Saturday, September 20, 2014

More about annotation and narration in infographics

I'm not going to add much to my idea of an annotation-narration-storytelling continuum in this post. I'll try to develop it further and explain it in my next book. For now, you can read about it here. Nonetheless, I'd like to bring attention to a good example: The latest infographic by Ford Fesseden, published today by The New York Times. It demonstrates how to integrate words and visuals. Its interactive version, co-designed by Mike Bostock, is also mind blowing.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Visualizing the fashion landscape

Quartz has just published a nifty scatter plot designed by Jenni Avins and David Yanofsky. Here's the description:
The fashion industry loves Instagram, especially during Fashion Month—the semi-annual series of Fashion Weeks in New York, London, Milan, and Paris, that we are smack in the middle of at present. Instagram is chicer than Facebook, more visual than Twitter, and more intimate than both, so it lends itself nicely to voyeurism. So who is the fashion industry following—and followed by—on Instagram? From the accounts everyone knows to "deep fashion" insiders, Quartz analyzed 1.8 million Instagram accounts to determine which fashion-related users are the most followed, inside the industry and out.
I love how the graphic looks, but what I like the most (as you may understand) is how it's annotated and narrated. If you click on the “next” button underneath the chart, you'll see some interesting highlights and explanations. I like to tell my students at the University of Miami that graphics and words are equally important when creating a visualization. This project is an example of that principle.

(Side note: Notice the logarithmic scale. The picky professor in me wants to ask for a button to switch back and forth between logarithmic and arithmetic scales. This is an interactive visualization after all.)

Monday, September 15, 2014

New talk by Hans and Ola Rosling

Hans Rosling, mentioned in my other post today, has just published a new TED talk in his website. As usual, it's funny, entertaining, and insightful. If you want to understand the “help us cross the river of myths (with data and analysis)” motto I mentioned, watch it.

This time, Rosling shares the stage with his son, Ola, responsible for many of the graphics and interactive visualizations used in these talks. He's a gifted speaker, too. It must be something genetic. His part of the presentation is focused on why our intuitions consistently get facts about the world wrong.

Side note: I saw Rosling Sr. at the Tableau Customer Conference just a few days ago, where I was a speaker. A couple of photos of the session:

Facing the Dataclysm

At last, a “big data” book that is well written.

You could argue that other recent books about numbers, like Kaiser Fung's Numbersense and Jordan Ellenberg's How Not to Be Wrong, are far from dull, and you'd be right. But they aren't about “big data” per se; they are about classic numeracy. Christian Rudder's Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking), on the other hand, is about “big data”, whatever that term means, and also about how we can take advantage of it to know ourselves better. The book consists of a long series of stories with a common theme: Good data and analysis are the best antidote to prejudices and biases. Hans Rosling —whose motto “help us cross the river of myths” should be adopted as a battle cry by information designers and journalists alike— would be proud.

Needless to say, this post is just an excuse to recommend the book, even if I have only read half of it, around 150 pages. I began last night; that should give you an idea of how much I like it already. I foresee that it'll be among my favorites this year. I'm sharing some photos (see below) I took while highlighting and writing notes on the margins. Notice the beautiful charts. There are tons of them.

Related links: Rudder's blog, and review by the New Yorker.

UPDATE: Two mathematicians that I follow closely have written about Dataclysm and reached opposite conclusions. Jordan Ellenberg likes it quite a lot, and Cathy O'Neil hates it.

Even if I'm inclined to side with Ellenberg in this case, O’Neil's in-depth critique is excellent. However, I think that Rudder was anticipating some of the problems that she mentions. Just to give you an example, I read the entire book with this idea on the back of my mind: “This analysis applies only to users of dating websites.” I think that I did this unconsciously because Rudder himself suggests it at least twice (I'd need to double-check this to be sure.) He certainly gets carried away in some chapters, and extracts sweeping conclusions, though.

Although it's true, as O'Neil says, that some parts of the book (like the one about race) go too far, Dataclysm is far from being sloppy. It has plenty of thoughtful passages about the issues that the ubiquity of data may pose, to begin with. Judge for yourself by reading the last two or three pages shown at the bottom of this post. You may disagree with Rudder's enthusiasm about what the future holds, but a fool he is not.

