Friday, March 27, 2015

Visualization critique: A how-to guide

Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg wrote a chapter for the latest Malofiej book titled “Design and Redesign in Data Visualization” (see some pages here.) It's one of the best articles I've read in a while, so I got really happy when I saw that they also published it on Medium. Please make some time to read it. My favorite passage:

Part of maintaining rigor is acknowledging situations where professional judgments don’t agree, and finding ways to come to an understanding. Sometimes people will look at a side-by-side comparison and come to opposite conclusions. (...) The first step is to have a conversation about the source of the disagreement. Very often it turns out that different professionals have different criteria for success for a visualization, or have different goals in mind; clarifying these is extremely useful to the field. Other times, however, people simply have different intuitions about clarity or legibility. In these situations, it may make sense to turn to a scientific experiment. This should not be viewed as a failure of criticism, but rather a success: a crisp, testable scientific question is a rare commodity

And here's another one, which is key:

The field of visualization sits at the intersection of two very different intellectual traditions. On one side of the family, visualization traces its roots to art and graphic design. On the other side, it’s descended from computer graphics and the tradition of scientific experiment. It’s worth taking a step back and describing some of the morés and norms in each field, and how they conflict in the case of visualization criticism.

The three recommendations at the end are great, too: maintain rigor, respect the designer, and respect the critic.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Data and Goliath

Just a quick note to recommend that you get a copy of Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World, by Bruce Schneier. If you work in visualization, infographics, data journalism, analytics, etc., you'll be interested in it.

The book reads as a follow-up to Jaron Lanier's Who Owns the Future?, but it goes deeper into the consequences of a world where the collection, analysis, and usage of data has become widespread. I'm in the middle of it, and I have highlighted at least a couple of lines on every single page. Here you have some reviews:

The New York Times

The Wall Street Journal

Federation of American Scientists

More about data decoration

In the past months there has been some controversy around certain words I wrote about visualization/infographics and data decoration. Boundaries are always very fuzzy but just a reminder I still believe that there's a fundamental difference between graphics designed to enable understanding (visualization/infographics) and those that are intended mainly to embellish numbers or enliven a page (data decoration.)

I've just found a good example to illustrate my point. Ask yourself if this graphic lets you do anything with the data comparing values, seeing relationships between them, etc., or if figures have been arranged to create nice-looking picture, instead:

(UPDATE: Stefanie Posavec and Moritz Stefaner have suggested the term “data illustration” rather than “decoration”, as it sounds less demeaning. I disagree. I love Baroque architecture, so I think that decorative art can be valuable, and can be done well or badly —perhaps the case here. But I am fine with “data illustration”, too.)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Images from the new Malofiej book

I'm in Pamplona, Spain, attending the Malofiej Infographics Summit. The program is impressive this year, so I'm very excited. I have also seen the new Malofiej book, the 22nd in the series. It's a monster of a tome: 320 pages, 140 of them being interviews and articles, like Fernanda Viégas' and Martin Wattenberg's, on the importance of constructive criticism in visualization and infographics, and Sandra Redgen's, about Charles Joseph Minard.

I am sharing some images of the book. Enjoy.

(See all images)

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Interview in Diario Vasco

If you understand Spanish, here’s an interview about data and visualization that appeared yesterday in El Diario Vasco, one of the main regional newspapers in Northern Spain. The headline means “Statistics don’t lie. People who manipulate them do.”

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Unethical practices in the publishing world

A while ago I wrote a post explaining why authors should work just with publishers that respect them. Peachpit, which published The Functional Art, and will launch The Truthful Art in March next year, is one of those.

Some can make you feel very uncomfortable. See the e-mail I've just received:

The first edition of that book was written by Andy Kirk. who has just told me that he won't have any control over what Packt does with his book and, because of that, he doesn't approve of a new edition. They didn't even have the courtesy of informing him before contacting other authors.

