Saturday, December 3, 2016


I needed a 10 minute break from that-project-that-must-not-be-named, so I decided to use Robert Grant's DrawMyData to design a Trump chartoon. See it below, along with the correlation coefficient and other summary statistics. Feel free to use it. If you want the CSV with the data, can download it here.

(A while ago I did a datasaurus; I got tired of showing Anscombe's quartet when discussing the importance of visualization for data exploration.)

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The rise of data visualization in news graphics

The next two months are going to be quite busy. I need to finish writing my PhD dissertation, titled Nerd Journalism. I'll release it as a free e-book through this website probably in the Summer of 2017.

One of the elements of my analysis of how journalistic visualization and infographics have changed in the past decade and a half is the kind of projects that win awards in the Malofiej Infographics competition, the most popular one among news graphics creators.

The graph below shows the percentage of the nearly 2,000 projects recognized by Malofiej juries that had a pictorial graphic (a visual explanation, a photograph, etc.) as central or main element, versus those that emphasize some sort of abstract representation (data graphs, charts, numerical tables, etc.) A couple of important notes: I'm still cleaning up the data, so take this with a grain of salt. Also, this is just a quick summary; other graphics that I'll design for the book will break this down further by type of graphic —graphs, data maps, explanatory illustrations, locator maps, etc.— by country of origin, by publication, etc.

Finally, the last two editions of Malofiej I got data from, the 22nd and the 23rd, are missing in this graph, but the trend continues: Abstract graphics —mostly data visualizations— keep growing, and constitute half of the projects that get awards:

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

New visualization: Rhythm of Food

The second project coming out of my collaboration with Google News Lab has just been published. It was designed by Moritz Stefaner, and it's titled Rhythm of Food. As in the case of the first visualization in this series, Worldpotus, I can't take credit for anything other than talking to Moritz and Google News Lab's Simon Rogers every week or two to offer some feedback here and there.

(Simon has written about this visualization.)

Rhythm of Food reveals how Google searches for food have varied since 2004 through a series of fun circular plots. Some of you may contend that more traditional graphs —time-series line graphs?— may have been more appropriate, but I'd disagree; just consider: a) the goal here isn't accuracy, but to reveal overall, general patterns, b) the circular plots fit well on mobile screens, c) they are visually alluring, d) they look like food on a dish —OK, perhaps not a strong reason,— e) you can see the data as line graphs by clicking on the + symbol of each chart. Here:

The point is that, as in the case of Worldpotus and other projects we'll release in the future —next one will likely be one by Jan Willem Tulp in January,— we're trying to let people see data in multiple ways: As eye-catching and sometimes unorthodox charts first, and as more bread-and-butter graphs or tables if they want further detail.

We're also trying to combine the narrative/explanatory with the exploratory. This project first describes the data, highlights some interesting cases —annotating peaks— and then it lets you explore at will.

Here are some early exploratory sketches; enjoy:

Fake data, fake causation, fake news

The headline I'm showing here is an example of how fake news websites bullshit people. In the case of this article from Glenn Beck's The Blaze, by making up a causal link between two consecutive events, which is one of the variants of the famous “correlation does not imply causation” mantra. I talk about old tricks like this in The Truthful Art.

There is simply no evidence to support the claim that protests to raise the minimum wage led McDonald's to launch their new self-serving machines. A column The Blaze links, by Ed Rensi, proves nothing; it's just old, plain confirmation bias. Automation would likely have happened regardless —as McDonald's itself acknowledged.

Allow me an aside: There's an ongoing discussion these days about the role that “fake news” played in the election. Focusing just on scrappy websites put together by a young fellow living in, say, Georgia —the country, not the state,— or on how Russia may have helped spreading lies is wrong.

U.S. organizations like The Blaze, Infowars, and radio and TV shows like Rush Limbaugh's or Sean Hannity's are fake news as well, and they are far more influential. If you think that calling them “fake” is an exaggeration, you haven't listened to Rush Limbaugh enough. Here's a sample. For your entertainment, begin at 6:45, when he describes what “true Americans” are, in comparison to those “other” people.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

About scheduling and productivity

A student has just asked me how I organize my time. I get this question quite often, so let me share some tips, in case you're interested.

The key to being reasonably productive is to discover what kind of person you are. We are born with certain personality traits that we can't really modify much. Some people are able do three or four different things a day. I tried. I failed. I am a one-main-task-a-day person.

