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?”

Moritz Stefaner's latest visualization

It's hardly a secret that I am a fan of Moritz Stefaner's —the illustration on the cover of The Truthful Art is one of his visualizations,— so I would like to recommend that you take a look at his latest project and to the very detailed article about it. I wish more designers wrote process pieces like that.

Don't navigate just the map. Click on any of the dashes and notice the charts that display observations versus predictions. It's an elegant solution. In his article, Moritz mentions that he reviewed several scientific papers (like this one) to better understand how to display uncertainty in charts and maps. This will be useful for me to explain to students why it is crucial to study visualization principles really well while also learning software tools and programming languages.

A side note: Doesn't this project remind you of Edmond Halley's famous map of wind directions? Here it is:

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

World Information Architecture Day in Miami

I am helping organize three conferences this year at the University of Miami. Besides a Digital Humanities + Data Journalism one (September 29-30, Oct. 1, more information coming soon) and VizUM 2016 (Nov. 10; Colin Ware and Martin Krzywinski are the presenters), the first one to arrive is the World Information Architecture Day, on Saturday, February 20.

The line up of speakers is quite impressive, beginning with our keynote, Richard Saul Wurman himself.


Here's a flyer:

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Research on persuasive visualization and risk communication

A while ago a group of researchers (Enrico Bertini among them) published a paper titled “The Persuasive Power of Data Visualization”. I've been interested in how to make information graphics convincing since I read this New York Times story, but I somehow assumed that research about the topic was limited and sparse. I was wrong.

Yesterday I met with one of our PhD candidates at the School of Communication of the University of Miami. Her name is Fan Yang. She's interested in the communication of risk, and in how charts, maps, and infographics can lead to behavioral change.

Fan shared more than twenty papers she is planning to quote in her dissertation. I've read none of these yet, but I'm planning to do so as soon as I find the time:

• “Foreground:background salience: Explaining the effects of graphical displays on risk avoidance” (full article)

• “The Visual Communication of Risk” (full article)

• “Effects of Numerical and Graphical Displays on Professed Risk-Taking Behavior” (abstract)

• “Design Features of Graphs in Health Risk Communication: A Systematic Review” (abstract)

• “Influence of Framing and Graphic Format on Comprehension of Risk Information among American Indian Tribal College Students” (full article)

 “A content analysis of visual cancer information: prevalence and use of photographs and illustrations in printed health materials” (abstract)

 “The Effect of Format on Parents' Understanding of the Risks and Benefits of Clinical Research: A Comparison Between Text, Tables, and Graphics” (full article)

 “The Effect of Alternative Graphical Displays Used to Present the Benefits of Antibiotics for Sore Throat on Decisions about Whether to Seek Treatment: A Randomized Trial” (full article)

• “Men’s interpretations of graphical information in a videotape decision aid” (abstract)

• “The impact of the format of graphical presentation on health-related knowledge and treatment choices” (abstract)

• “Numeric, Verbal, and Visual Formats of Conveying Health Risks: Suggested Best Practices and Future Recommendations” (full article)

• “The Greater Ability of Graphical Versus Numerical Displays to Increase Risk Avoidance Involves a Common Mechanism” (abstract)

• “The Influence of Graphic Format on Breast Cancer Risk Communication” (abstract)

• “Perceived Visual Informativeness (PVI): Construct and Scale Development to Assess Visual Information in Printed Materials” (abstract)

• “Understanding the Positive Effects of Graphical Risk Information on Comprehension: Measuring Attention Directed to Written, Tabular, and Graphical Risk Information” (abstract)

• “Reducing the Influence of Anecdotal Reasoning on People’s Health Care Decisions: Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Statistics?” (abstract)

• “Alternate Methods of Framing Information About Medication Side Effects: Incremental Risk Versus Total Risk of Occurrence” (abstract)

• “Risk communication formats for low probability events: an exploratory study of patient preferences” (full article)

• “The effect of an illustrated pamphlet decision-aid on the use of prostate cancer screening tests” (abstract)

• “Who profits from visual aids: Overcoming challenges in people’s understanding of risks” (abstract)

• “Risk Comprehension and Judgments of Statistical Evidentiary Appeals. When a Picture is Not Worth a Thousand Words” (abstract)

• “Frequency or Probability? A Qualitative Study of Risk Communication Formats Used in Health Care” (abstract)

• “Helping Patients Decide: Ten Steps to Better Risk Communication” (abstract)

• “Identifying patient preferences for communicating risk estimates: A descriptive pilot study” (full article)

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Truthful Art is finished: What comes next?

