Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Guardian shows its (visualization) teeth

A few months ago, Xaquín G.V. was hired by Aron Pilhofer as the new editor of visuals at The Guardian. They have a top-notch visualization and infographics team over there, in my opinion (Pablo Gutiérrez, Feilding Cage, and many other talented people are in it,) so it was predictable that we'd start seeing good stuff sooner rather than later.

Check their poll projection series of graphics. If you like Sankey diagrams, you'll be psyched. Oh, and it looks great on a smartphone, as it's responsive. There are a few details here and there that I'm not sure about, but I don't think that this is a time to complain, but to celebrate.

Lynn Cherny is joining UM for a year as a Visiting Knight Chair

OK, this hasn't been officially announced yet, but the word is out and spreading fast, and I'm very excited, so here it goes: Lynn Cherny is joining the School of Communication at the University of Miami for a year as a Visiting Knight Chair (there will be another Knight Chair at the School, a more permanent one: Myself.)

As you probably know, Lynn is very active in the visualization world: She tweets, has a blog, consults, and runs the data-vis-jobs list. She's also an expert programmer with a background in linguistics, data mining and analysis, and UX.

During the Fall 2015 and the Spring 2016 semesters, Lynn will play a key role in shaping our new data visualization MFA program (more details here.) To begin with, in the Fall semester this year she's scheduled to teach an advanced data visualization class, which students in my current introductory course can take. For that class, we are partnering with UNICEF to visualize their data. UNICEF will publish the interactive graphics that students in Lynn's class will produce.*

(Another big visualization-related hire may happen soon, but it hasn't been confirmed; stay tuned.)

*Side note: I am going to audit Lynn's class myself. I need to take advantage of this, don't I?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Online course: Data Visualization and Infographics with D3.js

I'm happy to announce that Scott Murray and I will be co-teaching an 6-week online course titled Data Visualization and Infographics with D3.js. It begins on March 16th.

I'll be in charge of the conceptual side of the class, and Scott will teach you how to design great visualizations with d3. If you already did one of my MOOCs, a portion of the theory materials will sound familiar, although I've recorded a brand new series of video lectures. Scott has done the same.

The first 100 people who register will receive free copies of Scott's e-book Interactive Data Visualization for the Web. All students will also get early access to the introduction and first two chapters of my upcoming 2016 book, The Truthful Art.

Follow this link to register 
and see the intro video below.

UPDATE: The Knight Center has published an in-depth description of the course.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Two great visualizations by The Wall Street Journal

It's not a secret that I'm biased in favor of visualizations that are clear and avoid capricious special effects. The priority in visualization design is to enable the discovery of interesting stories that lurk behind the complexity of data and information, and that is regardless of the context of the graphic. You can certainly sacrifice a bit of clarity and bend or break the rules if the payoff is great (a substantial increase in visual appeal, for instance,) but that's not a blank check.

Anyway, the previous lines are just an excuse to recommend two very recent projects by The Wall Street Journal, Track National Unemployment, Job Gains and Job Losses, and Battling Infectious Diseases in the 20th Century: The Impact of Vaccines. Both illustrate how to achieve clarity and beauty, I believe. I'm teaching a class in 30 minutes, and I'm incorporating them to my slides right now.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Redesigning a circular timeline

Yesterday a student of mine asked how to make an infographic like the one on the right in Adobe Illustrator (source). Click on the image to expand it.

I immediately tweeted that I would indeed show her some software tricks, but that I'd also explain why this may not be a good idea.

See, timelines (or bar charts, urgh...) shaped as circles are usually very hard to interpret, and not only because they force you to tilt your head to read the labels. It's true that they look pretty, and this one isn't an exception. It is very pretty. However, once you start trying to extract meaning from it, it becomes a bit frustrating.

Jer Thorp replied to my tweet:

I'm a fan of Jer's work —he's going to be one of the interviewees in my 2016 book— and, as I'm not in favor of strict rules in visualization,* I first conceded the circle might indeed let you cram more information into a smaller space. As for the idea that the original lets you clearly compare Dec. 2010 to Dec. 2011, I wasn't sure at all, and I said so in our conversation.

Anyway, I'm traveling alone today. I woke up really early and got bored during my long breakfast, so I decided to test my thoughts —and Jer's. In visualization you usually won't know if a particular shape works until you actually use it and compare it to as many alternatives as possible. I redesigned the timeline, using similar colors and font sizes as the original. Version 2 is much easier to read. I also put the new version next to the first one, to show that the circle turns out to be less space-efficient.

As a reminder, I believe that there's a difference, no matter how fuzzy it is, between information visualization (graphics to amplify cognition) and data decoration and data art which are both fine areas.

