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!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Visualization video tutorials

In the first few pages of The Truthful Art I promised that this website would offer some video tutorials describing how some graphics in the book were made. It's taken me a while, but I've finally finished putting together the series. You can find it on the Tutorials & Resources section, on the upper menu.

These informal videos take you from creating base graphics with INZight and other tools, through styling them with Adobe Illustrator, to exporting them to the Web with AI2html. This last tutorial, by the way, was done by Univision's Luís Melgar. In the future, I'd like to do a tutorial about QGIS. For now, you can use the one by Financial Times's Steven Bernard, which is great.

This diagram explains the workflow I follow for most of my non-interactive work:

Friday, September 9, 2016

August 2016 readings

A while ago I began listing all books I read, thinking that it might help some of you discover interesting stuff. I put that project on hold because I needed time to finish my own The Truthful Art, but now I'm resuming it. I'll try to publish a monthly post with some very brief comments. This is the first one.

Note 1: I'm just listing books and graphic novels. I don't include periodicals like newspapers or magazines.

Note 2: All links below are "affiliate" links to That means that I'm paid a small amount of money for the books you buy after clicking on them. I don't get any cash directly from Amazon, though, but gift cards that I use to buy more books.

The Making of Donald Trump. Trump is a corrupt liar with a spotty professional record who has done business with many shady characters, including mobsters. This book, written by an extremely experienced investigative reporter, provides the evidence. Just a warning: It's depressing.

The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Cash, and the Conservative Assault on Democracy. A concise but thorough overview of initiatives to limit voting, and the reason they exist. Heads-up: it's the ideology of censitary suffrage coming back with a vengeance.

The Bone Labyrinth. I'm a sucker for creature flicks, and James Rollins is an author that delivers creature flicks in written format. His novels are really bad —he's the kind of author who can write “his eyes were green as emeralds” or “her hair was black as a raven's wing” without blushing,— but also consistently entertaining, if you can suspend your disbelief.

• Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Charles Murray has always been a controversial author, and this book isn't an exception. I think that the problems he diagnoses, which ail poor whites, are real, but his analysis of their causes and possible solutions is dubious.

• The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. A high-concept, comprehensive essay by a famous physicist. If you're interested in science and epistemology, this is a decent primer. My favorite this month.

El Islam ante la democracia (Islam and Democracy.) I don't know if there's an English edition of this book. I read it in Spanish. The author, who is the director of research at France's National Center for Scientific Research, asks if Islam is compatible with liberal democracy. I won't spoil the answers.

The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. A conservative author blames nostalgic baby boomers on the right and on the left of the current dysfunctional political system. The logic of the book is a bit flimsy here and there, but it's still worth your time.

The Hatching. Another human-eating creature story. This one doesn't have as many lazy metaphors as Rollins's, but the writing feels rushed. It's the beginning of a trilogy, by the way.

Chaos Monkeys. A brutal takedown of San Francisco's startup culture, enjoyable albeit hyperbolic.

• Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. An illuminating portrait of Appalachian white working poor families.

March, volume 3. The last volume of a series that should be required reading in schools.

• Madwoman of the Sacred Heart. Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius, together again. If you've ever read anything by Jodorowsky, the modern prince of mad artists, you know what to expect. If you haven't, get ready for a fun ride.

Birthright volumes 1, 2, and 3. A series of fantasy graphic novels that begins with a bang but soon starts losing steam.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Getting ready for the Digital Humanities + Data Journalism Symposium

Our Digital Humanities + Data Journalism Symposium is only 3 weeks away. More than 100 people have signed up, so there's still room, if you can make it. If you're coming from outside Miami, you have until Friday —only two days!— to reserve a room at the Sonesta hotel, where the speakers and many other people will stay, for a discounted price. The instructions to get the reduced rate can be found in our website.

Right now, I'm designing the print program, some banners, name tags, etc. You can see a draft below. The lineup looks impressive. I can't wait to sit in all these talks and learn!

Comparing a poll to past presidential elections

Allow me to write just a brief note to bring your attention to this interactive graphic by the Washington Post's Kevin Uhrmacher and Chiqui Esteban. It's a dot plot comparing the results of their latest poll with past presidential elections, and it's very nice. Bubble size encodes time from the present.

The Post graphics team has a Tumblr blog, which is what I use to keep an eye on their work. I recommend that you add it to your favorites or RSS reader.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Download the Datasaurus: Never trust summary statistics alone; always visualize your data

This tweet is quickly becoming the most popular I've ever written. I drew that dinosaur with this fantastic tool created by Robert Grant, a statistician and visualization designer. It lets you plot any points on a scatter plot and then download the corresponding data.