This means that, ideally, I try to assign one core activity to each day of the week. If I'm writing, I mostly just write. If I'm doing university-related things —lecturing, grading, preparing for classes, meetings— I mostly do that.

My current week looks like this:
MONDAY: Preparing for classes or writing
TUESDAY: Teaching and meetings
THURSDAY: Teaching and meetings
FRIDAY: Consulting/traveling or writing
SATURDAY: Freelancing or writing
SUNDAY: Family day
I usually begin work at 9 a.m. and stop either at 3 p.m. or at 5 p.m., depending on the day. Every hour or two —this is flexible, I must admit— I allow myself some goofing around in social media. This is when you may see me tweeting.

If there's an activity that needs to fit into one specific day —say a phone call with a colleague, a meeting, or filling out some paperwork on Wednesday, when I should be writing— I treat it as a pause, like if I were on social media.

If this secondary activity takes longer than 15 minutes, I make up the extra time extending my work day. I do the same if I get carried away on Twitter, something that recently has happened too often.

I try to reserve at least two or three hours a day to reading. I read two print newspapers and then my RSS and Twitter feeds during breakfast. This usually takes one hour or a bit more. I read books in the late afternoon or evening.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Search data can be really helpful, but always think carefully when you use it

(Full disclosure: I'm a consultant-art director for Google in this series of visualizations.)

The Washington Post's Christopher Ingraham says that the chart below is one of “the most depressing” he's seen this year. He's written an article about it.

I really appreciate Ingraham's work, but I think that, in this specific case, he's reading a bit too much into that Google Trends chart —or not showing a big enough picture. He says:
Google's data doesn't indicate peoples' sentiment toward the Klan when they search for it — whether they view it positively or negatively. It does, however, illustrate how the Klan is now seen as part of current events, rather than a relic of the past. [...] In 2006, for example, people who searched for the Ku Klux Klan were also searching primarily for topics related to history and racism, according to Google's data, suggesting attempts to situate the clan within the country's history. In the past year, however, people searching for the Klan were also looking for information on Trump, Hillary Clinton and African Americans in general, according to Google.
Well, yes, of course. People use Google to look for information. That could actually be the headline, but it wouldn't be that catchy, wouldn't it? See: “People are using Google to inform themselves about current events —like Stephen K. Bannon's appointment as White House strategist.” See what happens if we search for terms like “fascism”, “autocrat”, or “white supremacism” in Google Trends —related searches, which Ingraham mentions, and U.S.-only searches are very similar:

Sunday, November 13, 2016

More bad data: the number of criminal undocumented immigrants is 180k, not 3 million

We're just a few days after the election and the bad data tsunami I announced is catching momentum. In this interview with CBS after winning, Trump says that he's planning to deport up to 3 million undocumented immigrants “with criminal records”.

In case you feel tempted to normalize or spin this somehow, consider that the real number of undocumented immigrants with criminal records is less than 180,000, something that Trump himself knows very well. This may mean that the definition of “criminal” his administration will use right after inauguration will be dangerously wide and vague. It also means that, contrary to what some prominent journalists who are victims of baseless wishful thinking say, Trump remains committed to his most authoritarian ideas.

In a time of great need, donate and subscribe. And make it public

A few days back I announced a donation of $1,000 to ProPublica. As I explained there, I'd just read Peter Singer's wonderful Ethics in the Real World, where he suggests we must be more outspoken about the donations we make. Not to boast about them, but to appeal to those who can afford doing the same, but still give very little —or nothing. There's evidence from the psychology literature showing that public announcements of donations increase donations.

A list of recent donations I've made is at the bottom of this post. I encourage you make yours public, too.

My list includes ongoing subscriptions to news publications that do investigative reporting or aggressive commentary, things that we'll desperately need during an administration that won't be constrained by any serious checks or balances; this isn't about partisanship, but about preparing ourselves to preserve democracy —and no, I don't think I'm being hyperbolic at all:

• One-time gift to ProPublica: $1,000
• One-time gift to the Against Malaria Foundation: $500
• Monthly gift to ACLU: $50
• Monthly gift to Planned Parenthood: $40
• (I'm still looking into other organizations to donate to, using Singer's website as guidance.)