That's it. The Truthful Art is finished. It'll be out in early March. If you are thinking about buying it, perhaps you may want to pre-order it (Barnes&Noble, Amazon.) I've read that the number of purchases before a book is launched affects its future performance, so I am asking for your help!

The day after I submitted the manuscript I started working on new projects:

• A revamping of this blog, which I will launch a month from now or so. I will also try to blog more regularly. I really miss it.

• My PhD dissertation, which I am going to title Nerd Journalism: News Graphics and the Rise of the Journalist-Engineer. This will become a book in early 2017, and will have a companion website in which I'll upload all interviews my student assistants and I are going conduct this year.

• A formal launch of my consulting firm. I already do consulting, speaking, and freelancing for several companies (see here and here, for instance), but I have never promoted myself openly as a consultant. I will probably create a separate website for the firm, which will also be announced here.

• The Insightful Art, the third in the trilogy of books that began with The Functional Art. My goal is to have it published by 2019.

Below you can read the complete list of blurbs in The Truthful Art. They come from people I've followed for many years: Jeff Jarvis, Richard Saul Wurman, Michael E. Mann, Isabel Meirelles, Nigel Holmes, Fernanda Viégas, Martin Wattenberg, and John Grimwade.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Updates: Conferences, interviews, etc.

I'm still proofreading The Truthful Art, and will keep doing so until November, so here are a few quick updates:

• I've just been interviewed by Geoff McGhee for National Geographic online. If you want to learn about The Truthful Art and get an update of the third book in the series, The Insightful Art, read it.

• On November 12, the University of Miami is hosting the 2016 VizUM conference. Lynn Cherny, Fernanda Viégas, and Martin Wattenberg are the speakers. You can see the poster for the event below. Sign up (for free!) here.

• My infographics students Valerie Quirk and Louise Whitaker have just revamped the University of Miami's visualization website. It's not finished yet, but you may want to check it out. We will be adding new articles every week.

• You may want to mark these dates on your calendars: September 29, 30, and October 1, 2016. Those days, the University of Miami will host the first DH+DJ conference. That stands for Digital Humanities+Data Journalism. We want to bring together two communities that face similar challenges and opportunities.

To get a heads-up to the contents of this event, read this article by Dan Cohen, which first gave me the idea. He'll be one of the keynote speakers. The other is ProPublica's Scott Klein. I'll soon give you more information about the rest of speakers and post a link to the official website.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Double the axes, double the mischief

Another day, another unnecessary dual-axis chart. Is it just me or is this often misleading graphic form —barely appropriate in very specific cases (1, 2)— becoming more popular?

After the terrible example from a few days ago, I've just seen another one in Robert B. Reich's otherwise interesting Saving Capitalism: For the Many, not for the Few. Reich has mastered the use of motion and static graphics to persuade. Just watch his famous documentary; here's a glimpse. But persuasion mustn't be our primary goal when designing a graphic. Accuracy and truthfulness are.

See the original and a quick redesign:

I'll concede that in this case the distortion isn't that bad but, if you can use the same correct scale for all your data, why not doing it? Why stretching and compressing the lines and give the impression of a perfect co-variation?

(Chiqui Esteban has suggested that an indexed chart would be better here. I agree, but I don't have access to the data.)

Quick update: I finished writing The Truthful Art last week. I'll be proofreading until the end of November, so the book can be released in early March 2016. Blurbs have begun coming in. Here are Jeff Jarvis's and Michael E. Mann's:

And here's a screenshot of a page that deals precisely with dual-scale charts. The quote by Gary Smith, “If you double the axes, you can double the mischief”, comes from hist most recent book, Standard Deviations.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

If you see bullshit, say “bullshit!"

If you're on Twitter, you've probably have seen the discussion around the horrible chart below, by American United for Life. It was justly criticized by and other media organizations. The chart is being used by politicians willing to defund Planned Parenthood.

You can read more about my opinions in this post by Politifact, which gave this chart a deserved “pants on fire” score. It's even beyond that, I think:

This chart is so evil that it's difficult to decide which lie should be highlighted first. Let's begin with the dual axis, which absurdly distorts the data. The chart should have looked like this (by

Not only that. As Alex Furnas has pointed out, population increased by 6.4% between 2006 and 2013. If you take that into account, the increase in abortions may look even less impressive.

