Monday, October 8, 2012

60 Steps Revisited: Step 56 - Use Simple Tables

Back in 2009, I did a series of posts covering the excellent book Crime Analysis For Problem Solvers. The book is published by the US DOJ's Problem Oriented Policing Center (POP Center). Because of the value I think this book has for crime analysts, and policing in general, I am going to re-post this series on here on the blog.

The last section of Crime Analysis For Problem Solvers consists of seven steps that all center around communicating effectively. We've already went through two of them, Step 54 - Tell a clear story and Step 55 - Make clear maps. In this post we're going to look at Step 56 - Use simple tables.

Back in Step 54, I touched on the role that analysts have in helping their agency make sound decisions. In order for your agency to arrive at sound decisions they must have the knowledge necessary to arrive at a conclusion. I also posited that there is a path that data takes in becoming knowledge. To reiterate,

  1. Data becomes information when it is analyzed.
  2. Information becomes knowledge when it is communicated effectively.
Number 1 usually occurs in the offices of a crime analysis unit. Number 2 can occur in any number of venues, from a crime bulletin, a written report or in an effective PowerPoint presentation. Regardless of the venue, it is possible for the medium to get in the way of the message and hinder the transfer of information.

Most police departments are heavily dependent on computer software and crime analysis units are no exception. Most software packages nowadays have a huge number of bells and whistles for formatting and presenting data. However, just because your software gives you a hundred different ways to format a table, doesn't mean you should use as many of them as you can. In fact, the most important factor in designing a table has more to do with how the information is laid out as opposed to how it is formatted. That being said, keep in mind that simple formatting is usually better, don't let the formatting get in the way of your information.

The authors have a few principles for what makes a good table:
A problem often has multiple causes. Though tables can be constructed to show large numbers of causes, a single table communicates poorly when you examine more than two causes. The basic principles of table construction remain the same:
  • All the causes go in the same direction (usually columns).
  • Summation goes in the direction of the cause (down columns).
  • Comparison of causes goes in the opposite direction (across rows, if causes are in columns).
The authors present several examples of tables and walk through what elements make for a good table. I encourage you to hit the link and read the chapter for yourself to see what they believe to be a simple but effective table.

Next time, we'll cover Step 57 - Use simple figures.

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