Saturday, July 25, 2015

Saturday morning visualization fun

I'm very busy getting ready for classes and writing The Truthful Art, which I need to finish before December, as the publication date is still March 4th, 2016, but I am trying to make some time to enjoy visualizations and infographics. These are three that I found lately:

• Periscopic's Homicide Monitor.

• Accurat's work for the United Nations Human Development Report 2014 and for Audobon Society's 2013 Report (despite the radar charts.)

None of those is breaking news, of course, but as Periscopic and Accurat are prominently featured in my new book, I try to visit their websites from time to time, always finding something worth exploring. That's time well invested.

Also, Visualoop has been redesigned. It now includes a large infographics and visualization gallery. The bad news is that the articles and interviews sections aren't at the forefront anymore, but this website is still the best place to go when you feel short of inspiration.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The stickiness of visualization conventions

Visualization conventions are as sticky as any other kind of convention. But stickiness isn't a proxy for goodness. We shouldn't use a graphic form uncritically just because it has become the default to represent a specific kind of data. Tradition alone isn't a good textbook.

At the bottom of this post there's a before-and-after exercise*. The original, on the left, comes from Spain's Just for the record, I have mindlessly done tons of parliament charts like that in the past. The “mindlessly” part of that sentence is critical, as I was mimicking what many news infographics designers were doing.

But one day I actually tried to read the parliament-looking chart, and make comparisons. I couldn't. I needed to read every single figure to be able to mentally visualize variations.

You can see the evidence yourself. Read just one or two figures in the first chart below, force yourself not to read the rest, and then try to estimate changes accurately. Good luck with that.

So the parliament chart is nearly useless; a table would've been better. This chart is more a nice-looking abstract illustration than a visualization because a visualization should be an aid to understanding, not a hurdle.

*NOTE: I made a slope chart, but I'd be fine with a bar chart, a dot plot or even a divided bar chart (suggestion inspired by Clement Levallois)

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A dialogue between a reporter and a visualization journalist

Inspired by true events and, unfortunately, witnessed in many newsrooms:

Reporter/writer (RW): “This chart is just so boring. You need to spice it up, adding some shadows, 3D, illustrations, or something.

Visualization journalist (VJ): “This chart shows all relevant information, and it’s accurate, readable, and elegant. Its headline is a pun, so it even has some humor. If I agree to ‘spice it up’, would you do the same with the copy you're writing, if I ask you to?”

RW: “I want this graphic to go viral! Look, visuals are supposed to attract eyeballs, above all!”

VJ: “I will be happy to sacrifice the integrity of the chart if you do the same with your story. Would you be willing to add made-up colorful details here and there in your story to make it more ‘viral’?”

RW: “Well, I'm a journalist, you know... Anyway, as it is, nobody will read this chart!”

VJ: “Have you tested how many people really read your 1,000-word stories? Perhaps we could compare.”

RW: “But I want to do surprising, experimental stuff with our graphics!”

VJ: “I am all for experimentation, but it’s easy to experiment with someone else’s work, not knowing much about its rules and ethics. It’s harder to do the same with your own ‘stuff’.”

I wonder if so many reporters/editors (writers) realize how arrogant they sound when they recklessly tell visual journalists how to do their jobs.* It's insulting and it must stop outright. They need to get some of their own medicine, for a change. Give it to them. And never give up.

(*I'm also dismayed by how many of us have happily and uncritically adopted the jargon of marketing, but that's another story.)

Monday, June 22, 2015

The useful is never different from the beautiful

Months ago I gave a presentation about data journalism and visualization at the Ukrainian Catholic University, in Lviv, which anticipates a few points you'll see in The Truthful Art. I began by quoting an engraving I saw in a building in Rynok Square, and that applies to what we do: “The useful is never different from the beautiful.” The talk is on Youtube, in case you're interested:

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Some favorite books, an interview, and a student project

This past month I've been writing like crazy, so I haven't had the chance to update this blog. Don't expect many posts in the next five months; I need to finish writing The Truthful Art before the end of November, as it will be published in early March next year. I'm using Twitter to post updates and links to resources, so please visit my account to see them.

Anyway, I'd like to share a few things: First, the Tableau folks asked me about some of my favorite books on visualization and infographics. They didn't want a comprehensive list (that'd be too long,) but just the books that I believe should be widely read, but aren't, in most cases. I mentioned Jorge Camões upcoming Data at Work: Creating effective charts and information graphics, among others.

Also, if you understand Spanish, I was recently interviewed by a radio station about the role of infographics in journalism, and about the early days of my career as a news designer.

Finally, National Geographic has picked up a project done by our visualization and infographics students. You can read more about it in a previous post and in this description of our graduate programs.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Student projects and the future of visualization at UM

I should pay more attention to competitions and awards. Our University of Miami student Luís Melgar has just won first place in the infographics category of the SND Student Contest with a data project he made for my class in the Fall 2014 semester. See it below. He submitted this without my knowing, so it was a complete surprise. The other awards were won by students from UNC-Chapel Hill. Congratulations to them, too!

