3 features in mySidewalk to make your data pop and your story stick

At mySidewalk, we know how hard it can be to craft an engaging story with data. Sure, if you had time to experiment, you could do it (and even enjoy the process!) but the reality is, all you really have time for is to share a stat or spreadsheet—and hope people just get it. But research shows that people are much more likely to understand and remember a story than a fact.

That’s why we focus on building features that help subject-matter experts craft an engaging data story, quickly. This post outlines three of the most effective and easiest-to-use tools in mySidewalk for injecting data storytelling into your next report.


For consistent framing to highlight patterns, outline the same geo on every map

Many of the stories you need to tell revolve around projects that have custom boundaries: opportunity zones, study areas, or neighborhoods.

With mySidewalk, you can create a custom geo in minutes using drawing tools or by uploading a shapefile and then build a report highlighting its important attributes and how they compare to those of similar or nearby geographies. The key is to keep the reader focused on that geographic area of interest by providing consistent framing throughout the report.

Here’s how:

Steps to add a custom geo to a map and style it to draw the reader’s attention

A great example of this technique is in Kansas City, MO’s Community Health Improvement Plan Dashboard—a go-to tool for the health department to tell a story of health, housing, education, and other disparities in the city that result in alarming gaps in life expectancy between the least-resourced ZIP codes and the rest of the city.

Their story, then, centers on six ZIP codes with the lowest life expectancies. To tell this story, they created a custom geo comprised of those six “high-priority” ZIP codes and in map after map, they highlight the same ZIP codes so that a pattern starts to take shape in the reader’s mind—one that clearly reveals the need to invest in this area to improve outcomes.

Here are a few examples from the dashboard, which you interact with here.


To create a high signal-to-noise ratio, hide unnecessary or distracting data on charts

One of the most challenging aspects of using more data in your work is contending with the sheer amount that’s available. It’s an instinct, especially in government, to share everything, under the misconception that’s the only way to ensure complete transparency.

But when you realize that to achieve true transparency people have to be able to make sense of data, you do less dumping and more discerning. It becomes a goldilocks-like balancing act to share just the right amount of data so that you’re telling a complete story but not completely overwhelming the reader with unnecessary information.

mySidewalk let’s you find that balance quickly with one of our newest features: the ability to hide chart variables. This means that, in a single click, you can remove pieces of data that (at best) waste space and attention and (at worst) distract. The result is that that the most important information pops off the screen.

For example, let’s say that you’re trying to tell a story about the number of vacant houses that are likely available for purchase and improvement—and how that number compares to similar communities across the country. By default, the visualization for Vacancy Status shows all types of vacancies, including those that are expected and appropriate (e.g. seasonal). With our new feature, though, you can edit the chart to show only those that are in the “other” category, indicating they are likely readily available to investors.

Here’s how:

Steps to hide variables in a bar chart so that the visualization better supports the story


To improve reader engagement and comprehension, pick the perfect colors

Color serves both aesthetic and functional purposes when it comes to data storytelling, and it’s surprisingly difficult to use color effectively. How do you choose a palette that’s pleasing to the eye, brings the story to life, and meets your brand standards?

Honestly, the answer is design school or a lot of practice. Not a designer? We’ve got you covered. Our product and graphics designer, JT, has created a number of preset color schemes and is also happy to provide guidance on how you can add your own.

Here are a few tips for using color well:

While there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to using color on maps, we recommend the following based on the type of data you’ve added a map.

#1: Use monochromatic color schemes to show the distribution of values from high to low.

For example, the map below shows the distribution of median home value in Kansas City, MO by census tract from lowest (lightest blue) to highest (darkest blue).

 Map using a preset monochromatic color scheme to show the distribution of values from high to low

Map using a preset monochromatic color scheme to show the distribution of values from high to low

#2: Use divergent color schemes to highlight extremes in the data.

For example, the map below shows the percent of response goals met for a fire department to arrive on-scene at an incident. The divergent colors—red and green—are used to clearly highlight areas of strength and need for improvement.

 Map using a divergent color scheme to show the extremes between performance goals met and not met

Map using a divergent color scheme to show the extremes between performance goals met and not met

#3: Use contrasting color schemes to categorize Geos that are alike in some important way.

The map below shows opportunity zones (not real data) categorized by type—Eastside, Historic Northeast, Southtown, etc.

 Map using a contrasting color scheme to assign categories to particular census tracts

Map using a contrasting color scheme to assign categories to particular census tracts

Here’s how:

There’s a lot to learn about color and data visualization, so we’ll be revisiting this topic in posts and webinars to come! In the meantime, if you’re wondering what colors to use for the story you’re trying to tell, reach out to your Customer Development Manager.