 Magazines: The Weekly Standard, New Yorker, Mother Jones, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone
 Newspapers: The Miami Herald, The New York Times
 Online subscriptions: The Washington Post, The New Tropic,, The Wall Street Journal

Friday, November 11, 2016

Now more than ever: Call out data and visualization bullshit

After the results of the election, we're going to witness a shit storm of bad data and misleading graphics, coming from all directions. If you follow this blog, if you've read my books, you already know where I stand: Every single one of us has a responsibility to call out bullshit, and to fight against it with reason and evidence, regardless of what agenda that bullshit is trying to push. We mustn't sit on the fence and witness the deluge of misinformation in ironic silence. That's irresponsible.

This will require our keeping an eye on all sorts of media publications to the left and to the right, even —or particularly— those that we deeply dislike.

Here's an example: I visited the #buildTheWall hashtag on Twitter, and saw that people were spreading this story and video by Infowars. Read the story and watch the video to understand how crooks like Alex Jones are unashamedly using every trick in the data trickster textbook to manipulate their audience: First, confounding correlation and causation —sanctuary cities mean more Democratic vote, when it's likely the other way around: liberal cities are more protective of undocumented immigrants;— second, talking about a “sea of red” on a map, when Jones and his colleagues know perfectly well that geographical area isn't proportional to population density. The blue areas have a much larger population than the red ones.

You may think that this effort is pointless, that you'll just be preaching to the choir. I don't think so, for two reasons: Good information does change minds, as Tom Stafford explains in his For Argument's Sake; also, if you promote your critiques using the same Twitter hashtags and social media channels that crooks use to spread their bullshit, or if you post them in their websites as a comment, a part of their audience will see them. An overwhelming majority of them will dismiss you, and even attack you, but a tiny portion will have a small seed of doubt planted in their brains. A single seed does nothing, but thousands will. Some will bloom.

So get ready. Join the movement. Help build the wall, the right kind of wall: a wall made of truthful information. Let's keep bullshit at bay.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

I've just donated $1,000 to ProPublica. Why we all should do our share

A while back I announced my quixotic campaign to convince you all that paying for your favorite journalism is a civic responsibility (hashtag: #payForJournalism.) I've just made a promise real, and donated $1,000 to ProPublica. Many news organizations do excellent reporting. Without it, much wrongdoing would go unnoticed. Just see ProPublica's Electionland, or what your local newspapers, radio, and TV stations regularly uncover.

Not supporting them with your money, at least with a simple subscription —if you know that you benefit from what they publish, and if you can afford it— is ethically dubious, to say the least. A weekly newspaper subscription costs less than a large latte at Starbucks.

I know, “news publications screw up all the time, reporters are far from perfect, and, hey, these companies decided to put their stuff on the Internet for free! I'm not doing anything bad by being a free rider.” Yada yada yada. Lame excuses. You know that these organizations aren't getting nearly enough money from ads. You read what they publish, you learn useful stuff from it and, as a result, your life gets better. Any other consideration is a caveat, a footnote, or an example of Trumpian rationalization.

You may think that making a donation public is gratuitous boasting. That isn't the case. According to Peter Singer's wonderful Ethics in the Real World, speaking openly about donations helps convince other people to donate. So, yes, if you are a pure free rider when it comes to benefiting from good journalism, my explicit goal with this post is not to boast, but to embarrass you.

Here's Singer (full disclosure: I also donate to charities, which is what Singer focuses on mostly in this chapter):

By the way, I recommend you read Rolling Blackouts, a graphic novel that illustrates how reporters truly think and work. Some images:

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Y'all, youse, and you guys must get this book right away

Unless you live under a rock, you're likely aware that the dialect quiz that Josh Katz, Wilson Andrews, and Eric Buth built in 2013 is the most viewed page ever in the history of Katz has just published a book, Speaking American: How Ya'll, Youse, and You Guys Talk, that highlights some of the most interesting, funny, and entertaining facts. I received my copy yesterday and I've been browsing it for several hours. It's making me really happy.

Besides tons of maps, the book includes advice on how to pretend you're from different cities and regions. I'm applying these teachings, beginning with Wisconsin. I'm now pronouncing the state name Wi-scon-sin, rather than Wis-con-sin...

Some of my favorite pages:

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Doing visualizations with Google News Lab

Here's the exciting ongoing project I mentioned before today: For the past few months I've been working with Google News Labs's Simon Rogers and a bunch of extremely talented and celebrated designers —Giorgia Lupi, Moritz Stefaner, Jan Willem Tulp, and others that will be announced in the future— to produce a series of ambitious visualizations based on Google search data. The first project in that series, WorldPotus, has just been launched.

