Storytelling challenges with historical data


We were tasked with creating an animated visualization to act as an introduction to the A Seat at the table exhibition for the Museum of Vancouver.

Its aim is to familiarize visitors with the geographical and population distribution of overseas Chinese around the world with a focus on British Columbia. The immigration spans several centuries, ending on present times.

Target Audience:
Adults, college-age students and elementary school children (accompanied by educators).

Requirements & constraints:

  • Projection with no interactive elements.
  • Look & Feel: Not overly didactic, limited text, large print, sleek and beautiful.
  • All texts/instructions must be offered in English, Traditional and Simplified Chinese


The story of Chinese migration to BC is a very rich, interesting and heavy subject. It has been a constant occurrence for centuries but the collection of data around this phenomenon has varied. Some periods have very detailed reports of each person migrating, while others only have first hand accounts of sailers found in diaries and letters.

Data visualization driven storytelling depends on the richness of the data driving the visualizations. Here we find the first challenge of creating an accurate visualization of migration patterns: inconsistent data.

Being tasked with creating an educational data visualization with very little data meant that most of the development process of this project was spent doing research, trying to find the right numbers to tell a story.


By taking a step back from the data we realized that the richness of the story wasn’t in the numbers of migrants coming into BC. Yes, numbers are important when talking about migration patterns, but they are not everything. Context, social issues, work and communities have more storytelling value than numbers.

It was by focusing on these aspects that we managed to build a cohesive story.

We chose to include:

  • The estimated number of people arriving in British Columbia.
  • The routes they took to give visitors a sense of scale and highlight the differences between eras.
  • Laws or requirements that dictated the migration policies of the time to give a sense of the social and political context of each time period.
  • Demographic information that showed the type of people allowed to come.


Our focus on content rather than exact data came from user tests we conducted. These demonstrated that the accuracy of the number of Chinese immigrants didn’t have any significant impact on the overall understanding of the concept.

Having figured out the data and having a cohesive story we started conducting user tests to refine the museum experience.

We found that it was tricky to balance the amount of information shown at each stage, the size of the texts, the speed of the dots and the added challenge of having all text in three languages.

Our user tests evaluated the key messages people understood after seeing a portion of the animation. We found that we needed to add labels for the countries and slow things down.

Projection of a map with 3 people in front


The animated visualization encompassed 7 eras of Chinese migration to British Columbia and a global overview of migration from China.

Given that it is located at the entrance and there will be a flow of people coming in at different times the 3:50 minutes of the video were designed to seamlessly loop providing a full experience for visitors no matter at what point they walk in.

After their loop ends they can move on to the rest of the experience with a general understanding of the history of Chinese Migration to BC.