Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Washington Post does it again

Perhaps encouraged by their Pulitzer Prize, the visuals folks at The Washington Post keep producing some of the finest news visualizations out there. The latest is this series about the housing market, which includes an assortment of charts and interactive maps, combines them with text quite effectively, and looks good on mobile. I've just added it to the list of projects I show in classes every semester.

I obviously searched for my Zip code and witnessed the story change:

Stories about certain markets will be launched in the next seven or eight days. The first one, already online, is about the San Francisco Area.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

From scatter plot to slope chart

Gerardo Furtado, a Brazilian teacher who studies biology and evolutionary science, and writes about them, has designed a fun interactive graphic based on the cover of The Functional Art. Maybe this will help me overcome my notorious frustration with d3.js —but only after I finish learning proper data manipulation with dplyr; I am using the amazing DataCamp for that.

Here's an animated GIF of Gerardo's interactive graphic:

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Visualizing Shakespeare's sonnets

Gramener, a data visualization firm (follow them on Twitter), has recently launched a very simple but quite effective tool to visualize Shakespeare's sonnets. I'm a fan of visualizations that are not overdone, the kind that makes you feel that designers were trying too hard to impress their readers with their technical acumen. This is not one of those. It's straightforward, readable, and works decently on mobile. Here's how many times “love” appears in the poems:

And this is what happens if you explore the graphic a little bit further, by clicking on any of the sonnets:

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Narration and exploration in visualization

What should we emphasize when designing a visualization? Should we explain the data, perhaps through a narration, or should we let readers explore the data at will? Those are questions you probably get regularly if you work in this field.

The answer is quite obvious: if your graphic is a digital and interactive one, why shouldn't you combine narration with exploration? To see some good examples of hybrid visualizations, I'd encourage you to take a look at Kiln, a company that designed graphics for the recent Panama Papers investigation. I like their Ship Map and their Digital Divide projects, which bring to mind Hans Rosling's style.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

It's time for a Pulitzer Prize for infographics and data visualization

Winning piece by The Washington Post
The 2016 Pulitzer Prizes have been announced, and there are good news for those who care about visualization. The Tampa Bay Times won one for this series of stories and graphics I praised a while ago; The Washington Post got an award mainly for this interactive graphic. Other organizations that use data journalism on a regular basis, like The Marshall Project and ProPublica, were also recognized by the jury.

All this makes me very happy. The Post piece, for instance, won the National Reporting prize, which is great. However, I wonder: Isn't it time for the Pulitzer board to create a category for infographics, data visualization, news applications, etc.? Awards already exist for other journalistic forms like explanatory reporting, feature writing, commentary, photography etc. Isn't it clear already that visualization is increasingly popular, effective, and that graphics can be standalone journalistic “stories”? Doesn't visualization deserve to be recognized as a distinct way of delivering news? I believe that it does. Moreover, as Scott Klein says, news graphics have more than two hundreds years of history, so this prize category is long overdue.

Perhaps we should open a petition.

UPDATE: Here's IndyStar's Stephen Beard on Facebook:

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Visualization against statistical bullshit

I want to bring your attention to this excellent long article by Tim Harford (h/t Thomas Lumley.) Here's a summary:
Statistical bullshit is a special case of bullshit in general, and it appears to be on the rise. This is partly because social media — a natural vector for statements made purely for effect — are also on the rise. On Instagram and Twitter we like to share attention-grabbing graphics, surprising headlines and figures that resonate with how we already see the world. Unfortunately, very few claims are eye-catching, surprising or emotionally resonant because they are true and fair. Statistical bullshit spreads easily these days; all it takes is a click.
Harford suggests that visualization may be a mighty weapon to make statistics attractive and understandable to the public. He mentions Florence Nightingale's famous charts:
(...) There is a middle ground between the statistical bullshitter, who pays no attention to the truth, and William Farr, for whom the truth must be presented without adornment. That middle ground is embodied by the recipient of William Farr’s letter advising dryness. She was the first woman to be elected to the Royal Statistical Society: Florence Nightingale. (...)
The Rose Diagram isn’t a dry presentation of statistical truth. It tells a story. Its structure divides the death toll into two periods — before the sanitary improvements, and after. In doing so, it highlights a sharp break that is less than clear in the raw data. And the Rose Diagram also gently obscures other possible interpretations of the numbers — that, for example, the death toll dropped not because of improved hygiene but because winter was over. The Rose Diagram is a marketing pitch for an idea. The idea was true and vital, and Nightingale’s campaign was successful. One of her biographers, Hugh Small, argues that the Rose Diagram ushered in health improvements that raised life expectancy in the UK by 20 years and saved millions of lives. 
What makes Nightingale’s story so striking is that she was able to see that statistics could be tools and weapons at the same time. She educated herself using the data, before giving it the makeover it required to convince others. Though the Rose Diagram is a long way from “the dryest of all reading”, it is also a long way from bullshit. Florence Nightingale realised that the truth about public health was so vital that it could not simply be recited in a monotone. It needed to sing.
“She educated herself using the data, before giving it the makeover it required to convince others.” This is akin to a message I tried to convey in The Truthful Art: Before we can think of doing good with data, we ought to make sure that our data is as good as possible.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Programmers and designers aren't real journalists (or so it seems)