No matter what their contract says, Packt Publishing's approach —which is the approach of other publishers, unfortunately— is unethical. It may be common practice, but that doesn't make it any better. It's a practice that must die. If you're going to update somebody's book, work with that person or, at least, get all changes approved by her or him. And if you can't work with an author, you should give the rights back and create an entirely new book.

New writers, be careful.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Integrated multimedia storytelling

In the past few years I've become very interested in new ways of combining interactive visualizations, infographics, video, audio, and text, an approach we used to call “integrated multimedia storytelling” a decade ago. Stories like Snow Fall and the NSA Files are good examples of this trend. The latest one I've seen was done by Matteo Moretti, a researcher at the Free University of Bolzano, and it's titled People's Republic of Bolzano. Here's how he describes it:
I worked in a team with a journalist and an anthropologist in order to open a public debate among the local community about the local Chinese community: despite the (local) media depict a "Chinese invasion", the Chinese community in Bolzano is integrated, small, and fragmented. So the aim of our project was to break the common places spread by the media, showing to the local community who the Chinese of Bolzano are, how much are they integrated, wat they think, through the interviews and through the data.
Beautiful stuff. This is what visualization* is about: Informing people by providing good evidence in an engaging manner.

(*Good journalism actually; people tend to think that journalism is just what journalists do, which isn't true at all. Anyone who gathers, processes, and delivers reliable information with the sole goal of informing her community about relevant issues is committing an act of journalism.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

How my class projects work: Guidelines and feedback

My infographics and visualization students are already working on their first project this semester.

This is how it works: First of all, I gave them a theme, “Homelessness in the U.S.” Based on that, I asked them to tell me an interesting data-driven story. It could be anything they choose: Homelessness among veterans, the relationship between homelessness and mental illness or drug abuse, how the economy affects homelessness rates, the change in a particular state or city, etc.

They also need to choose:
1. Their sources.
2. The publication they are working for: A news organization, a specific NGO, etc. The style of their graphics will greatly depend on this.
3. If they want to produce a large static graphic, an interactive visualization, or a story with charts and maps.
4. The tools to use: Illustrator, Tableau, d3.js, Processing, etc.

In the images below you can get an idea of the kind of feedback I give during the production. The deadline is Friday, but some projects look good already.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Guardian shows its (visualization) teeth

A few months ago, Xaquín G.V. was hired by Aron Pilhofer as the new editor of visuals at The Guardian. They have a top-notch visualization and infographics team over there, in my opinion (Pablo Gutiérrez, Feilding Cage, and many other talented people are in it,) so it was predictable that we'd start seeing good stuff sooner rather than later.

Check their poll projection series of graphics. If you like Sankey diagrams, you'll be psyched. Oh, and it looks great on a smartphone, as it's responsive. There are a few details here and there that I'm not sure about, but I don't think that this is a time to complain, but to celebrate.

Lynn Cherny is joining UM for a year as a Visiting Knight Chair

OK, this hasn't been officially announced yet, but the word is out and spreading fast, and I'm very excited, so here it goes: Lynn Cherny is joining the School of Communication at the University of Miami for a year as a Visiting Knight Chair (there will be another Knight Chair at the School, a more permanent one: Myself.)

As you probably know, Lynn is very active in the visualization world: She tweets, has a blog, consults, and runs the data-vis-jobs list. She's also an expert programmer with a background in linguistics, data mining and analysis, and UX.

During the Fall 2015 and the Spring 2016 semesters, Lynn will play a key role in shaping our new data visualization MFA program (more details here.) To begin with, in the Fall semester this year she's scheduled to teach an advanced data visualization class, which students in my current introductory course can take. For that class, we are partnering with UNICEF to visualize their data. UNICEF will publish the interactive graphics that students in Lynn's class will produce.*

(Another big visualization-related hire may happen soon, but it hasn't been confirmed; stay tuned.)

*Side note: I am going to audit Lynn's class myself. I need to take advantage of this, don't I?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Online course: Data Visualization and Infographics with D3.js

I'm happy to announce that Scott Murray and I will be co-teaching an 6-week online course titled Data Visualization and Infographics with D3.js. It begins on March 16th.