This semester I've seen other interesting explanation graphics and data visualizations done by our students. For instance, Yiran Zhu's capstone project, on rising sea levels in Miami. Yiran, who has just been hired as a graphics designer by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, combined charts, maps, and 3D animation in a very interesting manner.

Also, students in my Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization class (our 101 course, so to speak) did some very nice stuff. This course is becoming increasingly popular. In the semester that has just ended we offered two sections, one for grads and another for undergrads. We've been forced to expand to four sections this coming Fall. Two of them will be taught by Hiram Henríquez, who this Spring was in charge of a special topics class in which he collaborated with faculty from UM's School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Some of the visual explanations Hiram's class produced are already being used in press releases.

Besides all of the above, I believe that Lynn Cherny's new advanced class on Javascript-based visualization in the Fall is going to be groundbreaking. I'm really excited about it (I'm auditing it; d3.js. here I come!)

As I said when presenting our plan for a new track in visualization, infographics, and mapping, offered in our Interactive Media Master (MFA) program, I'd like the University of Miami to become a if not the place to be if you wish to learn how to use visuals to communicate with the public. Note to myself: Perhaps one of the first steps would be to start encouraging students to submit their work to contests...

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Guardian's election visualization

I've been teaching all day today, but I tried to make time to enjoy some of the UK election visualizations that were published in the past hours. I really like The Guardian's one, which uses a lovely zoomable hexagon-based cartogram. Notice the drop-down menu on the upper right corner, which reveals multiple options worth exploring.

The BBC has done a nice job, as well.

Side note: It's true that some of these maps may remind you of Lisa Simpson!

Why I'm canceling my subscription to The New York Times

In different circumstances, I'd have kept this private, but I think that I'll make an exception: I'm canceling my subscription to The New York Times tomorrow.

I was really close to doing it after my favorite newspaper, the one I have learned to love so much, didn't take a clear position in favor of freedom of speech after Islamic radicals murdered several employees at Charlie Hebdo. Instead, the Times leaned toward the  “yes, but...” stance, which I find repulsive. It didn't even publish the cartoons, even if those cartoons did have news value. Their explanations were insufficient.

Let's be clear: The Charlie Hebdo folks were murdered over cartoons. There was no moral “but” possible in that situation. Moreover, Charlie Hebdo wasn't ridiculing an ethnic group, but a religion, which is a set of ideas like any other. People deserve respect as human beings, but no one's beliefs have that right.

Also, there is a right to offend (that's another name for free speech, actually) but a right not to be offended can't exist because different groups are deeply insulted by different things. If we avoid offending the followers of a specific ideology, why shouldn't we grant everyone the same deference and dispose of free speech altogether? Charlie Hebdo viciously and regularly ridiculed Catholicism, Judaism, and the French extreme right, to name just a few of its targets. Should any those systems of ideas be respected? Of course not. No idea deserves respect. Not mine. Not yours.

As a reader and a fan, I decided to give the Times a pass back then. But I changed my mind after reading this editorial two days ago, which made me really angry. Notice the “but” again. The fallacious moral equivalences. The dubious understanding of what “hate speech” is (no, mocking ideas or mythical Dark Ages heroes, no matter how harshly, isn't hate speech.) Is Pamela Geller an odious person? I don't know, but it seems that she is. So what? Do folks I might consider despicable have a lesser right to speak their minds? The exhibit Geller put together was a provocation, says the Times editorialist. Granted, although, again, it seems to have mocked ideas, not people. In what way does that justify this dreadful editorial and the pattern of thought at the Times management level that it embodies? Artists provoke all the time. Freedom of speech doesn't stop being freedom of speech just because it's been used by someone whose worldview you happen to loathe.

I think that buying a newspaper subscription nowadays is a form of support for an institution that you want to survive in the long term because it's a societal good. I don't pay for the Times to read it. I could do that for free online. I pay because I admire the work it produces, which I'll keep praising in classes and workshops. But if a newspaper (a newspaper!) can't take the right position on one of the most fundamental tenets of an open society, I'm sorry but I feel that I should move my small contribution elsewhere. Take it as a tiny sign of protest. In the big scheme of things, it means very little. But enough is enough.

To understand this decision better, please read this, this, this, and this.

About Dataviva

MIT's César A. Hidalgo has just told me of Dataviva, a tool built with Python, HTML5, and CSS3 (running on d3plus) that lets readers explore tons of Brazilian data sets. Apparently, it began as a tool to visualize data just from Minas Gerais, one of the largest states in Brazil, but it now incorporates information from the entire country.

Dataviva should be invaluable for journalists and news designers. I've been playing with it this morning, and I'm delighted. The tool lets you switch between many different graphic forms (maps, dot plots, scatter plots, etc.,) it provides multiple ways to filter and reorganize the data, and it allows you to download the results of your exploration as CSV, SVG, PDF, and PNG.

This last feature is still a bit buggy. I got a couple of error messages while trying to generate an SVG to manipulate in Adobe Illustrator. However, at the end I'm a persistent guy I made it work, as you'll see in the pics below (yes, pie charts; I know.)

