Thursday, August 9, 2012

Visualizing data in Costa Rica

A 1851 map of San José. One of the first things you see when you enter the hotel where I'm staying

This week I am in San José, Costa Rica, running a visualization workshop at La Nación, the main newspaper in the country. The participants —around 40— are a mix of journalists (reporters and editors), designers, infographics artists, developers, etc.

La Nación is an uncommon case in Latin American journalism. They have a very strong investigative reporting team, led by Giannina Segnini, which doesn't consist of just journalists, but also includes data analysts, GIS specialists, and developers. They are a true "data journalism" desk that has produced stories on political corruption, economic issues, and social trends. One of their investigations (this same year) led to the resignation of the Finance minister, Fernando Herrero. La Nación proved that he was paying far less taxes than he should.

The reason I was asked to come down here was that La Nación wanted to address what they perceive as a minor weakness in their operation: they are very good at gathering and crunching numbers, and at reporting about them, but they feel that information visualization is still not embraced by the entire newsroom, even if they can count on people like Manuel Canales, head of the infographics desk, an accomplished designer who has won numerous Malofiej awards.

That's why we have such a varied crowd working on exercises based on real, multivariate data. The sketches you'll see at the bottom will be the basis for future stories.

Each of the groups in the picture above is made of at least a couple of journalists, a page designer, an infographics designer, and a developer. I encouraged them to work together as equals because, due to deeply rooted and old-fashioned newsroom traditions, those professionals are not used to speak to each other as often and openly as they should. As I said in the intro to the course, we must learn to use everybody else's language, and understand that a news story is not something a reporter does on her own with the occasional help of designers and photographers. Any story should be the product of the effort of a team of peers with different skills that participate in the process from the very beginning.

Another message I tried to get through is that doing successful graphics is not that hard, it's not a task only designers should undertake, and it doesn't depend that much on software (although computers certainly help). Good graphics depend first on defining the focus and the structure for your story, and on being able to identify how many layers of depth you need the project to have. That's why most of the work is being done with pencil and paper, with a little help from Excel —and GIS!

(Oh, and I got to meet Yuri Engelhardt in person, at last. I've been reading his stuff on visualization for ages.)