I love using pictures, charts, diagrams, and infographics to illustrate and explain complex or hard to visualize ideas, concepts, and relationships.
Using Charts and Infographics at Melbourne Water
Since we deal with pretty complex subjects at Melbourne Water it makes sense for us to use well designed charts and infographics to explain what we do and how we do it. So, over the last year or two, we’ve been working with various vendors to produce graphics and animations that help us communicate better. We’ve also been improving our own chart-making capabilities so we can explain things more effectively to our more interested (which usually means more nerdy) audiences.
Here are some of the things we’ve done.
To explain how a system like Melbourne’s Water supply network works, you can use a static and somewhat technical map like this:
Or you can use an animated map to really show people what’s going on (click through to see what I mean):
That animated map has proven to be very popular: over the last year it’s been viewed over 40,000 times with visitors spending an average of two and a half minutes going through it.
You can explain complex systems without animations, too – like we’ve done with our Eastern Treatment Plant’s sewage processing diagram. This diagram comes in two parts. First, there’s a high-level overview:
And, then, there’s a more detailed explanation of the steps we take to process sewage at this plant (including the tertiary treatment bit that’s currently being built):
Another important use for graphics is in explaining relationships between things.
For example, the Melbourne Water website gets about about 10,000 visitors per day. However, this figure jumps to 25,000 when it rains and over 40,000 when there’s a big storm in Melbourne. This happens because people want to know what effect the rainfall is having on our water storage levels.
To explain this relationship, we first used a simple column chart to show the basic trend (though the figures in it are from about a year and a half ago):
We then drilled down into a more detailed example and plotted the amount of rainfall recorded in Melbourne in August 2010 and compared that to the number of website visits received over the same period. The relationship between the two is quite obvious when you look at this graph:
These diagrams were made to be printed, by the way, which is why the text size on the axes isn’t all that large.
Telling a Story
At times, though, all you want to do with a graph is tell a story.
For example, we used this simple graph to explain the how Melbourne’s dams staged a remarkable turnaround in 2010, jumping from 25.6% full in July 2009 to 53.7% full in December 2010:
And we used this graph to explain that Melbourne’s total system storage depends a great deal on how full Thomson Dam is (because Thomson is almost 60% of Melbourne’s total dam capacity):
More generally, we use this graphic to explain to Melburnians just how big Thomson really is:
Showing Cause and Effect (i.e. Explaining More Complex Relationships)
Recently, though, we’ve gone one step further and have used a couple of charts to explain what, at the face of it, seems to be a strange result: rainfall for spring 2011 was 28.5% above average but water flowing into the dams (i.e. streamflow) over the same period was 22.4% below average. This happened because of what we call the ‘sponge effect’ and we used this graphic to explain what happened:
Now this type of graph isn’t for everyone to read and understand but, that’s okay – we know that a lot of our website visitors are water nerds just like us and that they appreciate the extra effort we make in explaining these results to them.
Hopefully, this use of charts and infographics to explain complex things is something Melbourne Water continues to do in the future. I know I certainly will.