Data Visualization and Journalism

Posted on julho 11, 2010


NYT site traffic in the Michael Jackson death


Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg*

A hallmark of good journalism is the ability to take a large amount of information and pick out only the pieces that truly matter. Sometimes this means finding one valuable nugget–for instance, choosing a single indicator that sums up the agony of an economic crisis. However, there are themes so complex that no single number can do them justice; themes where hundreds of numbers are needed to give readers context. Enter data visualization.

Data visualization is a technology that transforms numbers into interactive images, making them easily accessible and providing context. Imagine you’d like to give readers a sense of how the stock market is doing, sector by sector, company by company. You’d have to know the stock price and market value for every company, how these prices are changing (are they going up or down? by how much?), and which companies belong to which sectors. That’s hundreds, if not thousands, of numbers. In the “old” days (a decade ago!) newspaper printed huge tables of these numbers in small print.

These pages were a kind of graveyard for information: although readers could look up individual stocks, they had no way of seeing a broader view. Data visualization allows you to “paint a picture” of the stock market showing all of these numbers at once. Martin Wattenberg did just that back in 1999 when he created the Map of the Market, a live web-based visualization of all companies listed on the Nasdaq:

Map Of the Market

HERE’S  A POSSIBLE CAPTION: The Map of the Market shows hundreds of publicly traded companies. Gainers are green, losers are in red. Similar companies are near each other, forming a kind of weather map of the financial news.

You may be thinking this is specialized stuff, fit only for covering financial markets and economic news. Not so. News outlets today are starting to cover everything from wars and natural disasters to pop culture with data visualization. The New York Times is probably the leader in this space at present, employing over 30 people in its graphics department. The team has editorial freedom to pursue its own articles and has visualized a wide range of topics, from the Iraq war to memorializing Michael Jackson’s death. These visualizations allow readers to learn more about the subject at hand than they would just by reading the accompanying article. In the Michael Jackson visualization, for example, readers could see his top hits over time and compare those to the hits from ten other music groups, from the Beatles to U2. This sort of overview contextualizes Michael Jackson’s musical production and helps illustrate how important he was in the world of pop music.

Jackson’s Billboard NYT Visualization

Faces of the Dead – NYT Visualization

In Brazil, some newspapers have started to follow suit. O Estadão has visualized grim subjects such as murders in major cities as well as more upbeat themes such as Brazil’s historical performance in World Cups. Unlike the NY Times, Estadão has relied on both in-house and externally created graphics. Being able to use third-party visualization tools is a recent development. Freely available web-based tools such as Many Eyes and Tableau Public were designed to allow anyone to upload data, visualize, and share interactive graphics for free. Journalists have taken notice and have started experimenting with different options for making data-rich stories easily available to readers. These visualization platforms are easy to use, don’t require programming skills and provide professionals with a wide range of techniques to display anything from a table of numbers to entire collections of text.

Murders in brazilian cities – ESTADÃO Visualization

If creating visualizations from scratch is your cup of tea, you’ll encounter a range of technical options. Processing, a set of Java libraries, was built to make interactive graphics programming more accessible. Flash is another popular choice for online interactive work and libraries like Flare have brought it closer to the world of data visualization. Finally, Javascript is all the rage these days because it runs on every browser as well as mobile platforms such as Apple’s iPad.

Whether you tune in to visualization because governments are mandating more transparency and open data or because you’d like to give readers a deeper storytelling experience, journalistic visualization is here to stay. We are just at the beginning of exploring what it means to tell stories with data. How will you help it evolve?

* Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg are the founders of Flowing Media. Before founding Flowing Media in 2010, Viégas and Wattenberg led IBM’s Visual Communication Lab. Their landmark system Many Eyes was the first to put powerful visualization tools in the hands of a general audience. Their vision of democratizing visualization has empowered journalists, businesspeople, and scientists to tell stories with data.

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