In case you want to use the Datasaurus in your classes or talks to illustrate how important it is to visualize data while analyzing it, feel free to download the data set from this Dropbox link. It'll be fun to first show your audience just the figures and the summary statistics, and then ask them to make the chart:

Update: Maarten Lambrechts proposes to call this the Anscombosaurus, honoring Francis Anscombe's quartet. I like it.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The news graphics designer skill set

I continue working on the-project-that-must-not-be-named. I'm currently analyzing several interviews with news graphics professionals and I keep finding many quotes worth saving. Here's Washington Post's Kat Downs on the skills she looks for when hiring for her department:
“Our team is really multidisciplinary, a lot of our projects are team projects. There are fundamentally three skill sets that I am looking for when I hire people. One is reporting, a storytelling skill set. Another is design and that would include things like data visualization, or drawing skill, illustrating skill, modeling skill, strong aesthetic or UI design skill. And the last would be development skill, so that would include data analysis, front end development, full stack development. Typically all of our hires have two and sometimes three of those skill sets. But maybe one is their main and then they’ve got a second or third, but those are the main things that we are looking for. So we have across the team based on that artists, designers who are very focused on usability, visual design, reporters, data focused reporters, developers from junior to people with CS degrees who are extremely, extremely competent, sort of groundbreaking computer science people.”
Take note, students —and professors.

And this a portion of the raw transcript of the interview with NPR's Brian Boyer, a journalist who has a background in computer science. It made me cheer out loud several times (my kids are witnesses):

“I think that, yeah, if you want a journalist who's an experienced software developer but a novice reporter, yeah, teach your programmer how to be a reporter. I'm certainly not going to claim that I'm a great reporter, and I'm still learning about being a pretty good editor. But I would say that I believe the Computer Science —fuck Computer Science, right? I have a four-year degree that is not actually that useful at our day-to-day work. The kind of software that we're building in these rooms, the kind of software that most people are building as consultants, or working for PricewaterhouseCoopers, working for IBM, working for Facebook, —. there's a small subset of people who are doing hard computer science problems, but the vast majority of us are writing code to make webpages, and writing code to make webpages is not that hard. There are certainly some learning curves. There's some bumps in the road you've got to get over, but I really, truly believe that coding is something that anyone can do with practice.  
The analogy I use is it's like learning to cook, right? Anyone can make themselves a grilled cheese sandwich. Anyone can make themselves macaroni and cheese for dinner, and most of the programming we do is macaroni and cheese. Now, there's a certain subset of people who are obsessed with food or obsessed with programming, and then go on and they learn to do much more complicated things, but the difference between you and I and a great chef, is there's a little bit of inspiration, but it's mostly practice. It's mostly just doing it over and over and over again, and that's how you become a great chef. It helps to have good taste, but that's how you become a great chef, and that's how you become a good programmer.  
There's a lot of words we use in the software world like "wizard," and "ninja," and "rock star," and "unicorn," and all those fucking words are bullshit. They create a notion that this kind of work is magic, that it can only be conducted by freaks, and that you don't disturb the programmers; they're special. And that's horse shit. It's not magic. It's just practice, and when we use words like that, we further the idea, we promote the idea that this is fundamentally different than other work that only certain people can do, and that is bad for the field. That's bad for journalism. It keeps people out, and we shouldn't use words like that because we shouldn't be keeping people out. We should be as inclusive as possible. All right. That's my soapbox speech. I think it's really important.”

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Visualization office hours with Google

A month ago I announced a monthly live “office hours” feature with the Google News Lab. We've done two already. You can see them here: 1, 2. This is a series of informal conversations in which I talk about visualization, infographics, and data journalism projects I saw during the previous month.

(Full disclosure, also mentioned in the videos above: I'm doing some consulting work for Google Trends/Google News Lab)

Here are the links that I mentioned:



The Guardian Olympics graphics: 1, 2, 3, 4 




Type for user interfaces: 1, 2

Friday, August 19, 2016

Miami Herald's Zika virus tracker

When writing about visualization, infographics, and data journalism it's easy to highlight just special projects by large organizations that take weeks or months to complete, and forget about the bread-and-butter ones about current topics, which are often much less flashy, but also much more relevant and useful to people.

