Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Y'all, youse, and you guys must get this book right away

Unless you live under a rock, you're likely aware that the dialect quiz that Josh Katz, Wilson Andrews, and Eric Buth built in 2013 is the most viewed page ever in the history of Katz has just published a book, Speaking American: How Ya'll, Youse, and You Guys Talk, that highlights some of the most interesting, funny, and entertaining facts. I received my copy yesterday and I've been browsing it for several hours. It's making me really happy.

Besides tons of maps, the book includes advice on how to pretend you're from different cities and regions. I'm applying these teachings, beginning with Wisconsin. I'm now pronouncing the state name Wi-scon-sin, rather than Wis-con-sin...

Some of my favorite pages:

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Doing visualizations with Google News Lab

Here's the exciting ongoing project I mentioned before today: For the past few months I've been working with Google News Labs's Simon Rogers and a bunch of extremely talented and celebrated designers —Giorgia Lupi, Moritz Stefaner, Jan Willem Tulp, and others that will be announced in the future— to produce a series of ambitious visualizations based on Google search data. The first project in that series, WorldPotus, has just been launched.

Simon has written a very good post describing this initiative, and Wired is covering WorldPotus specifically. I won't repeat what's said in those articles. I'd just like to add that I'm being credited as an “art director” but, as you may guess, people of Giorgia's, Moritz's and Jan Willem's caliber don't need much art direction. My role as a consultant is to offer some initial ideas, draw visual mockups —that often get discarded!— and then give constant feedback during the development. It's a lot of fun, and I'm learning a lot from it.

(I'm also doing a monthly series of “office hours” with Google.)

A profile about visualization and data journalism

In the past few months I've been consulting for Google and Microsoft in two big projects. I'll announce the Google one —which is really exciting— in the next post. For now, here's a profile written for Microsoft by Thomas Kohnstamm. Besides a discussion about the present and future of visualization and data in journalism, the story includes an announcement of a series of lectures that Microsoft will release soon, plus a short PowerBI tie-in (this is Microsoft, after all.) Side note: Thomas is the author of a hilarious memoir, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?. You should read it.

Here's the main photograph of the story. I look like an Ayn Rand hero, which is quite embarrassing, as I think that Rand was a dreadful thinker and an even worse writer:

And here's a photo of the shelves in my office at UM's School of Communication —the other half of my visualization-related books are in my home office:

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Pay for your news visualizations and infographics

A few days ago I launched a quixotic Twitter campaign (#payForJournalism) to convince my followers to subscribe to their favorite news organizations, whether print or online. I believe that paying for the journalism you consume regularly is a civic duty—if you can afford it, of course. If you think that good, honest reporting is essential for democracy, not endorsing it with your money makes you a free rider. It's ethically wrong.

I'm now a subscriber to The New York Times, the Miami Herald, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New Tropic, the New Yorker, the Weekly Standard, the Atlantic, and I'll likely make a donation to ProPublica at the end of this year.

No, I don't have time to read all that. That's not the point. I don't pay for the privilege of reading or seeing everything that journalists at those organizations write or design. I pay because I know that the work they do is fundamental for a healthy public conversation. Have you seen Spotlight? You should. A single story like that is worth the price of a year's subscription. Without journalists, much wrongdoing would go unnoticed, many stories would be untold, much science would remain unexplained. We can't afford that.

Paying for your favorite journalism also means supporting the people who produce the wonderful data journalism, visualizations, and infographics you enjoy in social media every day. The photograph on the right is from today's Miami Herald. Kara Dapena is the author of those graphics. I'm proud to support organizations that pay the salaries of people like her.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Free visualization event at the University of Miami

The Digital Humanities + Data Journalism Symposium at the University of Miami was a big success, so we'll very likely do it again next year, in the Fall. Right now we're busy with another event that will take place in just one month, on November 10 between 4:00 and 7:00 p.m: Our annual visualization gathering, VizUM —register for free here, and read the official announcement.

This edition focuses on effective communication of scientific data. We have two great speakers. First, Martin Krzywinski, who works for Canada's Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre. Martin specializes in the visualization of genomics data. His graphics have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Scientific American and covers of numerous books and scientific journals.

Second, Colin Ware, Director of the Data Visualization Research Lab which is part of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire. If you work in visualization, you know who Colin is, and have probably read his books, which are classics already. If you haven't, well, you better do so right away!

I'm working on a poster and a flyer for the event right now. Here you have the drafts:

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Do people understand hurricane forecast maps?

It seems that we'll see hurricane Matthew landing in the U.S. pretty soon. Mashable has just published an article about how to read a hurricane forecast map. It links to this 2007 NOAA studywhich explains how readers misinterpret it. One of the authors, Kenny Broad, is a colleague of mine at the University of Miami.

NOAA's study focuses on the white cone of uncertainty. Apparently, many people believe that the boundaries of the cone are like the boundaries of the hurricane itself, which is far from the truth:

Both Mashable's article and the study mention another map displaying the probability of experiencing hurricane force surface winds (below). Has anybody tested these maps —and others— in controlled experiments recently? It'd be interesting to see the results. If you know of studies about this, please post them in the comments section. If, as I suggest in The Truthful Art, one of the goals when designing a visualization is to reduce misunderstanding and ambiguity, cases like this are of critical relevance.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

An aside about Trump

For once in the history of this website I'm going to write about politics. I think that the exception is pertinent. See, I'm going to ask those of you who can vote in November, and who care about facts and truth, about fairness and kindness, to send Trump and everything he represents to oblivion. Please feel free to stop reading now.

As a former nerdy, fat kid who became a nerdy, fat adult, there are four kinds of people I've always despised: bullies, assholes, jerks, and free riders. I hate people who take advantage of others, or abuse them, particularly those who brag about it. I have a strong emotional response whenever I hear or face people like that. They make me sick.

Well, for the first time in my life, I've witnessed a person who fits the academic definitions of a bully, an asshole, a jerk, and a free rider, all at once. Trump strikes me as the perfect sociopath.

You may think that I'm being unfair to the man, that I'm being hyperbolic, or that this is an unreasonable rant. Not true. Please inform yourself. There's plenty to choose from, but I'd begin with this book by a respected investigative reporter, and with this well argued take down by Sam Harris. I've read plenty about Trump from a wide range of credible sources, both conservative and liberal. Unlike you, Trump fan, I don't stay inside a comfortable ideological media cocoon. None of those sources, to the right or to the left, casts a positive light on this fellow. Not a single one. Even Fox News's support is quite tepid, if you ignore Sean Hannity, who doesn't qualify as a “credible” source by any standard.

Allow me to be blunt: If you helped Trump became the Republican nominee over some much more qualified candidates, you should —or will— be ashamed. Your kids will call you out on it in the future. But you have time to redeem yourself.

If you vote for this imbecile in November, you'll be explicitly endorsing racism, bigotry, and misogyny, besides proving that you don't give a damn about facts. You'll be complicit in giving the nuclear codes to a tantrum-prone ignoramus who has the self-control of an immature chimpanzee, the attention span of a goldfish, and whose knowledge of the world is reduced to what he sees in cable news and hears in radio talk shows. Please consider voting for his opponent or, if you really, really don't like her, have the decency of abstaining.*

(*This recommendation is for Trump supporters. If you endorsed Sanders, the logical thing to do is to vote for Clinton.)

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.

*NOTE: You can use the data and illustrations for any other purpose. They aren't copyrighted.

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!