Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The attack of the infographics clones

The folks at El País have sent me another case of infographics cloning. The first image below is what El País published on June 2, 2009. The second one, by Le Figaro, appeared on June 3. Apparently, El País was credited as a “source” in the inside pages of Le Figaro. As I wrote a while ago, that's enough for me if anyone wants to copy my own graphics (I think that originality is a bit of a myth,) but this is too extreme, isn't it?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Nieman Lab's Predictions for 2015

The Nieman Lab has launched the 2015 edition of its Predictions for Journalism series. I was invited to participate, but I'm not very good at predicting anything. I'm much better at expressing wishes, so here's what I had to say. Don't miss the other contributions, as they are great. I particularly liked Jacob Harris', un bullshit data, and Richard Tofel's.

Monday, December 15, 2014

New report on biodiversity is an infographics delight

A question that I receive quite often in classes and workshops is how to design better graphics for different kinds of corporate documents. To answer that question I usually refer to good examples. The latest one I've added to my collection is this report on biodiversity in Colombia, developed by the Humboldt institute. In spite of a pie chart here and there, and a few maps that maybe shouldn't be unclassed, it's a visual delight. You won't see any extremely creative visualization in it (that doesn't bother me at all,) but a lot of clean graphics and illustrations on a layout in which white space is used quite wisely. That's more than enough for me!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Nature's infographics

Thanks to the case of plagiarism I wrote about yesterday, I discovered that Nature's graphics team has a Tumblr blog. Many of the examples of information design there are quite interesting. I've added it to the collection of infographics and visualizations I give my students every semester, which supplements the list of optional readings and lectures they also use.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

More infographics plagiarism: Nature magazine and La Razón

This is a graphic by Nature magazine (see it in PDF and notice their note about reproduction rights):

Now see an infographic by Spain's La Razón below, featured in this article. I won't add any comment, just links to other posts about plagiarism in graphics: 1, 2, 3. The question of why cases like this are so common is still pertinent. Something needs to be done.

(h/t: Kelly Krause)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Redesigning visualizations

I've been writing quite a lot this week, so I'm about to send another chapter of my next book to my copy editor. It's an introduction to the five qualities that I think define great visualizations. When discussing beauty, I used some graphics made by Accurat,* like this one. I even dared to make a quick draft for a redesign, randomly picking some authors in no particular order, and asked myself if I'd print theirs or mine, in case I owned a publication. The answer to that may surprise you. I'll withhold it for now and until 2016!

*I interviewed the Accurat folks months ago, so they will also appear in the Profiles section of the book.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The curse of averages

The curse of clear and simple graphics is that they often make you wonder if the stories they tell aren't much more complicated, nuanced, and messy than they seem.

At this same moment I'm enjoying the Sunday edition of The New York Times and a large cup of coffee. I've just stopped on a piece that describes the woes of LaGuardia Community College to raise money from private donors. LaGuardia CC serves tens of thousands of students from lower-middle class and poor families. The largest gift it has ever received was just $100,000. Compare that to the gift that Steve Ballmer is giving Harvard to hire just 12 Computer Science professors and you'll get an idea of the huge imbalances that exist in the U.S. higher education system.

That's the message that the striking chart on the left depicts. It's impressive, isn't it? And still, it made me think for a few minutes that this could be a great exercise for future visualization classes: Go to the National Center for Education Statistics, the source the Times used. Download the data. Then, don't just visualize averages. They are the equivalent of a good headline so, sure, they must be the first thing to show, but they may not be enough to be accurate and truthful. Show ranges and variation from the mean or median, too. Design histograms. Explore the data at the state or regional level. Perhaps an analysis of higher granularity and detail will yield even more interesting insights.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

New graduate offering at UM: Data Journalism and Visualization

I'm happy to announce that the School of Communication at the University of Miami is launching a new Data Journalism and Visualization track within our MFA in Interactive Media. It will begin in the Fall of 2015. Applications will likely be open very soon after it receives all required official approvals, so stay tuned.

Here is some basic information about the proposed offering:

What is this new track?
It's the product of a collaboration between our departments of Cinema and Interactive Media, Journalism and Media Management, and Geography. The track has a strong focus on visualization and infographics design, technology, visual journalism and storytelling, mapping, and also on analysis and research. It is flexible enough to let you build your own menu of classes, as you'll see below.