Finally, Emily Schuch looked into the source of the data and designed a chart showing all services Planned Parenthood provides. Here's her chart:

Emily also suggested that a portion of the variation of these numbers may be due to the Affordable Care Act.

Now, read the “explanation” by AUL, and feel your blood boil. It's the most disingenuous defense of graphic malpractice I've ever read, and it clearly shows that these folks are shameless spin doctors, or ignorant to the extreme. Or both. And, by the way, this is regardless of your ideological position on this whole debate. A lie is a lie.

As I say in my upcoming The Truthful Art —albeit with more presentable words—: If you see bullshit, say “bullshit!” As the old saying goes, we should all strive to tell the truth and shame the devil to create a clearer and cleaner world.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Stephen Few asked for some thoughts about an infographic. Here's what happened

Perhaps you've seen Steve Few's recent post about a flawed infographic by Time magazine. I agree with Steve's opinion, but some of his readers don't. They have a point, I think: My guess is that this graphic was meant to be shared in social media, so it may need some unobtrusive embellishments. I've tried to find the middle ground in the discussion by proposing a new redesign.

Here's a video of my opinions, followed by my version; there's always room for improvement, so please share your suggestions in the comments section:

(UPDATE: After a few hilarious comments, I should explain that what the guy below is holding is a newspaper or a magazine, not a gun, a boomerang, or a Pterodactyl; I'm just not a great artist!)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

New articles and tutorials

As usual, I cannot write a long post —yes, that new book, you know that I have a deadline to meet— so here you have some recent news:

• An article about interaction in visualization: “When Telling Data-Driven Stories, Let Readers Ask Questions, Too.”

• An article about how careful we journalists need to be when dealing with data: “‘Indignant Minnesotans’ remind journalists that data can hurt.

• Visualization/infographics classes at UM (read about our programs) begin on Tuesday, so I've been putting together materials for my students. Perhaps some may be useful for readers of this website, so here they are:
1. My personal list of free R tutorials, coming from multiple sources: See it in DropBox. I update this on a regular basis. 
2. A series of short and informal videos I've recorded about iNZight, a marvelous tool to design quick charts and explore data. Download them here
2. Another series of videos about Yeeron, which is built onto ggplot2, and it's as easy to use as iNZight, besides working on the browser. Download them here.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Good visualization work by the Tampa Bay Times

As I continue working on The Truthful Art (to be released in March 2016,) and getting ready for classes, here's just a quick recommendation: Don't miss the Tampa Bay Times's story on failing schools. It's great data journalism and it includes some good visualization work. Here's the series of stories, and here's the interactive/animated infographic. I found the vertically oriented time-series chart very intriguing.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Saturday morning visualization fun

I'm very busy getting ready for classes and writing The Truthful Art, which I need to finish before December, as the publication date is still March 4th, 2016, but I am trying to make some time to enjoy visualizations and infographics. These are three that I found lately:

• Periscopic's Homicide Monitor.

• Accurat's work for the United Nations Human Development Report 2014 and for Audobon Society's 2013 Report (despite the radar charts.)

None of those is breaking news, of course, but as Periscopic and Accurat are prominently featured in my new book, I try to visit their websites from time to time, always finding something worth exploring. That's time well invested.

Also, Visualoop has been redesigned. It now includes a large infographics and visualization gallery. The bad news is that the articles and interviews sections aren't at the forefront anymore, but this website is still the best place to go when you feel short of inspiration.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The stickiness of visualization conventions

Visualization conventions are as sticky as any other kind of convention. But stickiness isn't a proxy for goodness. We shouldn't use a graphic form uncritically just because it has become the default to represent a specific kind of data. Tradition alone isn't a good textbook.

At the bottom of this post there's a before-and-after exercise*. The original, on the left, comes from Spain's Just for the record, I have mindlessly done tons of parliament charts like that in the past. The “mindlessly” part of that sentence is critical, as I was mimicking what many news infographics designers were doing.

But one day I actually tried to read the parliament-looking chart, and make comparisons. I couldn't. I needed to read every single figure to be able to mentally visualize variations.

You can see the evidence yourself. Read just one or two figures in the first chart below, force yourself not to read the rest, and then try to estimate changes accurately. Good luck with that.

