Lesson Plans

Telling Science Stories: Data Visualization

Dr. Charles Ssendikandiwa does rounds on a Saturday morning at the Uganda Cancer Institute. Image by Jacqueline Koch, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research. Uganda, 2011.

Driving through Bamako on a scooter. Mali, 2013. Image by Yochi Dreazen. Mali, 2013.


Students will evaluate three interactive journalism projects on the ability to effectively communicate complicated issues in science using data visualization. Using datasets of their choice, they will use the mapping platform CartoDB to design data visualizations that communicate an issue in biostatistics.   

Warm-up Questions:

These are intended to have students start thinking about how they receive and disseminate information, what makes learning a stastical science easy, and what makes it difficult.

Have students think about these questions and discuss in small groups, and have each group share their answers with the class for a larger discussion. On the board, create a chart of key words from their answers to the "why" questions to help visualize major ideas about what works, and what doesn't, in academic writing and presentation. Save the chart. 

  1. What is the most interesting part of biostatistics? Why? What makes it interesting?
  2. What is the most boring part? Why? What makes it boring?
  3. What is your favorite public health issue? Do you think other people care about it? Why or why not?

Introducing the Lesson:

Data visualization is a method of displaying data in a way that shows us what the data means instead of telling us. Data visualizations are invaluable tools for conveying scientific data to audiences that may not have a background in science. 

There are many ways to visualize data, but each has the same objective: to tell a story. 

The brain scan below uses color to tell us about levels of neural activity. 










Image of a healthy brain scan. This method of data visualization tells us about levels of neural activity using color. Red areas indicate high levels of neural activity. Blue and purple areas indicate lower levels.
Healthy brain scan. 



Data visualization is a research skill that can improve how we communicate complicated issues in science. Data visualizations can be as simple as a graphic, like the one shown above, or as complex as an interactive map, like the one shown here. (Don't spend too much time showing this map, as it will be used in the first activity.)

The brain scan above quickly relays a complicated concept in biostatistics that makes sense to both scientific and lay audiences.

This lesson explores various types of data visualizations, how they are built, what stories they tell, and why they are effective at telling them. It also provides a short tutorial showing how to use the software CartoDB and your own biostatistical data to tell a public health story using a map. 

To warm up, students can view an exclusive interview with Information Designer Dan McCarey, who designed the Cholera Map, one of the three data visualizations profiled in this lesson. 


I. Questions to Frame Resources

Begin by playing this video, "Land of Tobacco: China's deadly addiction" from grantee Joanne Silberner's Pulitzer Center-supported project, "Cancer in the Developing World: The Economics of a Disease." The video was produced by grantee Sean Gallagher for PRI's The World. 

After watching the video, have students answer the following questions.

  1. What do you think is the primary aim of this video? What story is this journalist trying to tell?
  2. What does the journalist use to tell the story?
  3. After watching this video, are you more or less interested in cancer rates in China than you were before class today?

II. Cancer's Global Footprint

1. Open the interactive resource for Joanne's reporting: the Global Cancer Map. This map accompanies Joanne's reporting project, mentioned above. Students will be able to familiarize themselves with the map using the questions attached for Resource 1.

2. Refer to the questions attached for Resource 1. Once you've moved through these, move on to Resource 2.

III. Roads Kill Map

1. Begin by opening the Roads Kill Map, part of the collaborative Pulitzer Center-supported project, "Roads Kill."

2. Refer to the questions attached for Resource 2.

IV. Mapping Cholera

1. Begin by opening Mapping Cholera, part of grantee Sonia Shah's Pulitzer Center-supported project, "Cholera: A Tale of Two Cities." 

2. Walk through the Cholera interactive using the arrows on the screen. 

3. Refer to the questions attached for Resource 3. 

Creating Your Own Data Visualization:

CartoDB is an extremely user-friendly mapping tool. They have multiple tutorials that explain how to use the site's varying functions to produce interactive maps and to adapt functions for the stories students want to tell. 

Students will either choose their own datasets, or use datasets from the CartoDB library, to design their own interactive map that communicates a public health issue of their choice. 

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