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  • Suzanne Lugthart

In praise of the humble data table (or how to get your late night number crunching on the front page

I've been working with the travel industry to help them influence government policy during the pandemic

Communicating insight is as big a challenge as collecting it. It requires a razor sharp focus on the insight or message you need to get across and an innate understanding of the audience you’re communicating with. Get either of those things wrong and you’ll see eyes glazing over and all your hard work come to nothing.

Too much insight is presented back in charts and graphics which leave you staring at them asking “What is this trying to tell me?” Even people who generally do this kind of stuff quite well get it very badly wrong sometimes. I mean, what ...?

When planning to present data ask yourself two things:

1. What's the message or insight that needs communicating?

Is there data that not pulling its weight or emphasising the message that should be excluded to give the insight room to breathe? I sense in the example above quite a lot. And I'm still unclear what I'm supposed to take out of this spaghetti mess

2. Who do I want to communicate this to?

The second point is crucially important. Let’s face it, numbers are a bit marmite.

Two decimal places are generally a no no in my book but if you’re reporting a clinical trial, they may have a place. But if you’re talking to people who make a living with words, it’s often better to keep it simple. It’s not dumbing down, it’s just making their life easy whilst ensuring you get your message across.

For example, I used to present some quite complex numbers assessing interest in 80-100 book concepts across 4-5 countries and multiple demographics back to book editors inform their publication roadmap. I recognised that the only thing they wanted to know was what global blockbuster to start work on next. I did it by removing all the significance testing and all the numbers and just colour coded the results. If it was green in all 5 markets, it was likely to be a global winner. A mix of colours, less so. It also reduced the report from 80 page to one, with a large appendix for those who cared about the numbers.

And so in celebration of the humble table, I give you a humble table. This is the original humble table that was pulled together close to midnight on Saturday 19th June when I discovered Test and Trace were actually publishing positivity rates of travellers coming from Red, Amber and Green countries.

It was a massive messy spreadsheet which I was keen to share with people who could get the message – that travellers from Amber countries were presenting minimal risk to the public health of the nation - into the mainstream media (so journalists, better at words than numbers). I used my data reduction skills to put 1400 rows of data covering countries, traffic light colour, tests, sequencing etc into a single table. Nothing else - certainly not a bar chart - would have been able to convey 24 bits of data so succinctly or impactfully in my view

It was subsequently picked up wholesale, including my rambling footnotes, by the Telegraph, Mail and many more, as well as by various MPs fighting the corner for the beleaguered travel and tourism industry. Hell, it even made the front page of the Times.

It may not have bells and whistles, but it told a story and that story got told. And maybe, just maybe, it made a bit of a difference. I do hope so. The travel and tourism have deserved better for a long time. So here’s to the humble data table.

And for anyone looking for a good read on this topic I can highly recommend Andrew Ehrenberg’s A Primer in Data Reduction.


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