So the parliament chart is nearly useless; a table would've been better. This chart is more a nice-looking abstract illustration than a visualization because a visualization should be an aid to understanding, not a hurdle.

*NOTE: I made a slope chart, but I'd be fine with a bar chart, a dot plot or even a divided bar chart (suggestion inspired by Clement Levallois)

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A dialogue between a reporter and a visualization journalist

Inspired by true events and, unfortunately, witnessed in many newsrooms:

Reporter/writer (RW): “This chart is just so boring. You need to spice it up, adding some shadows, 3D, illustrations, or something.

Visualization journalist (VJ): “This chart shows all relevant information, and it’s accurate, readable, and elegant. Its headline is a pun, so it even has some humor. If I agree to ‘spice it up’, would you do the same with the copy you're writing, if I ask you to?”

RW: “I want this graphic to go viral! Look, visuals are supposed to attract eyeballs, above all!”

VJ: “I will be happy to sacrifice the integrity of the chart if you do the same with your story. Would you be willing to add made-up colorful details here and there in your story to make it more ‘viral’?”

RW: “Well, I'm a journalist, you know... Anyway, as it is, nobody will read this chart!”

VJ: “Have you tested how many people really read your 1,000-word stories? Perhaps we could compare.”

RW: “But I want to do surprising, experimental stuff with our graphics!”

VJ: “I am all for experimentation, but it’s easy to experiment with someone else’s work, not knowing much about its rules and ethics. It’s harder to do the same with your own ‘stuff’.”

I wonder if so many reporters/editors (writers) realize how arrogant they sound when they recklessly tell visual journalists how to do their jobs.* It's insulting and it must stop outright. They need to get some of their own medicine, for a change. Give it to them. And never give up.

(*I'm also dismayed by how many of us have happily and uncritically adopted the jargon of marketing, but that's another story.)

Monday, June 22, 2015

The useful is never different from the beautiful

Months ago I gave a presentation about data journalism and visualization at the Ukrainian Catholic University, in Lviv, which anticipates a few points you'll see in The Truthful Art. I began by quoting an engraving I saw in a building in Rynok Square, and that applies to what we do: “The useful is never different from the beautiful.” The talk is on Youtube, in case you're interested:

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Some favorite books, an interview, and a student project

This past month I've been writing like crazy, so I haven't had the chance to update this blog. Don't expect many posts in the next five months; I need to finish writing The Truthful Art before the end of November, as it will be published in early March next year. I'm using Twitter to post updates and links to resources, so please visit my account to see them.

Anyway, I'd like to share a few things: First, the Tableau folks asked me about some of my favorite books on visualization and infographics. They didn't want a comprehensive list (that'd be too long,) but just the books that I believe should be widely read, but aren't, in most cases. I mentioned Jorge Camões upcoming Data at Work: Creating effective charts and information graphics, among others.

Also, if you understand Spanish, I was recently interviewed by a radio station about the role of infographics in journalism, and about the early days of my career as a news designer.

Finally, National Geographic has picked up a project done by our visualization and infographics students. You can read more about it in a previous post and in this description of our graduate programs.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Student projects and the future of visualization at UM

I should pay more attention to competitions and awards. Our University of Miami student Luís Melgar has just won first place in the infographics category of the SND Student Contest with a data project he made for my class in the Fall 2014 semester. See it below. He submitted this without my knowing, so it was a complete surprise. The other awards were won by students from UNC-Chapel Hill. Congratulations to them, too!

This semester I've seen other interesting explanation graphics and data visualizations done by our students. For instance, Yiran Zhu's capstone project, on rising sea levels in Miami. Yiran, who has just been hired as a graphics designer by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, combined charts, maps, and 3D animation in a very interesting manner.

Also, students in my Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization class (our 101 course, so to speak) did some very nice stuff. This course is becoming increasingly popular. In the semester that has just ended we offered two sections, one for grads and another for undergrads. We've been forced to expand to four sections this coming Fall. Two of them will be taught by Hiram Henríquez, who this Spring was in charge of a special topics class in which he collaborated with faculty from UM's School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Some of the visual explanations Hiram's class produced are already being used in press releases.

Besides all of the above, I believe that Lynn Cherny's new advanced class on Javascript-based visualization in the Fall is going to be groundbreaking. I'm really excited about it (I'm auditing it; d3.js. here I come!)

