share our favourite music with others. And we can do it all on the go, from our mobile. While the data behind these services is invisible, they shape our lifestyles in very obvious ways. We all want to know about new product releases and the latest updates that give us just that little bit more functionality from our apps and services.

We all want to know about new product releases and the latest updates that give us just that little bit more functionality from our apps and services.

Helping businesses spot data opportunities

But often we are trying to communicate to businesses and media the potential benefits of data.  Data that is ripe for innovation and exploration, which will power the Spotifys of tomorrow, but which currently lacks the big name portfolio of apps and tools and case studies. In this context data can be seen on one hand as ethereal and intangible, and on the other as an impersonal and irrelevant set of numbers.

Businesses often need help and some simple skills to see how data can enable them to develop new services, respond more quickly to their customers’ needs, and identify its economic opportunity.

Looking at things from an end-user perspective can also be really valuable for businesses looking to use their data in new ways.

What’s in it for me?

Looking at things from an end-user perspective can also be really valuable for businesses looking to use their data in new ways. Here, communicating the ‘art of the possible’ becomes everything and in order to make data relevant to a wider audience, we need to answer questions such as:

  • If that data or technology were available, what would I be able to do that I can’t now?
  • How would my day be different?
  • How much time and money would I save?
  • Would I get to spend more time with the people that are important me?
  • How would life be different or better?

These are big questions for sure, and by no means all answerable at once.

Make data tangible by discussing how it will affect big issues in our lives: where we live; how our children learn; how we buy, consume and make decisions about our money; and how we form and maintain relationships. Credit: Fabrice Florin, published under a CC BY 2.0 licence

Getting the data message across

So what can we use to show the potential of data and technology now? There are a range of tactics:

  • Visualise the shape, trends and impact of data through infographics – this infographic about the importance of images in helping us to understand concepts and retain information sums it up nicely!
  • Start and join discussions at community level where the conversations are already happening– the OpenActive initiative coordinated by the Open Data Institute and Sport England, which aims to get more people active by helping physical activity providers to publish their data, began as a grassroots community.
  • Draw parallels to life in the past, life now, and how it will change – think about autonomous vehicles and the way they will change our relationships with cars and mobility. The Transport Systems Catapult (TSC) has recently explored the reality of this technology in a new report.
  • Discuss and imagine how it will affect the big things in our lives: where we live; how our children learn; how we buy, consume and make decisions about our money; and how we form and maintain relationships. Five years ago few of us could have imagined how online algorithms would influence not just the advertisements we see online, but all content – from news to our friends’ social media posts. These algorithms pose opportunities for brands and campaigns that can use them effectively, but ultimately limit the field of vision for the reader, giving rise to biased – even ‘fake’ – news. Sir Tim Berners-Lee sums up his views on the impact of these algorithms for society in this recent Guardian article and our own Emma Thwaites wrote in April about their effect upon trust.

Helping people care about intangible data and technology maybe more challenging than the latest Strava update, but as communicators it urges us to think more laterally and creatively about how and why it matters, why we should care, and how life will be the better for it.

We’d love to hear from you!

We’d like to open this discussion and get your views of communicating the future. What are your experiences in making the invisible tangible? How are you preparing your audiences for technologies that hold huge promise, but at the moment are still in the making?

Tell us!

Contact me at helen@thwaitescommunications.co.uk and follow us on Twitter @ThwaitesCommunications