I'll be in charge of the conceptual side of the class, and Scott will teach you how to design great visualizations with d3. If you already did one of my MOOCs, a portion of the theory materials will sound familiar, although I've recorded a brand new series of video lectures. Scott has done the same.

The first 100 people who register will receive free copies of Scott's e-book Interactive Data Visualization for the Web. All students will also get early access to the introduction and first two chapters of my upcoming 2016 book, The Truthful Art.

Follow this link to register 
and see the intro video below.

UPDATE: The Knight Center has published an in-depth description of the course.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Two great visualizations by The Wall Street Journal

It's not a secret that I'm biased in favor of visualizations that are clear and avoid capricious special effects. The priority in visualization design is to enable the discovery of interesting stories that lurk behind the complexity of data and information, and that is regardless of the context of the graphic. You can certainly sacrifice a bit of clarity and bend or break the rules if the payoff is great (a substantial increase in visual appeal, for instance,) but that's not a blank check.

Anyway, the previous lines are just an excuse to recommend two very recent projects by The Wall Street Journal, Track National Unemployment, Job Gains and Job Losses, and Battling Infectious Diseases in the 20th Century: The Impact of Vaccines. Both illustrate how to achieve clarity and beauty, I believe. I'm teaching a class in 30 minutes, and I'm incorporating them to my slides right now.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Redesigning a circular timeline

Yesterday a student of mine asked how to make an infographic like the one on the right in Adobe Illustrator (source). Click on the image to expand it.

I immediately tweeted that I would indeed show her some software tricks, but that I'd also explain why this may not be a good idea.

See, timelines (or bar charts, urgh...) shaped as circles are usually very hard to interpret, and not only because they force you to tilt your head to read the labels. It's true that they look pretty, and this one isn't an exception. It is very pretty. However, once you start trying to extract meaning from it, it becomes a bit frustrating.

Jer Thorp replied to my tweet:

I'm a fan of Jer's work —he's going to be one of the interviewees in my 2016 book— and, as I'm not in favor of strict rules in visualization,* I first conceded the circle might indeed let you cram more information into a smaller space. As for the idea that the original lets you clearly compare Dec. 2010 to Dec. 2011, I wasn't sure at all, and I said so in our conversation.

Anyway, I'm traveling alone today. I woke up really early and got bored during my long breakfast, so I decided to test my thoughts —and Jer's. In visualization you usually won't know if a particular shape works until you actually use it and compare it to as many alternatives as possible. I redesigned the timeline, using similar colors and font sizes as the original. Version 2 is much easier to read. I also put the new version next to the first one, to show that the circle turns out to be less space-efficient.

As a reminder, I believe that there's a difference, no matter how fuzzy it is, between information visualization (graphics to amplify cognition) and data decoration and data art which are both fine areas.

*I do believe that many flexible rules do exist, and need to be respected, though.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Visualizing gender and ideological disparities in RateMyProfessors

This visualization by Northeastern University's Ben Schmidt is making the rounds in social media today. For good reason. The graphic lets you search for words and short sentences, and it returns their frequency per million in reviews. Try “tough”, “strict”,“mean”, "unprepared",“smart”, etc., and you'll see that, in general, female instructors are rated far more poorly than their male counterparts.

After that, try some terms related to politics. I wrote “liberal” and ”conservative”. The results are below. See Political Science going to the top of the vertical scale, and don't miss the striking change on the X-scale.

(h/t Hannah Fairfield)

Monday, February 2, 2015

If something looks wrong in your data it's probably because there's indeed something wrong in your data

Yesterday a revered* Spanish newspaper published a bar chart like the one below in a story about poverty in Latin America. Do you see something weird? Is it really possible that nearly the entire population of Bolivia was poor in 2005?