Disclaimer: Links on this post are affiliate links to That means that I get a small amount of money for anything that you buy after clicking on them. I don't get any cash directly from Amazon, though, but gift cards that I use to buy books. The average monthly payment I got last year was $75.


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Student work at Places&Spaces

The Places&Spaces exhibit and lecture series opened officially this past Thursday at the University of Miami. The event was a success (free food and booze drinks may have something to do with that...) Here's a story about it.

Now, we're working on the next presentations: VisualComplexity's Manuel Lima, Carie Penabad, Nigel Holmes, Stephen Few, John Grimwade, Patricia van Dalen, and many others. Please sign up for free through the links on this page. Nigel has designed a poster to promote his talk, which we'll display all over campus soon. See it at the bottom of this post. Isn't it funny?

Some work by local students is part of the exhibit. In the photo below, my student Nancy Cermeño proudly presents one of her projects for my infographics and visualization class. She asked me to use this caption: “Nancy Cermeño can't believe her Information Art is on exhibit!”

Thursday, August 28, 2014

ProPublica's latest multimedia visualization is simply beautiful

I feel so relieved: I can finally stop keeping my mouth shut. As you may remember, I spent more than a month working with ProPublica over the summer (see here and here.) It was an amazing and humbling experience. While I was there, Al Shaw, Brian Jacobs, and Bob Marshall were putting together an ambitious mapping project about the coast of Louisiana which required, among other things, tons of data, on-the-ground reporting, and satellite image stitching (read a related blog post.) The project, titled Losing Ground, has just been launched, and it's a gorgeous example of how to combine text, photos, audio, video, maps, graphics, and interactive elements.

UPDATE: A behind the scenes article about this project.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

To make visualizations that are truthful and persuasive, show all relevant data

Today, the NYT's The Upshot published a very nice line chart showing projections of Medicare spending per recipient. This one:

My reaction when I saw it was to ask for another chart with total projected spending (I wasn't the only one.) It's likely that the U.S. will have a larger number of retirees in the future than it does now, and arithmetic is a bitch: ‘Spending per recipient’ times ‘number of recipients’ can kill the best optimistic story.

Here's why I wanted that second chart: If you're a diehard fan of The New York Times, like me, you'll be inclined to buy this argument. You'll trust David Leonhardt Margot Sanger-Katz when he she writes that projections reveal a positive trend, no matter the way you look at the data. But what about if I were a regular reader of The Weekly Standard (just to mention one high-brow conservative publication)? I wouldn't be persuaded by these NYT egghead liberals*. I believe that I'd need to see all the relevant data, both the spending per recipient and the total spending, to be convinced.

I thought that this could be a great example for class, so I began looking for the data. I visited the CBO report mentioned in the story, and found the one from last year. Here's a screenshot of the most recent projection of total Medicare spending in the next ten years:

I was planning to design the second line chart myself but, fortunately, Kevin Quealy, author of the original graphic, had already done it. See it below. Numbers are in millions of dollars.

I'll stick to my guns in this case: Both charts are equally relevant to the story. I'd publish them next to each other. The future certainly looks brighter than a year ago, but not as bright as the first chart may lead us to think. Alex Walsh made an additional interesting suggestion.

UPDATE: Sanger-Katz has just shared a link to a story explaining demographic trends.

*I don't know if Leonhardt Sanger-Katz and Quealy are liberals, of course, but The New York Times is generally considered a publication that sympathizes with liberal ideas.

More about plagiarism in visualization and infographics

In the past few years I've written quite a lot about the boundary between plagiarism and inspiration in infographics and visualization (read 1, 2, 3, 4.) Last night, someone sent me this visualization. It's eerily similar to this NYTimes oldie, isn't it? Good topic for a class discussion: Is this plagiarism, inspiration, or simply the fact that there are certain stories that can only be told through specific graphic forms? In this case I'm inclined to say that it's a blatant copy, but I'd like to read your opinions.

Screenshots of the new graphic vs. the NYT's one, below.

UPDATE: The Retale people have just added a footnote to their graphic: “Inspired by: How Different Groups Spend Their Day, 2009. New York Times.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ben Jones wants you to communicate data

Just a brief post to shamelessly promote Ben Jones' book Communicating Data With Tableau because I've been using it lately, as I explained here, and because it's really good, so I feel in debt with him.