*I do believe that many flexible rules do exist, and need to be respected, though.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Visualizing gender and ideological disparities in RateMyProfessors

This visualization by Northeastern University's Ben Schmidt is making the rounds in social media today. For good reason. The graphic lets you search for words and short sentences, and it returns their frequency per million in reviews. Try “tough”, “strict”,“mean”, "unprepared",“smart”, etc., and you'll see that, in general, female instructors are rated far more poorly than their male counterparts.

After that, try some terms related to politics. I wrote “liberal” and ”conservative”. The results are below. See Political Science going to the top of the vertical scale, and don't miss the striking change on the X-scale.

(h/t Hannah Fairfield)

Monday, February 2, 2015

If something looks wrong in your data it's probably because there's indeed something wrong in your data

Yesterday a revered* Spanish newspaper published a bar chart like the one below in a story about poverty in Latin America. Do you see something weird? Is it really possible that nearly the entire population of Bolivia was poor in 2005?

Of course it isn't. If you go to the data (table below), which comes from the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Cepal), you'll see that for each year there is one column for poverty (“pobreza”) and another one for indigence (“indigencia”). The problem is, obviously, that you cannot add up those two variables. The variable “indigence” is very likely a portion of the broader category “poverty”!

Spain’s traditional newspapers often claim that citizens must pay for their product, and that they deserve special protections because what they offer is far better than what people get from online media, non-professional journalists, bloggers, etc. Blah, blah, blah.

(*Not for long.)


UPDATE: Josu Mezo, from the blog Malaprensa (“Bad Press”) has told me that he got misled himself by the chart the first time he saw it. He didn't notice the mistake. That's precisely the reason why I try not to blame individual designers for this kind of blunder. We all make mistakes all the time, no matter how well we educate ourselves to be more numerate and to pay more attention. This is not an individual failure. It's an institutional one. Newspapers used to have correctors and copy-editors, who took a second, a third, and a fourth look at your work. Most of them have been fired in many news organizations, and these are the consequences, particularly when you're on a tight deadline.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Infographics, visualization, and multimedia at Fusion

Yesterday my students and I had the first meeting of the semester with the interactive teams at Noticias Univisión and Fusion. The University of Miami has a partnership with those organizations, so we drop by once a month to learn about their work. We also collaborate on projects sometimes.

The Fusion folks showed us their new website, which collects several behind-the-scenes articles about the techniques and tools they employ in their infographics, visualizations, and multimedia documentaries. My personal favorites are ‘A Losing Battle’ and ‘The Bobblehead Effect.’ I love the 3D animation on that one.

The articles are an excellent resource for classes, as they give you a glimpse of how things really work in a newsroom. I'm planning to use them a lot, particularly with the graduate students coming next Fall for the data and visualization program. They'll be inspired, I believe, and realize that charts and maps are just a portion of a much larger picture.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

NASA's Science Visualization Studio

Thanks to Wired I've discovered that NASA has a Science Visualization Studio. The work of this group is really nice, and quite varied; it includes geospatial visualization, narrated infographics, etc. I just wished they stopped using the ugly and ineffective rainbow color palette (here's why)!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

An old interview with Charles M. Blow

If you read The New York Times regularly, you've surely have seen Charles M. Blow's weekly columns. You may have even heard about his memoir, Fire Shut Up In My Bones —a great book, I must say.

What many of you perhaps don't know, though, is that before becoming a successful opinion writer in 2008, Blow was director of infographics at the NYT and at National Geographic magazine. I was reminded of it recently, while browsing over my Malofiej awards book collection. Book 12 includes an interview with Blow conducted by Nigel Holmes a decade ago.

I asked the Malofiej friends for permission to reproduce it here. See all pages below. Then, click on any of them to enlarge it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Off-topic: Leon Wieseltier

If I had to choose just one popular non fiction writer whose work I find infuriating, that's Leon Wieseltier, who has appeared in this website more than once. After he left The New Republic, he was hired by The Atlantic magazine, and it seems that we'll also have to endure him in The New York Times.

Yesterday, his essay 'Among the Disrupted' appeared in the NYT's Book Review, and it's terrible. It's not very often that you find such a shameless series of straw man fallacies and gross simplifications (science opposed to the humanities? I guess that he's proposing that we go back to the times of the scholastics, right?) wrapped up in such a florid and utterly vapid style. I'll let you enjoy it before taking a look at some quick thoughts that I shared on Twitter while I was reading it. Notice point 13 and the final tweet, in particular, which I'm reproducing:

Monday, January 19, 2015

Visualizing the songs of humpback whales

I'm spending all day preparing for classes today, so discovering this fascinating article by David Rothenberg and Mike Deal has been a relief. It describes how the the sound patterns of humpback whales were transformed into wavy visual shapes which reflect the highs and lows of each short sound bite. The authors share their own visualizations and motion graphic, but don't miss the beautiful historical sonograms and this old cover of Science magazine that they also showcase.