The screenshot at the bottom of this post is from a recent book, Saving the Media. I wonder if the author, Julia Cagé, bothered to meet with a proper sample of those “computer specialists” and “Java” (Java? Perhaps she meant to write “Javascript”?) and ask them what they do, and how they do it.

She may have been be surprised when talking to some visual and data journalists at places like ProPublica, Berliner Morgenpost, Zeit Online, FiveThirtyEight, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, LA Times, and so many others. They do reporting —hey, they even talk to sources, they don't just stare at their computers all day!— and, besides, they know how to code and design multimedia stories, infographics, and data visualizations.

Moreover, the work of some of these “digital” journalists is central to investigations nowadays. Data journalism isn't in conflict with investigative reporting. They are merging with each other. And the causal relationship suggested here —investigative and international reporters are been fired so news organizations can hire developers— is fallacious.

The lines below are out of touch with actual journalism. The book reminds me of a time when the only people who could claim to be real journalists were writers who produced stories. The rest, the jazzy interactive graphics and databases devised by those “Java” (Java?) folks at the corner of the newsroom? Fun embellishments that may “promote a better understanding of the news,” but that are mere complements to real journalism.

UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis has a review of the entire book. It's worth reading. This other critique is quite polite, but what it reveals is appalling: notice the part about Thomas Piketty.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Truthful Pie

Reader Alasdair Rae (don't miss his visualization blog) has just posted this tweet. Is there anyone out there who still believe that data people don't have a sense of humor? It's a truthful pie! Alasdair has certainly learned how to design effective charts in the book...

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Interviews about maps, infographics, and data visualization

I've recently appeared in two visualization and data podcasts to talk about The Truthful Art and other topics. The first one is Analytics on Fire, and the second is Jon Schwabish's PolicyViz. Kaiser Fung has also written a nice review of my new book. Kaiser is a statistician, so his words made my day.

Here's the Analytics on Fire interview , which deals mostly —but not only— with maps:

Thursday, March 31, 2016

How visualization can be harmful

Thanks to Yuri Engelhardt I've discovered this article by Jake Porway about how visualization can be misused, sometimes with harmful consequences. Porway makes many points worth discussing* in our community(es), but I'd like to highlight just the one in the pic below, as it connects with something I suggested a while back about making our data and models available.

*This is debatable, for instance: “People shouldn’t try to draw conclusions from pictures of data – we’re notoriously bad at that as humans – we should be building models and using scientific methods to learn from data.”

UM students design talking Trump doll with Arduino

It's great to begin your day with a laugh.

I've just got to the School of Communication and saw Fábio Ribeiro, a student in our MFA in Interactive Media. Fábio was carrying an artifact designed in collaboration with Chris RoyLauren Kett, and Rafael Baldwin. The four of them did great in my introduction to infographics and data visualization class last semester, and they seem to be having fun in the Physical Computing course, taught by Dan Dickinson (here's the rest of the faculty.)

Anyway, their latest creation is a goofy Arduino-driven talking doll of Donald Trump. See a photo and a video:

Monday, March 28, 2016

Nice small multiples by FT's John Burn-Murdoch

My lack of interest in any kind of sport is —I hope— well known at this point, as I've made jokes about it in both my books and this blog. That's why I consider it a big success when a sports infographic or data story grabs my attention and makes me feel that I really, really need to see it. It happens now and then; I remember this amazing animation by NYT from years ago, for instance.

Latest case: this project by FT's John Burn-Murdoch. I cannot comment on the quality of the data, or the soundness of the narrative built on top of it, but I'd like to highlight some of the many and very smart visual design choices: Notice the elegance of style, the nice use of small multiples, and the carefully crafted annotation layer. This made my day. And I will read it —even if I likely won't understand a word of it.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

“His product was full of innovation —he ran maps and charts before anybody”

I am trying —and failing— to take a break from visualization this weekend by reading a thriller by Stephen Hunter titled I, Ripper. The book is much better written than most of its ilk, and in many pages the author lets his past as a newspaper man transpire. Read the passage below; it reminded me of Scott Klein's recent article on 19th Century infographics.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Two free chapters from the new Malofiej infographics book

Like every year, the organization of the Malofiej World Infographics summit, workshops, and awards, has put together a beautiful book, the 23rd in the series (see the previous ones.) I wrote* a short chapter, titled 'Unknown Unknowns', which you can download as a PDF here. Scott Klein wrote another describing some old news graphics about cholera outbreaks, and ProPublica has just published it. It's a fantastic read, so do yourself a favor and take a look at it.