What degree will I get?
After four semesters you will get an MFA in Interactive Media with a specialization in Data Journalism and Visualization. An MFA is a terminal degree.

Additionally, students who use a certain number of their electives to take courses at UM's Geography department may also get a Certificate in Geospatial Technology. 

Who will be my advisor?
I will, in most cases, but you'll also have the support of the head of the Interactive Media program, prof. Kim Grinfeder, the head of the Journalism graduate program, prof. Rich Beckman, and of the rest of the faculty. See who we are here and here.

What courses will I take?
You can see the schedule of classes below. Descriptions of most of these (and of the other tracks of the MFA) can be found here.

CMP 541 Tech Trends
CMP 540 Programming for Designers
CMP 543 Intro to Systems: Designing for Interactivity
CVJ 522 Data Visualization

SEMESTER 2 (Spring)
CVJ 521 Seminar in Visual Storytelling
GEG 580 Introductory Quantitative Methods for Geographical Analysis (Statistics)
CNJ 614 Media Law and Ethics Seminar

CMP 730 CoLab
CMP 713 UX Research Methods
CMP 593 Dynamic Data (databases)

SEMESTER 4 (Spring)

You can use electives to take any graduate course in the School of Communication (like my 3D design one,) in the Certificate of Geospatial Technology, or in other departments. Electives will let you specialize even further in the areas you're interested in, with the guidance of advisors and other faculty members. Besides, there will be plenty of external opportunities for learning, such as the partnerships we are developing with several companies.

You can see other visualization-related courses in UM's Visualization website.

What if I have more questions?
Visit the MFA's FAQ. You can also contact me or prof. Grinfeder.

Additional links
MFA in Interactive Media
Department of Journalism
School of Communication
Certificate in Geospatial Technology
Department of Geography

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

It's official: I'm a fan of Eleanor Lutz's

I've been a big fan of Eleanor Lutz's Tabletop Whale website since it launched this past summer. Her animated GIFs about science topics are amazing. Last night, she published a very nice tutorial explaining how she produces her infographics. I'm planning to recommend it to all my students at UM, particularly the ones currently taking the 3D design class. Their final project is an animation, so...

Here's one of Eleanor's animations (see them all):

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Nice visualization of the week: NYT's Obama’s Health Law

Obama's Health Law
The older I get, the less needlessly complex visualizations impress me. On the other hand, the more I appreciate the simplicity and depth of stories like Margot Sanger-Katz's and Kevin Quealy's Obama’s Health Law: Who Was Helped Most. If you know people who have gained access to health insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act —I do— you'll be able to put a human face to the data. If you don't, try to imagine yourself and your family without health insurance.

The next step in an analysis like this could be to eventually reveal what plans people are buying, as there are critical differences between a Bronze and a Platinum plan. It's great news that the percentage of people who lack health insurance is dropping, but it wouldn't be so good if most of them are buying Bronze plans, as those only cover 60% of the price of your medical bills, on average. Hardly something an advanced democratic society could feel proud of.

By the way, and just to be picky: I missed confidence intervals. The numbers displayed on the story and on the map are based on a predictive model, so there must be some amount of error, even if the survey's sample is really big. You can read a detailed description of the statistical calculations here.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Infographics Designers' Sketchbooks

Just a few lines to recommend the Infographics Designers' Sketchbooks, which I received a couple of days ago. The volume is gorgeous, and it showcases plenty of visualization goodness. If you're looking for a Christmas present for a designer friend, this may be the best choice this year. It's not even November, I know but, hey, I live in Miami. Christmas lights start showing up here and there in June.*

The book features the sketches of dozens of infographics and visualization designers, besides the corresponding final products. Each designer's section opens with a short essay. These introductions, as far as I've seen (I've seen fifteen already) are a joy to read.

I've shot some photographs. See below.

*OK, perhaps that's an exaggeration. Let's settle for July...

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Teaching 3D infographics

I'm sitting right now in my 3D infographics class, one of the courses that I teach this semester at UM's School of Communication (the others are about data visualization.) Students, who mainly come from our MA in Journalism and our MFA in Interactive Media, are working on their first project: Building an infographic similar to this one or this one about a topic that they care about. I asked them to send me screenshots of what they have so far:

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Charts and maps for Univisión

During the next seven days, a group of 13 intrepid students from UM's School of Communication and myself (a not-so-intrepid editor) are going to work as the infographics department of Univisión Noticias. Our students will produce small charts and maps about the midterm elections. We'll also work at Univisión's headquarters in Miami during the election night (Nov. 4.)