Simon has written a very good post describing this initiative, and Wired is covering WorldPotus specifically. I won't repeat what's said in those articles. I'd just like to add that I'm being credited as an “art director” but, as you may guess, people of Giorgia's, Moritz's and Jan Willem's caliber don't need much art direction. My role as a consultant is to offer some initial ideas, draw visual mockups —that often get discarded!— and then give constant feedback during the development. It's a lot of fun, and I'm learning a lot from it.

(I'm also doing a monthly series of “office hours” with Google.)

A profile about visualization and data journalism

In the past few months I've been consulting for Google and Microsoft in two big projects. I'll announce the Google one —which is really exciting— in the next post. For now, here's a profile written for Microsoft by Thomas Kohnstamm. Besides a discussion about the present and future of visualization and data in journalism, the story includes an announcement of a series of lectures that Microsoft will release soon, plus a short PowerBI tie-in (this is Microsoft, after all.) Side note: Thomas is the author of a hilarious memoir, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?. You should read it.

Here's the main photograph of the story. I look like an Ayn Rand hero, which is quite embarrassing, as I think that Rand was a dreadful thinker and an even worse writer:

And here's a photo of the shelves in my office at UM's School of Communication —the other half of my visualization-related books are in my home office:

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Pay for your news visualizations and infographics

A few days ago I launched a quixotic Twitter campaign (#payForJournalism) to convince my followers to subscribe to their favorite news organizations, whether print or online. I believe that paying for the journalism you consume regularly is a civic duty—if you can afford it, of course. If you think that good, honest reporting is essential for democracy, not endorsing it with your money makes you a free rider. It's ethically wrong.

I'm now a subscriber to The New York Times, the Miami Herald, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New Tropic, the New Yorker, the Weekly Standard, the Atlantic, and I'll likely make a donation to ProPublica at the end of this year.

No, I don't have time to read all that. That's not the point. I don't pay for the privilege of reading or seeing everything that journalists at those organizations write or design. I pay because I know that the work they do is fundamental for a healthy public conversation. Have you seen Spotlight? You should. A single story like that is worth the price of a year's subscription. Without journalists, much wrongdoing would go unnoticed, many stories would be untold, much science would remain unexplained. We can't afford that.

Paying for your favorite journalism also means supporting the people who produce the wonderful data journalism, visualizations, and infographics you enjoy in social media every day. The photograph on the right is from today's Miami Herald. Kara Dapena is the author of those graphics. I'm proud to support organizations that pay the salaries of people like her.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Free visualization event at the University of Miami

The Digital Humanities + Data Journalism Symposium at the University of Miami was a big success, so we'll very likely do it again next year, in the Fall. Right now we're busy with another event that will take place in just one month, on November 10 between 4:00 and 7:00 p.m: Our annual visualization gathering, VizUM —register for free here, and read the official announcement.

This edition focuses on effective communication of scientific data. We have two great speakers. First, Martin Krzywinski, who works for Canada's Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre. Martin specializes in the visualization of genomics data. His graphics have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Scientific American and covers of numerous books and scientific journals.

Second, Colin Ware, Director of the Data Visualization Research Lab which is part of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire. If you work in visualization, you know who Colin is, and have probably read his books, which are classics already. If you haven't, well, you better do so right away!

I'm working on a poster and a flyer for the event right now. Here you have the drafts:

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Do people understand hurricane forecast maps?

It seems that we'll see hurricane Matthew landing in the U.S. pretty soon. Mashable has just published an article about how to read a hurricane forecast map. It links to this 2007 NOAA studywhich explains how readers misinterpret it. One of the authors, Kenny Broad, is a colleague of mine at the University of Miami.

NOAA's study focuses on the white cone of uncertainty. Apparently, many people believe that the boundaries of the cone are like the boundaries of the hurricane itself, which is far from the truth:

Both Mashable's article and the study mention another map displaying the probability of experiencing hurricane force surface winds (below). Has anybody tested these maps —and others— in controlled experiments recently? It'd be interesting to see the results. If you know of studies about this, please post them in the comments section. If, as I suggest in The Truthful Art, one of the goals when designing a visualization is to reduce misunderstanding and ambiguity, cases like this are of critical relevance.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

An aside about Trump

For once in the history of this website I'm going to write about politics. I think that the exception is pertinent. See, I'm going to ask those of you who can vote in November, and who care about facts and truth, about fairness and kindness, to send Trump and everything he represents to oblivion. Please feel free to stop reading now.