Of course it isn't. If you go to the data (table below), which comes from the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Cepal), you'll see that for each year there is one column for poverty (“pobreza”) and another one for indigence (“indigencia”). The problem is, obviously, that you cannot add up those two variables. The variable “indigence” is very likely a portion of the broader category “poverty”!

Spain’s traditional newspapers often claim that citizens must pay for their product, and that they deserve special protections because what they offer is far better than what people get from online media, non-professional journalists, bloggers, etc. Blah, blah, blah.

(*Not for long.)


UPDATE: Josu Mezo, from the blog Malaprensa (“Bad Press”) has told me that he got misled himself by the chart the first time he saw it. He didn't notice the mistake. That's precisely the reason why I try not to blame individual designers for this kind of blunder. We all make mistakes all the time, no matter how well we educate ourselves to be more numerate and to pay more attention. This is not an individual failure. It's an institutional one. Newspapers used to have correctors and copy-editors, who took a second, a third, and a fourth look at your work. Most of them have been fired in many news organizations, and these are the consequences, particularly when you're on a tight deadline.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Infographics, visualization, and multimedia at Fusion

Yesterday my students and I had the first meeting of the semester with the interactive teams at Noticias Univisión and Fusion. The University of Miami has a partnership with those organizations, so we drop by once a month to learn about their work. We also collaborate on projects sometimes.

The Fusion folks showed us their new website, which collects several behind-the-scenes articles about the techniques and tools they employ in their infographics, visualizations, and multimedia documentaries. My personal favorites are ‘A Losing Battle’ and ‘The Bobblehead Effect.’ I love the 3D animation on that one.

The articles are an excellent resource for classes, as they give you a glimpse of how things really work in a newsroom. I'm planning to use them a lot, particularly with the graduate students coming next Fall for the data and visualization program. They'll be inspired, I believe, and realize that charts and maps are just a portion of a much larger picture.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

NASA's Science Visualization Studio

Thanks to Wired I've discovered that NASA has a Science Visualization Studio. The work of this group is really nice, and quite varied; it includes geospatial visualization, narrated infographics, etc. I just wished they stopped using the ugly and ineffective rainbow color palette (here's why)!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

An old interview with Charles M. Blow

If you read The New York Times regularly, you've surely have seen Charles M. Blow's weekly columns. You may have even heard about his memoir, Fire Shut Up In My Bones —a great book, I must say.

What many of you perhaps don't know, though, is that before becoming a successful opinion writer in 2008, Blow was director of infographics at the NYT and at National Geographic magazine. I was reminded of it recently, while browsing over my Malofiej awards book collection. Book 12 includes an interview with Blow conducted by Nigel Holmes a decade ago.

I asked the Malofiej friends for permission to reproduce it here. See all pages below. Then, click on any of them to enlarge it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Off-topic: Leon Wieseltier

If I had to choose just one popular non fiction writer whose work I find infuriating, that's Leon Wieseltier, who has appeared in this website more than once. After he left The New Republic, he was hired by The Atlantic magazine, and it seems that we'll also have to endure him in The New York Times.

Yesterday, his essay 'Among the Disrupted' appeared in the NYT's Book Review, and it's terrible. It's not very often that you find such a shameless series of straw man fallacies and gross simplifications (science opposed to the humanities? I guess that he's proposing that we go back to the times of the scholastics, right?) wrapped up in such a florid and utterly vapid style. I'll let you enjoy it before taking a look at some quick thoughts that I shared on Twitter while I was reading it. Notice point 13 and the final tweet, in particular, which I'm reproducing:

Monday, January 19, 2015

Visualizing the songs of humpback whales

I'm spending all day preparing for classes today, so discovering this fascinating article by David Rothenberg and Mike Deal has been a relief. It describes how the the sound patterns of humpback whales were transformed into wavy visual shapes which reflect the highs and lows of each short sound bite. The authors share their own visualizations and motion graphic, but don't miss the beautiful historical sonograms and this old cover of Science magazine that they also showcase.

(h/t Washington Post's Know More)