Most of the graphics will be published in Pol16, a new blog that Univisión has just launched. The blog is run by María Ramírez and Eduardo Súarez, two journalists who used to work for Spain's El Mundo. This is the first experiment of this kind that we make, and as we want to make sure that the graphics can be seen on mobile, I decided to stay in the safe zone and do just simple static charts and maps, instead of interactive ones. Next time, we will try some other options.

I prepared a little style sheet for my students, with some sample graphics. You can see it below. This will be fun.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A new definition of journalistic objectivity

Some quick notes: I've recently been involved in several conversations about “objectivity” in journalism. My position is that we have historically misunderstood what objectivity is. Objectivity shouldn't be equated to undeserved balance or to a “view from nowhere,” so I think that the suggestion of dropping the word altogether, made by many in the past few years (Jay Rosen, D.T.Z. Mindich, Jeff Jarvis, etc.,) is misguided. Transparency isn't the new objectivity, either. Transparency is valuable, and it's certainly a component of a possible new understanding of journalistic objectivity, but it's not the entire story.

The point that I've tried to make in recent talks is that journalistic objectivity can and should be redefined, and then taught as a value in schools. If you want to get an idea of what I mean, go to minute 30 of my presentation at ONA14. The slides are here and the Twitter coverage, here. Minute 30 corresponds to pages 37-44 in that document, more or less. Read from there on.

This is the epistemological definition of objectivity in science, which I believe we journalists can adopt; it comes from the wonderful Who Rules in Science:

You may think that this is just a semantics discussion: Rosen, Jarvis, myself, and others may be using different words to describe the same phenomenon. Perhaps. But I disagree.

Objectivity as it's defined above can still be a core ideal in journalism. It means that any journalist is entitled to have an ideology and a point of view, which she should disclose. However, she also needs to make true efforts to curb them using reporting, evidence, and data, rather than embracing them and making them the only lenses through which she sees the world. This is the boundary between journalists and activists; we shouldn't contribute to blur it even more than it already is. Otherwise, we'll face many more appalling situations like the one described in this post, which is a must-read for anyone. Quoting:
The passage of journalism into its digital future is proving more than a little perilous. We seem to be circling a vortex, at the bottom of which lies the perennial problem of money: How can writers, editors, and publishers get paid for their work? I can’t help but feel that a reliance on advertising is encouraging the worst instincts in everyone involved. (…) People like Greenwald and Hussain are so sure that they are on the right side of important issues that, when they see someone whom they imagine to be on the wrong side, they feel justified in distorting his views in an effort to destroy his credibility. This is an all-too-human impulse, of course, but it is extraordinarily destructive behavior in “journalists.
We J-professors are doing a disservice to our students if we tell them that they can't be objective. None of us can be fully objective, for sure. We humans are prone to error, and to fall victim of cognitive biases. But we can learn to apply certain tools —critical thinking, logic, statistics, and the like— that help us strive to be more objective. That's what we should be teaching our students, I think. In an era of rushed judgments, politically skewed news publications, and self-righteous outbursts of rage and snark in social media, the habits of mind encompassed in scientific objectivity are more important than ever.

I explain all this in more detail starting on minute 30 of the ONA talk:

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mixed feelings about Tableau

I've been using Tableau (besides Adobe Illustrator) in my visualization/infographics classes this semester. After playing with it myself, I thought that it was worth a try. It's powerful and it certainly works well for analyzing large data sets but, after thinking a lot about it, I have some misgivings that I've shared on Twitter. I'm copying them below.

The main one is the comparison with Flash. I think that one of the main reasons why so many news organizations and professional designers aren't willing to adopt Tableau is the bad memories of the Flash debacle, a few years ago*. A proprietary tool that doesn't give you access to some sort of underlying code —Javascript or otherwise; something that isn't proprietary, in any case— after exporting your graphics won't be attractive to most people in my fields. If it becomes obsolete (and all technologies become obsolete, eventually,) your old work will become useless.

(*I am aware that the news and graphic design markets may not be interesting for Tableau, of course; Big money comes from other places!)

