Behind the Scenes: Visualizing Data About Student Homelessness

By Mandy Rusch, Digital Design Project Assistant, Project on Family Homelessness

This past winter, Schoolhouse Washington approached us with an exciting new project: to create visualized data graphics for use in their communication materials. In this post, I will describe my approach and learning process over the course of the project, which taught me a lot about what it takes to develop advocacy tools.

Schoolhouse Washington is a partnership between Building Changes and Columbia Legal Services. The organization was formed because these two partners wanted to get more directly involved in advocacy to improve housing stability and advance educational success for the nearly 40,000 students in our state who experience homelessness.

One important way that Schoolhouse Washington advocates is through the use of data. They analyze the student homelessness data provided by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, which is important to share because it helps describe needs to lawmakers and policymakers.

Graphic data visualizations, or “infographics,” are an incredibly powerful way to share data like this. The use of images and charts to show data visually helps to tell a clear message that is easier for viewers to digest than a written document alone.

Looking back: Past work for Schoolhouse Washington

In the past, SU’s Project on Family Homelessness worked with Schoolhouse Washington’s co-founder, Columbia Legal Services, to create a graphic showing the number of students in different grade levels experiencing homelessness. My predecessor Krista Kent (SU ’15) in late 2014 designed this state map that presents the number of Washington students experiencing homelessness in elementary, middle, and high school.

Krista Kent’s infographic from 2014, designed in partnership with Columbia Legal Services.

Krista designed the graphic to show two main points. First, nearly half of all students experiencing homelessness are in elementary school, which was important to convey because the stresses of housing instability have an especially strong impact on young children. Most importantly, the graphic demonstrated that students are homeless all over the state. This infographic helped counter some myths about homelessness, especially in the minds of some of our lawmakers. Columbia Legal Services said that it also helped lead to the passage of the Homeless Student Stability Act.

Krista’s original infographic was so effective that Columbia Legal Services asked us to update it for 2016, before I was part of the project.

For this year, they wanted a different direction, and that’s where I got involved.

Starting Out

This year, we needed to take a new approach. When I first began working on the infographic project, the goal was to create an updated version of the state map graphic along with visualizations for several other data points that could be presented together.

Starting at the beginning of January, I worked with our project manager, Catherine, to choose data from Schoolhouse Washington’s website and brainstorm ways to present them. Getting our ideas out on paper gave us a starting point to discuss with our partners to further solidify their needs and the story we were trying to tell. Because the new numbers hadn’t yet been announced, I used last year’s numbers to plan this year’s design.

Infographic Jan 20
An early version of a one-page infographic for Schoolhouse Washington presenting several different data points.


Moving Forward

After Schoolhouse Washington reviewed the initial design, we began to solidify their needs for this project. Instead of one large infographic with small related components, they wanted to be able to use individual elements within written reports and online, so they needed flexible components that could fit these different roles. Along with the variety of uses, the graphics would also be presented to a wide audience. This meant they needed to be approachable and easy to digest while also effectively conveying serious statistical information.

Rather than focus on the overall number for the state, we all wanted to convey the direct impact of homelessness on a classroom and both the short- and long-term impacts of housing instability on a child.

With this new information, I was able to move forward to create a series of seven individual square graphics, each presenting their own data point.

One graphic in the series comparing the graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness compared to the total average for all students.


My Process

The key piece I carried over from the original graphic was the statistic for how many students in Washington State experience homelessness: 1 in 27, according to the new data. When I think about my own experience of class sizes in public schools that were around 25-30 students, it is especially powerful to consider that this statistic represents about one student in every class.

The first graphic in the series, which presents the statistic that one in every 27 students in Washington State is experiencing homelessness.

For each data point that I was asked to visualize, I worked to find unique ways I could incorporate a balance of illustrated graphics, emphasized numbers and text and data charts. I wanted to use a variety of techniques and incorporate illustration as much as possible.


One of my biggest challenges working with the data was trying to create eye-catching icons that didn’t over-simplify the seriousness of the numbers they were presenting. I was concerned about the fact that these statistics are used to represent many different individual experiences and emotionally charged stories.

For inspiration on how to approach this challenge, I looked back on my predecessor Amy Phung’s (SU ’16) infographic for the One Night Count last year and also researched icon design from other organizations that present data about people.

I looked back on Amy’s icon design style for inspiration when I was illustrating this data point about living in places not meant for human habitation.

One particularly challenging data point to illustrate was about the effects of toxic stress on school children. This information explains why it is so urgent for us to address housing needs for young kids.

The graphic created to talk about the effects of toxic stress on the body of a young child.

When researching ways to approach this graphic, I began by studying Krista’s infographic on toxic stress, which she developed in partnership with our previous project coordinator, school psychologist Perry Firth (SU ’16).

Then, when I watched this video on the effects of toxic stress on the body, I became interested in focusing my graphic on the relationship between toxic stress and key bodily functions. One part of the video represented toxic stress with lines radiating out from the brain and highlighted the main organs this impacts. I thought this was an effective way to show this process, so I translated that idea into an icon design consistent with the rest of the graphics I created for this project.

Visualizing the Impact of High Mobility

A graphic presenting the effects of unstable housing on school changes and learning.

Another graphic that I am proud of is this one (above) focusing on how often students change schools during a school year due to housing instability. The fact that each move costs a child 4-6 months of learning progress is especially important because it communicates the need to help break the cycle of homelessness. Education is a child’s best means to move out of poverty, but this much learning loss due to housing instability makes it even harder for them to break the cycle. I am proud of this graphic because it is very simple, but still presents the message clearly and concisely.

Infographics in Action

Schoolhouse Washington recently posted the full infographic series on its website. Two weeks ago our project team participated in a convening with our partner organizations to discuss what we were working on, and I presented the graphics to attendees at the event so that we could encourage them to share the graphics on social media. Since then, the graphics have been shared on Twitter by many of our partner organizations, like Firesteel, and by community members – even Seattle Times reporter Vernal Coleman.

vernal coleman tweet
Vernal Coleman, who covers homelessness for the Seattle Times, tweeted about the Schoolhouse Washington analysis on May 4, 2017 and included one of my infographics.


The process I went through to create these graphics taught me a lot about icon design and helped prepare me with ideas to approach an infographic I’ve been working on for All Home for this year’s point-in-time count in King County, Count Us In. It was challenging to find ways to visualize such serious statistics while considering the realities of what those numbers mean. All Home is planning to release the infographic when they announce the Count Us In numbers, tentatively in late May. That infographic might lead to another blog post.

I hope that the designs I came up with can help Schoolhouse Washington communicate these problems and needs to a wide audience of people who can help join the fight to end homelessness among schoolchildren in Washington state.

What You Can Do:

  1. Learn about the science behind infographics that makes them such a great advocacy tool.
  2. Sign up to receive notifications from Schoolhouse Washington to stay informed about trends and advocacy efforts for student homelessness.
  3. Read Perry Firth’s series on the effects of homelessness and toxic stress on school children on Firesteel.
  4. Check out the State of Washington’s Kids 2016 report to learn more about the needs of our state’s students.
  5. Learn about A Way Home Washington’s 100-day challenge and how they are finding ways to work through barriers to get homeless youth into housing.



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