Thursday, August 28, 2014

ProPublica's latest multimedia visualization is simply beautiful

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

UPDATE: A behind the scenes article about this project.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More about plagiarism in visualization and infographics

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ben Jones wants you to communicate data

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Places&Spaces arrives to the University of Miami

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

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


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Some words about constructive criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

My first interactive visualization with Tableau

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

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

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

UM's new visualization website

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Teaching visualization: A discussion

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

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

Thank you for a fun roundtable, Periscopic

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Gorgeous infographics from Fortune magazine (March 1938 issue)

Map by Richard Edes Harrison for Fortune (March 1938)

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

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

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

Thursday, July 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 6, 2014

El Mundo's infographics get a nice shout-out

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

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

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Two interactive visualizations by Spanish students

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

Thursday, July 3, 2014

An elegant visualization about the latest mass extinction

Anna Flagg's ‘A Disappearing Planet, the latest interactive visualization from ProPublica, was inspired by Elizabeth Kolbert's book The Sixth Extinction. Take time to explore it. Having seen this d3.js-based data project in the making during the past five weeks, I must confess that I really like how it turned out stylistically. The graphic is elegant and clean. And the little animated photos are quite nice, aren't they?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The challenges of classification in choropleth maps

Building classes for choropleth maps is always tricky business. By grouping values together as intervals, you always put yourself at the risk of hiding important nuances in the data. There are reliable guidelines you can follow, but the process always requires a good dose of common sense. This excellent article by John Nelson (h/t Rob Simmon and Jorge Camões) explains this challenge really well.

The map below, published today by The New York Times —see it online,— is a good example. Notice that the last class corresponds to the values above 30%. The problem is that this class includes values as big as 89% —or even higher, I didn't check! Perhaps it makes sense to create a fifth class for the counties in which Evangelicals and Mormons are a majority of the population (51%)? Besides, I'm not sure that using equal intervals is the best choice here. But it may be just me. I haven't seen their dataset, after all.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Stupid icons based on NSA programs with stupid names

The latest interactive graphic by ProPublica is a matrix that maps all NSA programs. The chart was designed by Jeff Larson and Julia Angwin, author of Dragnet Nation (I got a signed copy; thanks, Julia!) The first version of the project was a bunch of gridlines, dots, and little labels. It was good, but it also looked a bit flat. Assistant managing editor Eric Umansky suggested that we could spice it up a bit by adding funny illustrations, considering the names of many of the programs, such as ‘Nosy Smurf’ or ‘Egotistical Goat’. I made a few quick sketches (see below) and we got a go. The final drawings were done with Adobe Illustrator. This is an explanation of the project.

At first, I thought that these were too cartoony and childish, and not a good fit for ProPublica, a serious news organization fully devoted to investigative reporting, but Eric, Jeff, and Julia thought otherwise. I guess that these stupid icons are an appropriate depiction of the stupid names that the NSA had chosen. You could say that style follows purpose.

(A note about jokes: Hats and masks are inspired by Spy vs. Spy, and the Royal Concierge icon may puzzle those who have not watched a certain TV show yet.)

Sunday, June 29, 2014

On the origins of the scatter plot

Above, a scatter plot by
Francis Galton
Chapter fifteen of How Not to Be Wrong, a book that I recommended a couple of posts ago, talks about John Herschel, Francis Galton, and the history of the scatter plot. I had read about this in Howard Wainer's Picturing the Uncertain World but I got curious and did a quick search in Google. I wanted to take a look at Galton's and Herschel's charts. And here's what I found: Michael Friendly's and Daniel Denis' ‘The early origins and development of the scatterplot’ (Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 2005.) Quoting:
“Among all the forms of statistical graphics, the humble scatterplot may be considered the most versatile, polymorphic, and generally useful invention in the entire history of statistical graphics.”
Friendly and Denis also cover connected scatter plots, the Phillips Curve —“one of the most famous curves in economic theory” (see below,)— the scatter plot matrix, etc. Don't miss the article.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Teaching visualization podcast: The best parts

I guess that it's hardly a surprise that I found the latest podcast fascinating. Enrico Bertini, Moritz Stefaner, Scott Murray, and Andy Kirk did a great job at describing many of the tensions, struggles, and trade-offs visualization educators face, and at offering useful suggestions. Quick notes:

Enrico: “When people think about professors they believe that once the semester ends you’re done with your job. Which is actually the opposite: Now you can finally do your job!”

Andy: “(One of the main challenges is) to find a way to bridge the gap between the top people (…) the ‘Illuminati’ of the field, (those who are) pushing the boundaries of what we should do, what we could do creatively and theoretically, and the everyday person who is working with data (…) How to make the translation to the lower end of the pyramid.”

Andy: “I bang the drum incessantly on ‘it depends‘. You need to embrace all these principles, but I try to be not very dogmatic and avoid some sort of cookie-cutter approach.”

Enrico: “We all know that the principles that we teach are not necessarily black and white (…) But it’s a struggle because on the one hand, if you make everything relative you run the risk that the students will walk away with nothing. I wonder if it’s better to give some clear-cut rules and principles and then let them discover that there are cases in which this doesn’t work.”

Scott: “One of my main ongoing challenges is the tension between tools, process, principles, and history on one side, and then the technology on the other side, because the technology can just eat up so much time!”

Scott: “You cannot really separate the tools from the process.”

Enrico: “It doesn’t matter how much theory or how much principles you teach. You need to have your students practicing those principles. Otherwise, they won’t absorb them.”

Enrico: “The last time I taught my course I introduced d3.js. I didn’t let students use any other tools or frameworks and this worked just perfectly, much better than I expected. I think that one of the reasons is that students managed to help each other a lot, they mastered the language in a few weeks. I had an assistant teaching them a d3 seminar, and the feedback from the students was great.”

Enrico: “One thing that frustrates me is that many of my students come to my class with this mindset that data analysis is just aggregation, aggregating everything and coming up with four numbers. And it’s not. It’s about disaggregation, about showing as many details as you can without overwhelming people. Then it starts working really well.”

Scott: “I think that it’s a great idea to begin by seeing tons of examples. The first assignment in my course is a short one: Go out into the world and find a handful of infographics, statistical charts, whatever. Choose the ones that you believe are successful or unsuccessful and then write about them, critique them, and tell us about them. To me the first step is to build this library in your head of what the possibilities are.”