Friday, January 4, 2013

Ideas for class exercises

If you are a teacher, you surely know how difficult it is to come up with ideas for projects. I have to put together guidelines for around six of them every semester. Sometimes, I give my University of Miami students some data and tell them to build a narrative based on a combination of graphs, maps, and text; in other cases, I ask them to explain a process or procedure by means of simple vector illustrations. You can see some examples of exercises in the Instructor's Guide and read the latest syllabus for one of my classes (not copy-edited yet).

The projects I enjoy the most, however, are the ones that are not based on a particular dataset, but on a story that should have included an infographic or visualization, but didn't. Fortunately, there are some high-quality publications that don't use information graphics at all, even if they clearly need them. The most egregious example is the New Yorker magazine. I read the latest issue this afternoon. Two of its stories have a great potential for visuals.

The first one is about how cities can be "climate-proofed". If you are not a subscriber, you can only read a small portion of it, but I can assure you that many of its paragraphs —full of figures and geographical references— will make you mutter: "Gee, I wish they had made a graphic about this!" There's your exercise: Make your students read the story carefully; tell them to pick just one of the many themes in it (raising sea levels; most threatened neighborhoods in the country, and so forth); then, ask them to look for information and build a graphic that could run alongside the story. The data they'd need should be easy to find online, and many of the primary sources are mentioned by the writer.

The other piece is titled A Pickpocket's Tale. It describes the life of Apollo Robbins, the man who inspired part of Sleights of Mind, a nice book about magic and neuroscience. The story is freely available. Read it and tell me if it the thieving techniques explained in it don't make you envision one or more graphics such as the one on the right, made by my student Daniela Santamarina, now an intern with who has been recently hired by Juan Velasco at NGM. That graphic, by the way, was based on New York Times story. Who said that newspapers and magazines are worthless?