Two samples are available online. The first one is going to be one of the mandatory readings in my upcoming visualization courses at the University of Miami. The second one includes chapter 4, on calculating rations and rates.

The book is a nice companion to the tutorials that Tableau uploaded a while ago. Well, to be honest, the video tutorials are a bit boring for my taste, as they focus mostly on the business analytics side of the program. Ben's book deals with visualization for communication, so if you are a designer or a journalist, this may be a good place to start.

Ben also has a blog, Data Remixed, and he's quite active on Twitter.

Disclaimer: The first link above is an affiliate link to That means that I get a small amount of money for anything that you buy after clicking on it. I don't get any cash directly from Amazon, though, but gift cards that I use to buy books. The average monthly payment I got last year was $75.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Places&Spaces arrives to the University of Miami

The opening of the Places&Spaces visualization exhibit and lecture series is two weeks away. Many people at the University of Miami are working hard to get everything ready. I shot some photos of the installation this morning. The first ones show UM School of Architecture's Glasgow Hall, where half of the exhibit will be hosted, and where the talks by Katy Börner, Manuel Lima, Nigel Holmes, John Grimwade, Stephen Few, etc., will take place. The photos at the bottom were shot at UM's Richter Library, where the second half of the exhibit will be displayed.

As I've already explained, you can attend any of the talks for free, but you'll need to sign up (see link beside each lecture title,), as space is limited. We are also planning to record the talks, and make them available at our visualization website. but I don't have all the details about that yet.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Some words about constructive criticism

Forgive me in advance if this post sounds like a bland platitude, but if there's something I've learned the hard way in ten years teaching information graphics is that (1) we should always candidly criticize what we think is wrong if —and only if— (2) we can clearly explain why it's wrong, and (3) if we are willing to do it in a considerate manner. I write this knowing that my own gut reactions tend to match the current style of much Internet commentary, which is snarky and dismissive. That's why I try to exert as much control as possible over them. Sometimes, I fail.

Last time was ten days ago. The New Republic's senior editor Jonathan Cohn published a story that included the following map:

There's no doubt that this is a really bad map. It provoked a lot of laughs on Twitter, and a thorough critique by Kenneth Field. It was even called “the worst map of the year.” But what I discovered during the conversation on Twitter is that it's also the very first map Cohn has made. They didn't have anyone to produce this kind of work in the newsroom at that moment, so Cohn got his data and visualized them with Datawrapper. There's merit in that.

Honestly, people, do you remember your first infographics or data visualizations? I do. They were horrible. I'll repeat that: Horrible. And they didn't get slightly better probably until three or four years after my career began. Fortunately, the World Wide Web wasn't as popular in 1997 as it is today, and social media wasn't even a topic in Science Fiction novels. Otherwise, my first efforts would probably had met the same responses Cohn received.

Knowing myself a bit (or so I hope,) I guess that my reaction to criticism would be similar to Cohn's: Acknowledging the problem, and trying to fix it. In fact, Cohn redesigned his map, and added another with normalized data. See both maps below (or in the story): Not bad, right? They are a zillion times better than the second graphic I produced as an intern in the late 1990s, that's for damn sure.

Where am I trying to go with this? Look, most of my students at the University of Miami aren't going to be professional designers after they graduate. That isn't the assumption my courses are based on. My classes are intended to help students understand that anyone —writers, scientists, lawyers, you name it— is capable of communicating effectively by means of charts, maps, diagrams, and explanation illustrations, after learning some principles and software tricks.

Scornful commentary of work done by beginners or non-designers is contrary to this goal of popularizing information graphics among the general public. Based on my experience, I can assure you that it discourages many newcomers. It makes them feel hopeless. It instills in them the sense that high-quality graphics should be the realm of a caste of information designers, computer scientists, cartographers, statisticians, etc. I loathe that notion because I loathe territoriality. I want this stuff to become mainstream. I wish to see amateurs taking risks, playing with software tools, failing, and learning from their mistakes, like Cohn did. Let's help them by never remaining silent when we see dubious graphics, but also by trying to be constructive.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

My first interactive visualization with Tableau

Classes at the University of Miami begin two weeks from now, so I'm quite busy getting syllabi, lecture slides, and projects ready. Between the new UM Visualization website and the Places&Spaces exhibit and lecture series, I haven't been able to sit down and start planning for lessons until today. Oh, I've also been writing that book that should be published at the end of 2015, of course. More news about that soon, hopefully.