As I said when presenting our plan for a new track in visualization, infographics, and mapping, offered in our Interactive Media Master (MFA) program, I'd like the University of Miami to become a if not the place to be if you wish to learn how to use visuals to communicate with the public. Note to myself: Perhaps one of the first steps would be to start encouraging students to submit their work to contests...

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Guardian's election visualization

I've been teaching all day today, but I tried to make time to enjoy some of the UK election visualizations that were published in the past hours. I really like The Guardian's one, which uses a lovely zoomable hexagon-based cartogram. Notice the drop-down menu on the upper right corner, which reveals multiple options worth exploring.

The BBC has done a nice job, as well.

Side note: It's true that some of these maps may remind you of Lisa Simpson!

Why I'm canceling my subscription to The New York Times

(UPDATE, December 10, 2015: I have resumed by subscription after the Times published this in its front page.)

In different circumstances, I'd have kept this private, but I think that I'll make an exception: I'm canceling my subscription to The New York Times tomorrow.

I was really close to doing it after my favorite newspaper, the one I have learned to love so much, didn't take a clear position in favor of freedom of speech after Islamic radicals murdered several employees at Charlie Hebdo. Instead, the Times leaned toward the  “yes, but...” stance, which I find repulsive. It didn't even publish the cartoons, even if those cartoons did have news value. Their explanations were insufficient.

Let's be clear: The Charlie Hebdo folks were murdered over cartoons. There was no moral “but” possible in that situation. Moreover, Charlie Hebdo wasn't ridiculing an ethnic group, but a religion, which is a set of ideas like any other. People deserve respect as human beings, but no one's beliefs have that right.

Also, there is a right to offend (that's another name for free speech, actually) but a right not to be offended can't exist because different groups are deeply insulted by different things. If we avoid offending the followers of a specific ideology, why shouldn't we grant everyone the same deference and dispose of free speech altogether? Charlie Hebdo viciously and regularly ridiculed Catholicism, Judaism, and the French extreme right, to name just a few of its targets. Should any those systems of ideas be respected? Of course not. No idea deserves respect. Not mine. Not yours.

As a reader and a fan, I decided to give the Times a pass back then. But I changed my mind after reading this editorial two days ago, which made me really angry. Notice the “but” again. The fallacious moral equivalences. The dubious understanding of what “hate speech” is (no, mocking ideas or mythical Dark Ages heroes, no matter how harshly, isn't hate speech.) Is Pamela Geller an odious person? I don't know, but it seems that she is. So what? Do folks I might consider despicable have a lesser right to speak their minds? The exhibit Geller put together was a provocation, says the Times editorialist. Granted, although, again, it seems to have mocked ideas, not people. In what way does that justify this dreadful editorial and the pattern of thought at the Times management level that it embodies? Artists provoke all the time. Freedom of speech doesn't stop being freedom of speech just because it's been used by someone whose worldview you happen to loathe.

I think that buying a newspaper subscription nowadays is a form of support for an institution that you want to survive in the long term because it's a societal good. I don't pay for the Times to read it. I could do that for free online. I pay because I admire the work it produces, which I'll keep praising in classes and workshops. But if a newspaper (a newspaper!) can't take the right position on one of the most fundamental tenets of an open society, I'm sorry but I feel that I should move my small contribution elsewhere. Take it as a tiny sign of protest. In the big scheme of things, it means very little. But enough is enough.

To understand this decision better, please read this, this, this, and this.

About Dataviva

MIT's César A. Hidalgo has just told me of Dataviva, a tool built with Python, HTML5, and CSS3 (running on d3plus) that lets readers explore tons of Brazilian data sets. Apparently, it began as a tool to visualize data just from Minas Gerais, one of the largest states in Brazil, but it now incorporates information from the entire country.

Dataviva should be invaluable for journalists and news designers. I've been playing with it this morning, and I'm delighted. The tool lets you switch between many different graphic forms (maps, dot plots, scatter plots, etc.,) it provides multiple ways to filter and reorganize the data, and it allows you to download the results of your exploration as CSV, SVG, PDF, and PNG.

This last feature is still a bit buggy. I got a couple of error messages while trying to generate an SVG to manipulate in Adobe Illustrator. However, at the end I'm a persistent guy I made it work, as you'll see in the pics below (yes, pie charts; I know.)

See a launch video here.