Assisting with inquiries: Part two – the mechanics of reporting


Information only becomes useful when it is communicated effectively to the people who need it

This is part of a series called ‘Assisting with inquiries’ which looks at reporting and how we can ask questions to provide useful information. The series is based on a mindmap which is introduced hereIn the first part of this series, I discussed the importance of understanding the needs of your audience.  

This time I would like to explore the mechanics of reporting. There is an accompanying page ‘Before reporting, consider the mechanics‘ which looks in detail at the questions from this branch of the mindmap.

The mechanics of reporting include anything associated with HOW we report information. If we are unable to effectively communicate the information we uncover, then that information will not be useful. Many factors can play a part in effective communication. Below I give an example of highly effective reporting by someone who understood that the mechanics of reporting information were as important as the information itself.


Florence Nightingale – a pioneer in nursing and a pioneer in reporting

The Crimean War, which lasted from October 1853 to March 1856, claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Precise numbers of how many died vary depending on which source you read, but two details are not disputed – many of the deaths resulted from disease and many of those diseases were preventable.

For a year and a half during the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale worked as a nurse at Scutari, the army hospital in Turkey where wounded British soldiers were sent. After witnessing the appalling conditions in the hospital and the lack of basic hygiene, she instigated measures to improve cleanliness and lobbied the British government for improvements to sanitation. The changes made a dramatic difference to the number of deaths (this is covered in detail in Professor Lynn McDonald’s 2014 lecture on Florence Nightingale – you can read the transcript here).

On her return home following the war, Nightingale set out to convince the British establishment of the importance of sanitation in hospitals. She analysed the evidence available relating to the causes of deaths amongst the British forces, and used this data along with her own experiences during her time in Turkey to prepare a report.

The report, entitled ‘Notes on matters affecting the health, efficiency and hospital administration of the British Army’ contained a vital ingredient; a diagram showing the causes of death amongst soldiers in the Crimean War over a two year period:


By w:Florence Nightingale (1820–1910). ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This is sometimes referred to as a ‘rose diagram’. There are two separate ‘roses’, each covering twelve months. The rose on the right covers the period from April 1854 to March 1855, and the smaller rose on the left the period from April 1855 to March 1856. The segments of each rose represent a month, and the coloured segments show the proportion of deaths attributable to three causes:

  • Blue (grey in the image above) for deaths from preventable diseases
  • Red for deaths from wounds
  • Black for all other deaths

The deaths from disease peaked in the winter of 1854 to 1855 and then steadily reduced (barring a small spike in June 1855). Even the onset of the following winter did not result in a significant increase.

The diagrams were incredibly powerful and effective. Most importantly, they caught the attention of their audience and prompted further discussion. The question foremost in their minds was ‘What had caused the visible reduction in deaths from disease?

Of course, the most significant factor in the reduction was the changes in hygiene which had taken place in the hospitals.

By presenting facts in a compelling, visual manner, Florence Nightingale was able to use her own experiences and the data gathered through those experiences to make a case for improvements in sanitation in hospitals and the wider world.

Further information: If you are interested in the story of Florence Nightingale and the ‘rose diagram’ I recommend watching this episode of the BBC series ‘The Beauty of Diagrams’.

Quick links to the posts and pages in this series:

Assisting with inquiries – blog posts

The mindmap and questions

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