This Fall semester I'm teaching a new version of my CVJ522 Infographics and Data Visualization grad course (read an unedited draft of the syllabus,) in which I'll have students from both our MFA in Interactive Media and MA in Journalism programs. Therefore, I cannot just focus on news visualizations or print infographics. Instead, I decided to give students the opportunity to choose the tools and styles they prefer. Some of them will come to class knowing a bit of Processing and even d3.js, for instance.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

UM's new visualization website

UM's visualization website
As you may remember, in January I was appointed as director of the visualization branch of the University of Miami's Center for Computational Science. My main goal so far has been to find out what people in all departments at UM are doing with visualization, information graphics, mapping, etc. It turns out it's an awful lot, which is exciting: I'll be able to help build many connections, and learn a big deal in the process.

The second thing I've done is to create a new website in which, with the help of students and faculty, we'll announce events, projects, courses, etc. I've soft-launched it already. Some sections aren't done yet, but there are a few stories available already.

The most important one is about the Places&Spaces visualization exhibit. We're bringing it to UM this Fall semester (read the press release) and we've organized a series of talks by renowned people in the field, such as Katy Börner, Stephen Few, Nigel Holmes, John Grimwade, etc. You can attend these lectures for free, but you'll need to sign up through the links in the story.

We're also working on some very interesting new educational opportunities in data visualization and journalism. I cannot reveal anything for now, though. Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Teaching visualization: A discussion

Two days ago, Katy Culver, Susan McGregor, Chrys Wu, Hannah Fairfield, Meredith Broussard, Molly Steenson, and I participated in a Twitter discussion about how to teach visualization and infographics, with a particular focus in news graphics. The conversation was hosted by PBS' Mediashift, and is available in its entirety already.

I wonder where this picture comes from. The graphics displayed are quite colorful!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Thank you for a fun roundtable, Periscopic

I've just landed from a trip to Portland. Kennedy Elliott, Sarah SlobinScott Murray and I were invited by Periscopic to participate in a roundtable, as part of their their 10th anniversary celebrations. It was a lot of fun, and I even had some time to interview Kim Rees and Dino Citraro for my next book.

The Periscopic crowd has just launched a new version of their website/portfolio. Their work, as they say, is both art and science: Emotional data visualization.

Here's an accurate summary of our discussion. I'm sorry we couldn't be more helpful!
And here you have some photographs:

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Gorgeous infographics from Fortune magazine (March 1938 issue)

Map by Richard Edes Harrison for Fortune (March 1938)

Last month I went to Steven Heller's moving sale in NYC with Scott Klein, Eric Sagara, and Kaiser Fung. I was not planning to buy anything but, unfortunately (for my wallet), Heller was selling several issues of Fortune magazine from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. I walked out with 12 under my arm. That wasn't a trivial feat, as each old Fortune is as big as a tabloid newspaper and as thick and heavy as a hardcover book. Good workout!

It's impossible to talk about the history of news graphics and visualization without mentioning Fortune. A simple Google search ("fortune infographics”) will reveal several posts and articles that collect beautiful examples: 1234. However, let me assure you that it's not the same to see those graphics on a computer screen than to hold them on your hands, printed on high-quality paper. They are glorious.

It's taking me hours to go over each of the issues I got, so for now I'll just show you a few pictures from the March 1938 one.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Two new articles: Data journalism is about the journalism, not about the data — and why visualization matters

I guess that at this point you've all read the article about data journalism at the Harvard's Nieman Lab's website. I'd just want to recommend that you also see Zeynep Tufeczi's analysis of FiveThirtyEight's predictive models for the World Cup, Mark Berman's hilarious spoof ‘President Obama and the horse mask person: An investigation involving data and charts.’ Derik Harris' ‘Data journalism could use a jolt of data science,’ and this conversation and article about what J-schools could be teaching. Oh, and this collection of maps (h/t David Shiffman.)

The latest issue of the German magazine Message, which covers topics related to journalism and the news media, focuses on information graphics and visualization. I wrote a short piece for it, titled ‘Why Visualizing Information Matters.’

Finally, after the Nieman thing went live, something funny happened on Twitter between me, Aron Pilhofer, and Andrew Losowsky. I really do my best to avoid being grumpy (the article ends in a positive note!) —but I guess that it's all part of the linear model:

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

More readings on data, visualization, and infographics (4)

(See the previous here's-tons-of-stuff posts here, here, and here. And my main reading list.)