NOTE: You will find at least one typo in my article: Instead of “casual relationship” it should read “causal” (h/t Cristina Versino)

(*Better said, I adapted a couple of pages from The Truthful Art and then wrote a short introduction and a conclusion.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

New 'InGraphics' magazine

InGraphics is a magazine created by Jan Schwochow's Golden Section Graphics. The new issue (9th) has just been released; the previous ones are also worth a look. I have most of them in my office and I use them in classes, along with the Malofiej and The Best American Infographics book series, to give students a sense of the varieties of the visualization experience. All of them include a good balance between classic illustration-based infographics and data visualizations, like these ones:

Disclosing our data and models

This morning I saw an intriguing table in a New York Times article. Then, I tweeted:
Others mentioned additional matters worth pondering:
Really cool, I agree. After that, NYT's Gregor Aisch replied:
I think that Gregor took the first comment as a complaint, although it was a mere suggestion: Wouldn't it be possible to make both data and even models available in a single place —perhaps as a sidebar— rather than forcing dorky readers to find them on their own, in case they wish to explore the evidence behind the story and the table? The article itself mentions those data and models, so why not disclosing them?

ProPublica and FiveThirtyEight, have been doing that on a regularly basis, and they often explain their methodology (see also this, by Illinois's Daily Herald. UPDATE: Or this by the NYT itself, via Gregor) I think that there's plenty of discussions to be had about how we journalists and news designers can be more transparent and mimic scientists a bit when doing analysis and data-driven stories.

UPDATE: Jeremy Singer-Vine, data editor at BuzzFeed, has told me that they publish the data and analyses for their projects here. Please also read his article ‘What we’ve learned about sharing our data analysis: Publishing reproducible data that’s genuinely useful.’

Below are my favorite paragraphs, which summarize the point I intended to make in this post better than I ever could: the key isn't to disclose your data for some major projects here and there; the key is to do it more systematically, disclosing it for most —if not all— of them:
At BuzzFeed News, our main motivation is simple: transparency. If an article includes our own calculations (and are beyond a grade-schooler’s pen-and-paper calculations), then you should be able to see—and potentially criticize—how we did it.
And that holds us accountable. Indeed, the very prospect of public scrutiny forces us to be as lucid and straightforward as possible. It discourages us from cutting corners. It lights a fire under our proverbial posteriors, and improves our work.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Malofej infographics summit has been storified

The 24th Malofiej Infographics summit has just finished. The talks were fantastic this year but, unfortunately, they have not been recorded. To get an idea of what was discussed, you can see the collection of tweets that Geoff McGhee has put together in Storify: One, and two.

I liked all presentations I attended but if I had to choose a few, I'd pick Archie Tse's, Lena Groeger's and the conversation between Richard Saul Wurman and John Grimwade. I hope that the tweets above will convince of something I've said in this blog a while ago: If you do or teach infographics and data visualization for a living, attending Malofiej at least once is a must.

Here's the jury of this year's awards:

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Just because an important event happened at an inflection point, you cannot infer that it is the cause of that inflection

When facing simplistic charts like the one below your brain should scream “confounding!” In other words: there are too many ignored variables here to infer that Obamacare had any influence in the job market. It may well be that it had a negative impact, but that this impact was counterbalanced by other positive factors that the designer/journalist/activist decided not to show. We don't really know. The chart is devoid of sorely needed context. It proves nothing.

Just to remember a maxim inspired by Nigel Holmes: visualizations and infographics must never simplify; they must clarify. And, in order to clarify, sometimes you'll need to increase the amount of information included, not reduce it.


Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Three interviews about visualization and infographics

The Truthful Art is already available in bookstores, and some interviews about it have already been published: I appeared at the Analytics on Fire podcast and at Interworks. I also talked to Visualoop's Tiago Veloso.

The common theme of all these is how The Truthful Art came about (hint: I usually write and teach to explain things to myself) and how it complements The Functional Art while being a book that can be read on its own.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Empathy and visualization

Jon Schwabish, Kim Rees, and Mushon Zer-Aviv recently had a great discussion about empathy in visualization. I was invited to it, but couldn't participate. During the conversation, Mushon mentioned that I very briefly address this topic in the Epilogue of The Truthful Art. I certainly tried but here's the thing: the book got so large that I had to cut most of those last few pages out. Therefore, I am sharing the draft (expect typos!) that I wrote, just to provide more context to the aforementioned discussion (below).

UPDATE: Please do read this article by Amanda Montañez: “Art Can Highlight Climate Change, But Where is the Data?”