Among the subsets of programmer-journalists, two are kissing cousins: data journalists, proficient in assembling data and making it tell stories; and visual journalists, proficient in interactivity and design. In best-case scenarios, one pro-jo is both of these, resulting in a database that is easy to use and that yields interesting results. Unfortunately, these both tend to be rather esoteric areas of journalism. We are more often than not, as my data professor Steve Doig once put it, “the nerds in the corner” and “no one really knows what it is you do.”
Well, Paul Bradshaw has taken a bit of the mystery out of it all with his well-circulated article about how to be a data journalist. It really isn’t of much use if you’re looking for a how-to, but it does a good job of explaining what data journos do. A few of the programs he mentions are easy enough to start playing with even if you have no real programming experience: ManyEyes is just plain fun, and Yahoo! Pipes is far more powerful than you’d expect. One of my computer science friends uses Yahoo! Pipes to pull data from many different job hunt sources in order to produce a single jobs feed. Now that’s serious geekery.
(Need more things to play with? Check out this Read Write Cloud article on tools for data journalism. If you’re comfortable with programming, Factual’s API is really cool.)
Near the end of his piece, Bradshaw says, “If you’re good with a graphics package, try making the visualisation clearer through colour and labelling.” This very British footnote is his only nod to visual presentation.
Extending Bradshaw’s thought, I offer this thought: If you’re NOT good with graphics, please, for the love of Photoshop, find someone who is to help you out. Otherwise, you risk confusing and/or boring your audience. A print story that is confusing would (one hopes) be edited until it is clear. This same standard doesn’t seem to apply to Web graphics and visual data. Tables and raw Excel spreadsheets are fairly common. That makes me sad.
David McCandless operates the delightful Website Information Is Beautiful, in which he presents graphical interpretations of data that make my inner nerd squeal. (One of my favorites is his tongue-in-cheek “Because Every Country Is the Best at Something” map.) In his excellent TED talk earlier this year, McCandless said, “Information design is about solving information problems. It feels like we have a lot of information problems in our society at the moment, from the overload and saturation to the breakdown of trust.”
In other words, the way you present information is just as important to telling the story as the information itself is. If you present good information in a bad way, your audience isn’t going to get the proper impact. And this is where programmer-journalists come in. Sure, you could dump your carefully gathered info in a graphic designer’s lap. But he isn’t going to have the innate understanding of that data that you, after spending countless hours deciphering it, have. That’s why having both skills is important.
Here’s McCandless’ full talk, in which he breaks down several of his infographics to explain his designs. If you’re a visual thinker, this will jumpstart you, and if you’re not a visual thinker, it will give you some insight into what’s going on in our brains — and maybe some inspiration for your own projects.