The question isn't which data visualization technique is best; it's whether a visualization is even the best tool for the job.

by Peter Wagner, May 31, 2015

I was thrilled to see one of our graphs featured in Harvard Business Review in a great piece by Scott Berinato this week:

When we want to be persuasive, we are more effective if we buffer our case with visuals like charts and graphs. For example, I can tell you that the United States incarcerates five times as many people as most nations despite having similar crime rates. I can cite sources and link to essays and research. Or, I can show you this:

graph showing the incarceration rate per 100,000 in 2010 of founding members of NATO

The immediate, visceral reaction we have to charts like this one, which was created by the Prison Policy Initiative, is no accident. Visual perception research has established the fact that visual information is powerfully and inescapably persuasive in a way that text and speech aren’t.

The Prison Policy Initiative has become known for our use of graphics to tell the story of mass incarceration, but what is so gratifying our being singled out in this way was that Berinato’s article wasn’t the typical discussion about the difference between a good data visualization and a bad one. Instead, he focused on the most basic point in communication that is all too often absent when talking about visual communication: Audience matters.

Basic factors like whether the audience agrees with you, their mood, and many other factors all change whether visualizations are even the right tool. For example:

The user’s attitude matters. Research from Ansul Pandey and colleagues at New York University indicates that the persuasive power of dataviz may not be perfectly universal. The success of a visualization seems to be dependent on the initial attitude of the person assessing it. When participants in their study didn’t have strong opinions about the message being conveyed, visuals persuaded effectively. But they were less effective when participants held strong opinions in opposition to the message being conveyed.

This makes sense. It takes more to convince someone who doesn’t believe you than someone who simply doesn’t know or doesn’t care. But there’s more. Those with stronger opposing views were more likely to be swayed when a disagreeable message was presented in the form of a table. Even now, good old-fashioned rows and columns sometimes outperform charts.

So while we’re proud of the diversity of communications skills we’ve developed over the last 14 years, what we think really matters most is the ability to tell an engaging story that inspires people to think and then to act.

The goal needs to always be on effective communication to the intended audience. None of this work is done for us, after all. It’s done for you.

Securus will no longer require that jails ban in-person visits, shifting moral responsibility to the sheriffs

May 6, 2015


Bernadette Rabuy
(413) 527-0845

Easthampton, MA — On Monday, Securus, the video visitation industry leader, announced that it will no longer explicitly require county jails and state prisons to replace traditional family visits with video visits. Securus CEO Richard A. Smith stated that the billion-dollar phone and video visitation company “found that in ‘a handful’ of cases,” Securus was including a clause that “could be perceived as restricting onsite and/or person-to-person contact.”

But Securus’s new policy is much more significant than Securus’s announcement implies, says Bernadette Rabuy of the Prison Policy Initiative. “There is clear language banning in-person visits in 70% of the Securus contracts we examined for our report, Screening Out Family Time: The for-profit video visitation industry in prisons and jails.” The contracts plainly read: “For non-professional visitors, Customer will eliminate all face to face visitation through glass or otherwise at the Facility.”

This offensive clause was brilliantly challenged by comedians Ted Alexandro and Ben Rosen, arguing about whether video visitation lives up to the industry’s claims that it’s “just like Skype:”

While many of Securus’s competitors have worked with sheriffs to replace in-person visits with video visits, Securus was the only video visitation company that dictated correctional visitation policy in the contract. This clause has been controversial. After public protest, the Portland, Oregon Sheriff was the first to successfully amend an existing Securus video visitation contract, and in Dallas County, Texas county legislators were able to eliminate the clause before signing a contract with Securus.

Video visitation is a promising technology that could make it easier and more affordable for families to stay in touch despite the challenges of incarceration. But as it is too often implemented, going high-tech has been a step in the wrong direction.

“This announcement won’t necessarily bring back in-person visitation,” said the Prison Policy Initiative’s Bernadette Rabuy. “Traditionally, video visitation companies and sheriffs have played the blame game, neither has been willing to take responsibility for banning in-person visits. Now that Securus is shifting moral responsibility to the sheriffs, the Prison Policy Initiative will be working with concerned families across the country to ensure that sheriffs reverse these draconian policies.”


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