Miami Herald's Zika virus tracker belongs to the second category. It's a straightforward series of graphics —a large map plus some graphs— produced by a tiny group of earnest professionals. We should give this kind of team more credit and attention than they usually get. They haven't forgotten that journalism is, above all, service, not entertainment.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Inspiring visualizations by Sam Petulla

There's so much inspiring data journalism, visualizations, and infographics around nowadays that it's easy to miss plenty of great projects. The work of NBC News's visualization editor Sam Petulla has been under my radar for a while for some reason. What a shame. I've just discovered this fantastic long-form story published in June this year, which describes who Donald Trump's supporters are. It's an example of how to effectively blend a classic written narrative with photographs, interactive graphs, maps, and animated diagrams.

(This Friday at 3 p.m. EST I'm doing another public hangout with the Google News Lab folks; I'll likely mention this piece, among many others about the Olympics.)

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Visualization in comic books

Jonathan Hickman is one of the most interesting comic book authors nowadays. His non-superhero work is consistently innovative, ambitious —some say “pretentious”— and often disorienting, as he loves to play with story structures and layout. One of his earliest books, The Nightly News, is full of graphs, charts, diagrams, and maps. Just take a look:

Hickman has just launched a lovely new series, The Black Monday Murders, which chronicles a vast conspiracy behind the global financial system. Here's a graph from the last pages of the first issue:

I wonder what the scale of that thing is, and where the data came from!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Signing copies of "The Truthful Art" for the Digital Humanities + Data Journalism Symposium

One of the giveaways we'll hand out at the upcoming Digital Humanities + Data Journalism Symposium, on September 29-October 2, is a signed copy of my most recent book, The Truthful Art. I'm working on that right now, as you can see in the picture. If you are planning to attend, make sure you have enough room in your luggage.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Trumpian data visualization

Donald Trump just tweeted this chart, designed, I guess, by the graphics folks at Fox News:

I've learned the hard way that averages are dangerous, particularly if time periods differ so much, so I went to the source, the Bureau of Economic Analyses, downloaded the quarterly GDP percent change, and quickly made the following time-series graphic:

The 2007-2009 crisis caused a drastic plunge between the end of George W. Bush's tenure and Barack Obama's first months in office. Right after that, quarterly GDP variation under his presidency doesn't look that different from previous years. Here's the annual data (source):

Another way to approach this story could be to average annual GDP growth under each president. The data is here, and here's the chart (note: I've updated Obama's figure):

The picture becomes a bit clearer now. It shows the recent stagnation described in Robert Gordon's book, summarized in this article (more here and here.) To be brief: economic growth is becoming much harder to achieve, so it is dubious to compare Obama and Bush Jr. to Johnson or Clinton, not to mention to the average of all previous presidents since 1950. And this is just if you accept that the GDP is a good measure of economic development, as Trump does in his tweet. We could argue that other metrics, like the unemployment rate or wage growth, are equally relevant.

The following chart —its source is a good read— provides another depiction of the steady slowdown of economic growth: the shorter the time period you calculate the average from, the smaller the GDP variation is:

Needless to say, I am no economist, so please chime in below if you wish.

UPDATE: Xan Gregg offers this other chart. And here's Catherine Mulbrandon's proposal, which uses GDP per capita.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Visualization office hours

Tomorrow I'm beginning a new monthly feature, the News Lab Data Visualization Round Up, a public hangout in which I'll discuss recent news graphics with Jennifer Lee and Nicholas Whitaker.

The conversation will take place at 12 PM (Eastern time.) If you want to listen to it, sign up here. It'll be fun.

Full disclosure: One of my ongoing consulting gigs is with Google News Lab, working with Simon Rogers and several very popular designers (more about this soon) to create visualizations based on Google Trends data.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Talking about visualization with John Burn-Murdoch

I keep working on my PhD dissertation, for which my students and myself are interviewing a lot of news graphics professionals. The latest one is Financial Times's John Burn-Murdoch —follow him on Twitter.

I'll release most —if not all— of these interviews, along with the dissertation itself and some quantitative data, by mid-2017 through the project website, (under construction.) However, the conversation with John was so compelling that I asked him if I could make it public right away. Listen to it here, or below.

(Note: A small portion of the chat didn't get recorded. I asked John to make some predictions about the future of visualization, and he mentioned a larger role for annotation, good headlines, etc.)

Here are links to some of the projects John mentioned:

Monday, July 11, 2016

Free video tutorials to supplement "The Truthful Art"

At the beginning of The Truthful Art I wrote that I was going to release tutorials explaining how the charts and maps in the book were made. It's taken me a while to get started, but I've just uploaded the first batch of seven videos. They deal with the example of elementary data exploration I describe in the Preface of the book (you can download the first 40 pages for free here.) I used iNZight, an R-based free tool that is very easy to learn.