See a launch video here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

News visualization during World War I

If you're interested in the history of news graphics, you'll be excited about this. Pedro Pérez Cuadrado, Belén Puebla (both from the University Rey Juan Carlos, in Spain) and Laura González (from U. San Pablo CEU) are the authors of ‘Armando Guerra, the Mapmaker Who Saved a Newspaper’, originally published in the Malofiej 22th book.

Written both in English and Spanish, the chapter chronicles the career of Guerra, an Army officer who became a journalist and a cartographer around 1914. It showcases many nice examples of his work, like an overview of Ukraine made in 1918. See images below.

(The same authors published an academic paper about Guerra; this one is just in Spanish.)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Line charts aren't just for time series data

The tweet below is getting a lot of attention today. It's true, as Katie and others suggest in the discussion, that the chart can be better why ordering the music genre that way, to begin with? but line charts aren't just for time series data. This is a very common misconception; I still remember my Math middle school teacher telling me exactly that, back in the Pleistocene (ahem)!

Time series charts are just one type of line chart. There are others. Parallel coordinate charts (read 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) can be tremendously effective to reveal patterns.

(The graphic on the cover of The Functional Art, by the way, could be perhaps considered a parallel coordinate chart with just two vertical axes...)

Monday, March 30, 2015

No, no, no...

This and thisJust compare the volume of the boxes, and then take a look at the magnitudes they are representing. The report includes other “gems”, like bar charts in isometric perspective.* Not good.

(Then, read this post by Kenneth Field. It's about cartography, but what he says about respecting certain rules —regardless of context, publication, audience, and personal aesthetic preferences— can be extrapolated to other areas.)

*These become regular bar charts if you see them on a small screen. The design is responsive. h/t Tim Brock.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

30 endangered species animated with CSS

In Pieces: 30 pieces. 30 species. 1 Fragmented Survival is an impressive CSS-based animation project by designer Bryan James. In the How It's Made section, at the bottom of the main page, James (Twitter) explains:
Since hearing about CSS polygons, I've been a little surprised at the lack of furore around the technology, so I wanted to create something which not only worked as a project in itself, but also pushed this underused line of code as far as possible. (...)
So, in essence — each shape is being morphed, moved and toyed with by a new set of co-ordinates, and as they are maintained as triangles throughout, this means 3 points, with CSS transitions to link up the movements. No tricks or tools have been used to get the illustrated results, code-wise or graphically. Point by point, shape by shape, each one has been handcrafted via a personally-created tracing JS function after illustration.

My student Luís Melgar sent me the link to this project five minutes ago. The only word I wrote in my reply to him: Wow.

Friday, March 27, 2015

To use visualization, first we need to develop a visual sixth sense

The New York Times has just published a fascinating article on perceptual learning, a branch of psychology I was not aware of, but that may be relevant to explaining why many individuals and organizations are skeptical of visualization. I need to go the bottom of that Wikipedia entry and read the primary sources.

If you do infographics or data visualization for a living, I'm sure that you've found this objection more than once: "This is too complicated! Our readers won't understand anything here!” —meaning: "I don't understand it myself, and I'm not willing to put any conscious effort in decoding it, therefore no one will see anything.” The non sequitur here is obvious.

The article provides some clues as to why this is so common: To read visualizations, and use them to explore complex information or present it to others, first we need to train our eyes and brains to unweave graphics with little or no conscious effort. Or someone needs to teach us how to do it. Reading visualizations is a lot like reading words: The more you do it, the better and faster you'll be able to do it.

I'm sure that the first time that William Playfair designed a line chart, he was anticipating some pushback from readers, as bar charts weren't common currency before he launched his 1786 Commercial and Political Atlas. Numerical data was usually presented as tables at his time.

We take line charts for granted today, and we're able to interpret them without even thinking (that's the ‘sixth sense’ mentioned in the article,) because we've seen them for centuries. And because there was someone —Playfair— who took a risk to develop that new way of displaying his data, and used it repeatedly. That's why I appreciate the work of people who take risks nowadays, like Giorgia LupiSantiago Ortiz, or Jer Thorp. Even if I think that some of the novel graphic forms they devise are incomprehensible and will eventually be forgotten, I also believe that the ones that survive the scrutiny of time will become part of the vocabulary of visualization.

The final paragraph in the article indirectly mentions something that sounds a lot like exploratory data analysis:

"Scientists often think of visual images like graphs as the end result of their analysis. I try to get them to think visually from the beginning.”

Visualization critique: A how-to guide

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

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

And here's another one, which is key:

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

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

As a reminder, here are my thoughts about how criticism should be done.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Data and Goliath

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

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

The New York Times

The Wall Street Journal

Federation of American Scientists

More about data decoration

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

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

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

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Images from the new Malofiej book

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

I am sharing some images of the book. Enjoy.

(See all images)

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Interview in Diario Vasco

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

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Unethical practices in the publishing world

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

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

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

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

New writers, be careful.