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.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Dear El Mundo: This is an absolute shame

It's sad to see a former employer committing a mortal visualization sin. El Mundo, the newspaper I used to work for between 2000 and 2005, has just published the charts below, comparing the circulations of the three major national papers in Spain. As media critic Josu Mezo has pointed out in his blog, the main problem isn't the lack of a 0 baseline (I don't think that line charts always need one) but the fact that the Y-axis is truncated in the middle, to suggest that El Mundo is closer to El País than it really is.

This is an absolute disaster and, knowing that my ex-colleagues at El Mundo's infographics department take their job very seriously, I'm nearly 100% certain that this is the product of an overzealous top editor trying to massage the data to mislead readers, something that seems to be common practice in my country. Shame on you.

Mezo has published new versions of the charts in which the Y-axis has been corrected.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

SciAm visualizes the PhD gender gap

Scientific American has just published an interactive visualization titled ‘How Nations Fare in PhDs by Sex.’ I'm still exploring it, but there are many things that I like about it already. To begin with, the filters in the drop-down menu on top, or the fact that we can sort the countries in different ways with the buttons underneath the chart. And the bubbles yes, I do like bubbles (no matter what you may have heard out there) when they are well used: Never for accurate comparisons, but to offer a general idea of what the data looks like.

Periscopic designed the graphic, and the research was done by Amanda Hobbs.

UNICEF's A Promise Renewed visualization

If you follow this blog or my Twitter account (or read my book!) you've probably noticed that I'm interested in topics related to global health, human development, etc. Because of that, I'd like to showcase UNICEF's latest visualization, titled ‘A Promise Renewed’. It was designed by Jan Willem Tulp who, as you probably remember, I interviewed for The Functional Art.

I asked the UNICEF folks to write a couple of paragraphs about the project:
This data visualization was created to coincide with the launch of the annual Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed report, which uses data from UNICEF to provide an update on global progress around maternal, newborn and child survival.

This year’s report makes encouraging reading: the number of under-5 deaths worldwide has been halved since 1990, falling from 12.7 million to 6.3 million in 2013. Nevertheless, the report emphasises that this still equates to 17,000 under-fives dying every day, or one every five seconds, and in 2013, one million newborn babies died on the day they were born. This is all the more tragic given that the majority of these deaths can be prevented using simple, affordable solutions such as folic acid supplementation, skilled birth attendance and early initiation of breastfeeding. The report calls for concerted action to improve quality of care for newborns and under-fives, led by governments, civil society and the private sector.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Multimedia storytelling and visualization by Folha de São Paulo

The more stories that tightly integrate text, photos, motion graphics, and visualizations I see, the more I like them (here's an old post about them; and here's a newer one.) The latest example I've seen has just been published by Folha de São Paulo, and it's titled Crystal Unclear. They've translated it to English. It's about the future of water supply in Brazil.

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.