To see all videos, visit the Tutorials & Resources section on the upper menu, or go to my YouTube channel. Keep an eye on either. I'll continue adding tutorials on a regular basis in the next couple of months, as I'll use them in my classes this coming semester.

Friday, July 8, 2016

The first Arabic data journalism book

It's always a pleasure to witness data journalism, infographics, and visualization gaining popularity worldwide. Egypt's business journalist Amr Eleraqi has just published the first Arabic book about our field (see it in Google Books.)

Amr is the founder of InfoTimes, a firm that has produced a good amount of information graphics for local companies. He is an enthusiastic and tireless data evangelist, so consider the short interview below my shameless attempt to promote his work.

How did you get interested in data journalism, infographics, data visualization, etc?

I have more than ten years of experience as a business editor. I’ve always loved to work with data. I deal with numbers all the time. Nowadays we have a lot of leaks, a lot of data everywhere. With very simple tools we can find stories inside it. I love this part, finding stories inside data and make it readable and shareable.

Tell me a bit about your project,

At the end of 2012 I was participating in boot camp organized by ICFJ in Amman. One of the sessions was about infographics. This session inspired me to create a small studio to visualize data. We work for clients like Yahoo Maktoob, Akhbar Elyoum, and Petra, the Jordan news agency. We were shortlisted by GEN’s data journalism awards this year.

We are a small team: 3 journalists, 2 graphic designers, 1 developer, and 1 animator. Sometimes I design, but you can't call me a graphic designer. I'm a journalist who can use graphic design software to present a story in an effective and attractive manner, but my main role is managing the team, besides analyzing data and transform it into stories.

I also train journalists. I'm working with BBC Media Action, Internews and Free Press Unlimited. And right now I'm learning to code. I believe that learning how to code is as relevant for a journalist as learning how to make an interview or writing a story.

You are busy! And besides all that, you wrote a book about data journalism. How did that happen?

It took me two years to write the book. There are no books in Arabic about data journalism, visualization, etc., besides the translation of the Data Journalism Handbook, which is good, but that is not designed for Arab audiences. So it was an obvious opportunity.

That's surprising. Are newsrooms in Egypt and its neighboring countries ready to embrace data journalism, infographics, etc?

Well, we've done more than 100 entry-level workshops just here, in Egypt, and some in other countries like Algeria, Turkey, and Jordan. There is great interest, but very little knowledge.

We do two kind of workshops. One is about data-driven journalism, and it covers topics like how to find data, scrape it, using spreadsheets to analyze it, etc. The other one is about visualization. It deals with how to select the best graph or map for your data, color, and then how to use online tools like Piktochart and

Tell me about the book, its contents, structure, etc.

The book has three chapters. The first one is an introduction to data journalism. The second deals with how to find, scrape, clean, and analyze data. The third is about visualization. It can be ordered online from all Arab-speaking countries, besides having a presence in book fairs.

The second chapter is a relevant one. Getting government or official data in Egypt isn't easy. We don't have an equivalent to FOIA requests here. You can ask official sources for data but you are never sure if they will give it to you or not. Besides, data is never machine readable, as it's always in PDF format.

I'm working with several partners to change the situation here. For instance, I've made two workshops for employees in several ministries. I gave them a series of recommendations. One of them was not to use PDF! Also, we've done a data for good event in collaboration with the International Development Research Centre.

Let's talk about freedom of the press in Egypt. Do you receive pressures or are limited in any way?

The situation is very hard in Egypt, under the current regime. Egypt has turned into an Iran-like country. The government is surrounded by a virtual red wall, and it's very risky for any journalist to trespass. To be safe you have to work and focus on social topics, not political ones. In Egypt right now there is only one tune, and you are required to sing along.

You need to be outside of Egypt to be able to freely write about Egypt. When our friend Hossam Bahgat reported about the corruption inside the military, he was arrested.

How data journalism, which is intrinsically linked to investigative reporting, thrive in an environment like that?

We are trying to work on that. Sometimes we need to report on wrongdoing in an indirect way. For instance, we cannot say that the government is mismanaging expenditures. So we created a calculator. Readers can input their monthly salaries, and the application shows them which portion of their taxes gets directed to different areas like education, healthcare, etc. Then, maybe they can make an inference.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Global Sharknado Threat and other adventures in mapping

I've been a fan of cartographer John Nelson's for a few years now. I featured some of his work in The Truthful Art and now, thanks to Jonathan Crowe, I've discovered that he has a blog with detailed mapping tutorials. In it, John explains how he made the peculiar projection of his now famous historical map of hurricanes, or this map of Global Sharkando Threat, while dropping nerdy asides here and there (Star Wars as a stylistic influence!)