(h/t Washington Post's Know More)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Deny this, says Bloomberg

2014 has just been declared the hottest year on record, another piece of the overwhelming evidence corroborating climate change. It's also another reason to believe that having wingnuts overseeing NOAA or NASA (see here) is insane, and that caring about our impact on the environment should be high in any political agenda. But I digress. I was about to recommend that you take a look at this visualization by Bloomberg's Tom Randall and Blacki Migliozzi. The combination of animation and interaction is quite effective here. As the authors themselves defiantly suggest: Deny this.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

El Financiero's visualizations

Óscar Santiago, art director at El Financiero, in México DF, has sent me several of the visualizations that his team of designers and journalists is producing. I particularly liked this scatter plot of the relationship between average property size and price. Use the filters on top and on the right to select any area you're interested in. And the interactive 3D globe on this one is quite cool, too.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Surging Seas

Thanks to Rich Beckman I've discovered Surging Seas, an interactive tool by Climate Central and Stamen. Living in Miami, the first thing I did was to play with this part of the project, and discover that our house would be threatened if sea level rises around 4-6 feet. Notice that you can explore plenty of states and cities, and overlay variables such as income, population density, etc., and download data sets. Impressive.

They are many, but we are legion

They are many, and they cause pain and grief. But we can be legion. That's why I'm publishing the images below, and encourage you to do the same, no matter what you think of them, no matter how offensive you think they are. To care about visual communication, we need to care for freedom of expression first. If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. Ideas aren't respectable. People are. Bravo, imam, for supporting this cornerstone of open societies. And shame on you, publications like BBC news, who publish the video of the gunmen but censor the cartoons You offend us.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Visualization workshops in Mexico and the Netherlands

This Spring semester I'll be doing my regular visualization short courses in Mexico DF (2-day course) and in Utrecht, the Netherlands (1-day course.) In both cases I'll be introducing plenty of new material, anticipating contents from my 2016 book, The Truthful Art, besides covering visualization and communication design principles, as usual.

More information about the course in the Netherlands, on March 11.

Read more about the course in Mexico, on April 17 and 18. Register here (there's a mistake in this page; remember that the dates are the April ones.)

Note: If you're planning to attend and you want a (polite, I promise) critique of your visualizations/infographics, don't hesitate to contact me to send me examples. I may even make a quick redesign, and incorporate it to my slides.

See the complete schedule of events.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New book about visualization: New Challenges for Data Design

In a few weeks Springer will launch New Challenges for Data Design, a book edited by David Bihanic. I wrote a short chapter about misleading graphics for it. The list of other contributors is impressive.

The price of the book is to put it mildly, ahem... quite steep, so before you decide if you want to add it to your shelves, I'd suggest you take a look at the preface and chapter 2, which are available for free.

You can read more about the book here.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

This. Is. Not. An. Infographic

No matter what some people claim.

This is what the word “infographic” used (ought) to mean.

Quote source.

My favorite books in 2014

IMPORTANT: 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 average monthly payment I got last year was $75.

Last year it was a book about Humanism. This year it's one about cognitive biases, dissonance and motivated reasoning. Will Storr's The Unpersuadables: Adventures With the Enemies of Science is the best book I read in 2014 (see complete list.)

I know, there are many, many books about biases and mindbugs in the market I've read quite a few of them, actually but this one stands out because of how humane it is. Storr does make fun of silly beliefs, but then acknowledges that all of us fall victim to them all the time, no matter how hard we try not to. He also talks about the dangers of storytelling. I'm sharing some of my favorite passages at the bottom of this post.

Other 2014 highlights in no particular order:

Statistics Unplugged, by Sally Caldwell. A post about it.

Design and Truth, by Robert Grudin.

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, by Jordan Ellenberg. Mentioned here.

Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking), by Christian Rudder. Some notes.

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away, by Rebecca Goldstein.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull.

Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, by Matthew Stewart.

The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning, by Marcelo Gleiser.

Who Rules in Science: An Opinionated Guide to the Wars, by James Robert Brown.

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us, and Them, by Joshua Greene. A post about it.

The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day, by David J. Hand.

33: Understanding Change & the Change in Understanding, by Richard Saul Wurman.

Continue reading to see some passages from The Unpersuadables.