What bad writing has to do with war casualties and traffic over North America.
It’s no secret we have a data visualization fetish, but that’s not just because we like looking at pretty pictures; it’s because we believe the discipline is an important sensemaking mechanism for today’s data deluge, a new kind of journalism that helps frame the world and what matters in it in a visual, compelling, digestible way. Stanford’s Geoff McGhee, an online journalist specializing in multimedia and information design, tends to agree. His excellent Journalism in the Age of Data explores data visualization as a storytelling medium in an hour-long film highlighting some of the most important concepts, artists and projects in data visualization from the past few years.
Journalists are coping with the rising information flood by borrowing data visualization techniques from computer scientists, researchers and artists. Some newsrooms are already beginning to retool their staffs and systems to prepare for a future in which data becomes a medium. But how do we communicate with data, how can traditional narratives be fused with sophisticated, interactive information displays?”
I think we’re still in the early stage. I think a lot of the artists and journalists are still very much exploring what the capabilities of data visualization are for communicating both the context and the narrative elements of a story.” ~ Jeffrey Heer, Stanford University
One of the most noteworthy aspects of the film is the distinction it draws between data visualization as smart storytelling and data visualization as an aimless aesthetic playground.
I think that ‘data visualization’ is becoming a phrase that doesn’t mean as much as it should do. All it means is looking at numbers, which is what a lot of information graphics are, as far as I’m concerned. Now, it seems, ‘data visualization’ means visualizing a whole lot of data. And that’s given rise to a trend that I think is damaging. Because you can do beautiful things with computers and lots of data that look very, very nice and are almost completely incomprehensible.” ~ Nigel Holmes, Information Graphics Designer
I think there very much is a craft in this field. And if you do it wrong, you can get very bad results, just as there’s a lot of badly written stories out there.” ~ Martin Wattenberg, IBM Research
If you enjoyed McGhee’s film, you’ll most certainly love the ambitious anthology Data Flow 2 — we highly recommend it. Another interesting companion is this Nieman Lab piece on how The Guardian is pioneering data journalism with free tools.
UPDATE: The Guardian has just published an excellent guide to how to be a data journalist.