Sunday, October 18, 2015

Updates: Conferences, interviews, etc.

I'm still proofreading The Truthful Art, and will keep doing so until November, so here are a few quick updates:

• I've just been interviewed by Geoff McGhee for National Geographic online. If you want to learn about The Truthful Art and get an update of the third book in the series, The Insightful Art, read it.

• On November 12, the University of Miami is hosting the 2016 VizUM conference. Lynn Cherny, Fernanda Viégas, and Martin Wattenberg are the speakers. You can see the poster for the event below. Sign up (for free!) here.

• My infographics students Valerie Quirk and Louise Whitaker have just revamped the University of Miami's visualization website. It's not finished yet, but you may want to check it out. We will be adding new articles every week.

• You may want to mark these dates on your calendars: September 29, 30, and October 1, 2016. Those days, the University of Miami will host the first DH+DJ conference. That stands for Digital Humanities+Data Journalism. We want to bring together two communities that face similar challenges and opportunities.

To get a heads-up to the contents of this event, read this article by Dan Cohen, which first gave me the idea. He'll be one of the keynote speakers. The other is ProPublica's Scott Klein. I'll soon give you more information about the rest of speakers and post a link to the official website.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Double the axes, double the mischief

Another day, another unnecessary dual-axis chart. Is it just me or is this often misleading graphic form —barely appropriate in very specific cases (1, 2)— becoming more popular?

After the terrible example from a few days ago, I've just seen another one in Robert B. Reich's otherwise interesting Saving Capitalism: For the Many, not for the Few. Reich has mastered the use of motion and static graphics to persuade. Just watch his famous documentary; here's a glimpse. But persuasion mustn't be our primary goal when designing a graphic. Accuracy and truthfulness are.

See the original and a quick redesign:

I'll concede that in this case the distortion isn't that bad but, if you can use the same correct scale for all your data, why not doing it? Why stretching and compressing the lines and give the impression of a perfect co-variation?

(Chiqui Esteban has suggested that an indexed chart would be better here. I agree, but I don't have access to the data.)

Quick update: I finished writing The Truthful Art last week. I'll be proofreading until the end of November, so the book can be released in early March 2016. Blurbs have begun coming in. Here are Jeff Jarvis's and Michael E. Mann's:

And here's a screenshot of a page that deals precisely with dual-scale charts. The quote by Gary Smith, “If you double the axes, you can double the mischief”, comes from hist most recent book, Standard Deviations.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

If you see bullshit, say “bullshit!"

If you're on Twitter, you've probably have seen the discussion around the horrible chart below, by American United for Life. It was justly criticized by and other media organizations. The chart is being used by politicians willing to defund Planned Parenthood.

You can read more about my opinions in this post by Politifact, which gave this chart a deserved “pants on fire” score. It's even beyond that, I think:

This chart is so evil that it's difficult to decide which lie should be highlighted first. Let's begin with the dual axis, which absurdly distorts the data. The chart should have looked like this (by

Not only that. As Alex Furnas has pointed out, population increased by 6.4% between 2006 and 2013. If you take that into account, the increase in abortions may look even less impressive.

Finally, Emily Schuch looked into the source of the data and designed a chart showing all services Planned Parenthood provides. Here's her chart:

Emily also suggested that a portion of the variation of these numbers may be due to the Affordable Care Act.

Now, read the “explanation” by AUL, and feel your blood boil. It's the most disingenuous defense of graphic malpractice I've ever read, and it clearly shows that these folks are shameless spin doctors, or ignorant to the extreme. Or both. And, by the way, this is regardless of your ideological position on this whole debate. A lie is a lie.

As I say in my upcoming The Truthful Art —albeit with more presentable words—: If you see bullshit, say “bullshit!” As the old saying goes, we should all strive to tell the truth and shame the devil to create a clearer and cleaner world.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Stephen Few asked for some thoughts about an infographic. Here's what happened

Perhaps you've seen Steve Few's recent post about a flawed infographic by Time magazine. I agree with Steve's opinion, but some of his readers don't. They have a point, I think: My guess is that this graphic was meant to be shared in social media, so it may need some unobtrusive embellishments. I've tried to find the middle ground in the discussion by proposing a new redesign.

Here's a video of my opinions, followed by my version; there's always room for improvement, so please share your suggestions in the comments section:

(UPDATE: After a few hilarious comments, I should explain that what the guy below is holding is a newspaper or a magazine, not a gun, a boomerang, or a Pterodactyl; I'm just not a great artist!)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

New articles and tutorials

As usual, I cannot write a long post —yes, that new book, you know that I have a deadline to meet— so here you have some recent news:

• An article about interaction in visualization: “When Telling Data-Driven Stories, Let Readers Ask Questions, Too.”

• An article about how careful we journalists need to be when dealing with data: “‘Indignant Minnesotans’ remind journalists that data can hurt.

• Visualization/infographics classes at UM (read about our programs) begin on Tuesday, so I've been putting together materials for my students. Perhaps some may be useful for readers of this website, so here they are:
1. My personal list of free R tutorials, coming from multiple sources: See it in DropBox. I update this on a regular basis. 
2. A series of short and informal videos I've recorded about iNZight, a marvelous tool to design quick charts and explore data. Download them here
2. Another series of videos about Yeeron, which is built onto ggplot2, and it's as easy to use as iNZight, besides working on the browser. Download them here.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Good visualization work by the Tampa Bay Times

As I continue working on The Truthful Art (to be released in March 2016,) and getting ready for classes, here's just a quick recommendation: Don't miss the Tampa Bay Times's story on failing schools. It's great data journalism and it includes some good visualization work. Here's the series of stories, and here's the interactive/animated infographic. I found the vertically oriented time-series chart very intriguing.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Saturday morning visualization fun

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

• Periscopic's Homicide Monitor.

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

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

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

Monday, July 13, 2015

The stickiness of visualization conventions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A dialogue between a reporter and a visualization journalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 22, 2015

The useful is never different from the beautiful

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

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Some favorite books, an interview, and a student project

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 11, 2015

Student projects and the future of visualization at UM

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Guardian's election visualization

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

The BBC has done a nice job, as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Dataviva

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

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

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

See a launch video here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

News visualization during World War I

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

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

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

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Line charts aren't just for time series data

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

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

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

Monday, March 30, 2015

No, no, no...

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

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

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

Sunday, March 29, 2015

30 endangered species animated with CSS

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

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

Friday, March 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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