Anyway, here are the thoughts, plus links to some open source tools
(Correction: Gregor Aisch has pointed out that many of these tools aren't open source or even "free" in the strict sense of the word; Gregor has suggested his own Datawrapper as a tool that is. I should have included it in the mix.)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Nigel Holmes draws Miami

As I wrote a few days ago, Nigel Holmes gave a talk at UM. Judging by the sketches he has just sent me, it seems that he was able to make some time to enjoy the beach afterwards. Good for him! He still remembers how to use pencils and pens like a pro. I'm so jealous.

Next ones on our schedule of presenters are Ruth West, Enrico Bertini, Stephen Few, John Grimwade, etc. If you live in South Florida, feel free to attend any of the Places&Spaces talks. Also, don't forget to watch the interview with Manuel Lima. Little by little, we'll be uploading interviews with many of the other speakers, and the talks themselves.

Never judge a visualization by its bubbles

This morning, while browsing the news in my RSS reader, I stumbled upon this horror in the Dadaviz website.

I was about to label it as another egregious example of data decoration, but then I visited the website where it was published, and discovered that the graphic isn't that bad, after all. OK, it's done in Flash (we're in 2014, people!) but notice the many ways you can navigate the data. Using the buttons below the charts, you can toggle between the useless bubbles and an honest and readable bar chart, and you can filter by age, gender, region etc. Moreover, the graphic includes a thorough Sources section. Never judge a book by its cover!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sometimes the simplest infographic is the most revealing

This past Thursday Nigel Holmes came to the University of Miami and talked about the importance of humor in infographics and visualization; a video interview with him will be available soon. Nigel stressed the power of simple comparisons to enable understanding. I've just been reminded of his words by a small and very simple chart by Johathan Stray for ProPublica.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Don't call yourself an infographics designer if what you do is data decoration

The title of this post came to my mind after seeing the graphic below, published in a cars magazine (1). It puzzles me that the creators of these things call themselves “infographics” designers. Aren't the goals of infographics to clarify (not just to simplify,) to reveal what mere tables don't show, or to tell interesting visual stories? I wonder if “data decoration” is a better term for this kind of work; see more from the same firm. It's colorful and fun and even pretty, but it doesn't make decoding the information easier at all; it makes it harder for no good reason (2).

Graphics like this may have a role in the media but, please, stop calling them “infographics”. As I explained in a 2012 manifesto, “Reclaiming the word ‘infographics’”, that word used to have a different —and more noble— meaning. It's upsetting to see it being abused and misused.

(1) I didn't write down its name. I was waiting for a haircut, and I care about cars as much as I care about sports.
(2) I'm completely in favor of complex infographics and data visualizations, but if a graphic forces me to invest effort to understand its meaning, I expect it to yield valuable insights.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A truthful art

(Warning: Take this post with a grain of salt, as plans may change a bit in the future.)

This semester I'm giving a series of lectures and keynote talks that summarize the first 50+ pages of the book that I'm currently writing, and that will be in the market fifteen months from now or so. At Tapestry I announced that the title would be The Insightful Art, but it's likely that it'll be The Truthful Art instead.

The reason is related to the list of five features of great visualizations that I was originally planning to use as sections of the book: Truthful, functional, beautiful, insightful, and enlightening. To learn more about them, and to get a glimpse of what I've written so far, read this summary of my recent talk at ONA.

After getting 70+ pages done, I discovered that if I addressed all those features in a single book, it'd be a massive volume. Therefore, it's very likely that The Truthful Art will cover these:

1. Foundations: A short explanation of the five features.

2. Truthful: Intro to scientific methods, and basic stats and numeracy for graphic designers and journalists. Also, why journalists should keep embracing the word “objectivity” (after understanding what it really means), and why we should stop being afraid of the word “truth”.

3. Functional: Principles of chart design, and an intro to thematic cartography.

4. Practice: Advice on building visualizations and infographics: Design, composition, the annotation-storytelling continuum, etc.

5. Profiles: 10 or 12 interviews with leaders in the field —Periscopic's Kim Rees and Dino Citraro, Accurat's Giorgia Lupi and Gabriele Rossi, Jer Thorp, Jen Christiansen, Santiago Ortiz, and others that I'll announce in the future.

...While The Insightful Art—which would be a third part in the series— will likely cover the other three features in much more detail. I've already registered and For now, both are redirected to this website.