As a former nerdy, fat kid who became a nerdy, fat adult, there are four kinds of people I've always despised: bullies, assholes, jerks, and free riders. I hate people who take advantage of others, or abuse them, particularly those who brag about it. I have a strong emotional response whenever I hear or face people like that. They make me sick.

Well, for the first time in my life, I've witnessed a person who fits the academic definitions of a bully, an asshole, a jerk, and a free rider, all at once. Trump strikes me as the perfect sociopath.

You may think that I'm being unfair to the man, that I'm being hyperbolic, or that this is an unreasonable rant. Not true. Please inform yourself. There's plenty to choose from, but I'd begin with this book by a respected investigative reporter, and with this well argued take down by Sam Harris. I've read plenty about Trump from a wide range of credible sources, both conservative and liberal. Unlike you, Trump fan, I don't stay inside a comfortable ideological media cocoon. None of those sources, to the right or to the left, casts a positive light on this fellow. Not a single one. Even Fox News's support is quite tepid, if you ignore Sean Hannity, who doesn't qualify as a “credible” source by any standard.

Allow me to be blunt: If you helped Trump became the Republican nominee over some much more qualified candidates, you should —or will— be ashamed. Your kids will call you out on it in the future. But you have time to redeem yourself.

If you vote for this imbecile in November, you'll be explicitly endorsing racism, bigotry, and misogyny, besides proving that you don't give a damn about facts. You'll be complicit in giving the nuclear codes to a tantrum-prone ignoramus who has the self-control of an immature chimpanzee, the attention span of a goldfish, and whose knowledge of the world is reduced to what he sees in cable news and hears in radio talk shows. Please consider voting for his opponent or, if you really, really don't like her, have the decency of abstaining.*

(*This recommendation is for Trump supporters. If you endorsed Sanders, the logical thing to do is to vote for Clinton.)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

We mustn't simplify stories; we must clarify them

We journalists and visual designers are fond of averages and other simple summary statistics. There's good reasons for that: We want to inform the public as quickly and efficiently as possible. The challenge is that speed and efficiency often go against each other.

A summary statistic like the mean or the median frequently hides relevant information. That's why in both The Functional Art and The Truthful Art I wrote —borrowing from Nigel Holmes— that data visualization and infographics shouldn't simplify information; they are instruments for clarification. Clarifying a story very often involves increasing, not reducing, the amount of data shown to readers.

Take this story about crime statistics, published today by The New York Times. If you report just the national homicide rate, you're doing your audience a disservice, as that single data point is highly skewed by a few outliers, specific neighborhoods in certain cities. As this good article about amalgamation paradoxes explains, things that look one way at the group level (“positive correlation!”) may look very different when analyzed at an individual level (“negative correlation!”). Here's the chart the authors use:

Friday, September 23, 2016

Empower the graphics team in your organization

There was a time when graphics desks at most news organizations were “service” departments. They took “orders” from reporters and editors —the only professionals considered true journalists,— and they didn't participate in decisions related to content. If your company is still organized this way, you must change it right away. It. Just. Doesn't. Work.

There's a very strong and direct relationship between empowered graphics desks and quality of work: The companies that are widely considered leaders in data journalism, visualization, and infographics —think of The New York Times, ProPublica, the Washington Post, etc.— are those that have data and graphics desks that are autonomous, and populated by professionals who are treated and paid as any other journalist in the newsroom, not by second-class citizens who get pushed around by “real” journalists (sarcasm). This is one of those cases where correlation does imply causation. More empowerment > Better quality.

The little rant above is just an excuse to talk about this tweet by Stuart Thompson, graphics director at the Wall Street Journal. He praises Renee Lighter and Colin Barr for this graphics-driven story, pitched and designed by graphics people. I like print stuff, so I've just run to the newsstand to get my copy. I'll post it in class next week for my students to learn. Here it is:

Friday, September 16, 2016

Talking about infographics

The other day I spoke with Emily Kund and Matt Francis for their Tableau Wanna Be podcast. It was a fun and relaxed conversation about data, visualization, infographics —and Game of Thrones!