Alex Howard has been interviewed by Mediashift about his recent Tow report on data journalism. It's a meaty conversation. Excerpts that are music to my ears:
My observation when comparing and contrasting the humanities and sciences — I was a double major — is that you often are using data in the context of experiments, in trying to understand the why of something and what data exists to help us understand. That gives you a different kind of pursuit of knowledge than the classic journalist approach, whereby you go out and talk to people and then you have a story, but it might not give you a broader perspective about the number of times this issue happens or where — in other words, context. 
It’s critical that data journalism, even though it’s a hot, new topic, not be divorced from decades of computer-assisted reporting or investigative journalism. These are new tools, new techniques, new opportunities and there are new risks that go along with them, but the ethics of creating knowledge from data aren’t fundamentally divorced from the ethics of creating knowledge from talking to people as sources. You may need to protect the data — its prominence or its sourcing. You may need to secure it if it’s sensitive data. 
 It’s not just about the hard skills. It’s also about computational thinking — thinking about data as a strategic resource. There’s a real challenge around digital literacy in traditional print journalism. If you look around journalism schools, there are a lot of people who are from that side or from broadcast journalism, but they may not have the grounding in how to go about doing these kind of data stories. 
In the same way that a young person is expected to use a computer, they’ll also need to open up a spreadsheet and do basic statistical analysis. They’ll need to be able to understand the end value of a study and to know what someone is talking about with R-values and regression. They’ll need to have some literacy around maps and charts and infographics and ways to present information and visualize data. Just in the same way young journalists are learning how to create basic webpages, how to take pictures, how to use mobile devices, shoot video and create basic apps, these are tools that are going to become part of the ways that 21st century journalists practice their craft. To not use one of the tools is to be unable to practice part of the craft, as it is currently being defined and expanded.
Paul Bradshaw is surprised by the fact that “over 1,000 journalists are now exploring scraping techniques” thanks to his excellent e-book. Actually, the surprising thing for me is that ONLY 1,000 journalists are doing so.

• 9 free platforms for journalists to learn how to code. You actually won't learn how to code if you just use those. You'll need to do a lot of real work on your own. But they'll be helpful anyway if you've never written a line of Python and still believe that coding is hard (it is, but not as much as you may think.)

• The Facebook mood manipulation experiment has been on the news for more than a week. Two articles to put the controversy in context: With Big Data Comes Big Responsibility, and The Test We Can—and Should—Run on Facebook. They reminded me of when, a while ago, some fellow nerds laughed at my liking Evgeny Morozov's and Jaron Lanier's latest books (1, 2).

• What about that study linking biking and prostate cancer that you've probably heard about? Here's what StatsChat's Thomas Lumley has to say: “There’s borderline evidence from a weak study design for a sensational finding that isn’t supported by any prior evidence. This is fine as research, but it shouldn’t be in the headlines.” I haven't read the study myself, though.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

El Mundo's infographics get a nice shout-out

I've just finished Making News at The New York Times, an ethnography in which GWU's Nikki Usher describes a newsroom struggling to change and adapt. If you've read the NYT’s famous (and leaked) innovation report and this other from Duke University, the main themes in Usher's book will sound familiar. Among them, the increasing relevance and visibility of the graphics, interactive, multimedia, and data projects.

On a personal note, I was happy to see that my ex-colleagues at El Mundo's online infographics team (David Alameda, Miguel Nuño, Juan Carlos Sánchez) got a nice shout-out on page 162 thanks to their coverage of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Well deserved!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Two interactive visualizations by Spanish students

Every year, I give advice to some students from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (the one we're I'm getting my PhD) on their capstone projects. UOC is a public institution which puts great emphasis on new technologies, including multimedia, coding, visualization, and infographics. Months ago I wrote about the Visualizing Buffy project, and today I'd like to mention David García's Everest: Adventure or Business, and Gemma Pallàs' The New Believers, which have been just turned in after months of hard work. They've used interactive charts and maps (d3.js-based) and 3D animation extensively. They aren't perfect yet —copy needs editing, and performance is a bit lacking in some places— but I'm quite satisfied with the results. If you need interns or entry-level people, perhaps you may want to consider them!