Data Visualization for Beginners

Notes from Geoff McGhee’s Knight Fellowship report

Thanks to Mark Coddington and his weekly roundup on Nieman Lab for linking to this beautiful video series, “Journalism in the Age of Data” by Geoff McGhee. It’s a documentary report that McGhee produced as a Knight fellow at Stanford this year, all about data visualization for journalists. In it, programmers and investigative journalists describe the many ways in which visualization can be used both as a tool to find patterns in huge collections of data, and to elegantly illustrate the stories that come out of those patterns for readers as well.

While the entire hour-long project is highly recommended, the most engaging parts for me were when the pros encouraged beginners to give this strange new world a try. Here are some insights and excerpts:

-“Basically, half our brain is hard-wired for vision. Vision is the biggest bandwidth that we have, in terms of sensory information to the outside world. So visualization is taking advantage of the fact that we are so programmed to understand the world around us in terms of what we see.” –Fernanda Viegas, of IBM Research and the Many Eyes project, a series of free design programs for people to experiment with data visualization.

-Amanda Cox, a programmer at The New York Times, gave some advice to beginners: learn by doing, and start small. She said: “Do it with a subject that you’re comfortable with, do it with something you know, with something you care about. That’s really generic advice, I know, that’s like the bar chart of advice.”

-Cox’s colleague Matthew Ericson acknowledged that the Times has an edge because of their thirty-person staff, but said that shouldn’t stop people from experimenting solo: “Just because it’s just you, doesn’t mean that you’re never going to pull it off. There are a lot of people who pull off a lot of amazing stuff by themselves.”

-“It’s a little strange, actually, [data visualization] is becoming a little check-box on people’s media plans. I’m not sure yet whether that’s the best thing ever or the worst thing ever. I’m leaning toward it being the best thing ever,” said Eric Rodenbeck, founder of Stamen Design, a firm highlighted in McGhee’s documentary for their Crimespotting map project for California cities.

-And, in case you needed any more convincing, here’s John Grimwade of Conde Nast: “Data visualization is here to stay, no question about it. It’s not some passing fad…. So we better all get on board.”

The last section of McGhee’s video, “First Steps,” provides a wealth of advice about how exactly to get started, from blogs and online communities to tutorials and free software. For instance, Swivel, recommended by Chase Davis of investigative innovators California Watch—which is very easy to maneuver, and free as long as it is used for visualizations of public data. Tableau Public is another free package well-regarded by designers. Sites like Infosthetics, Flowing Data, and Visual Complexity are great resources for finding out the latest in data visualization and providing forums for journalists and designers working out problems and learning from each other. For pure inspiration, check out the archive of Good Magazine’s pretty (and pretty whimsical) infographics.

If you want the most basic, most thorough tutorial, I recommend this one by Scot Hacker of the Knight Digital Media Center, who shows how to create a visualization with free Google Charts and Gadgets, from start to finish (spreadsheet to embedded chart), called “Data Visualization for Non-Programmers.”

And for further reading: Paul Bradshaw’s mini-tutorial on The Guardian’s DataBlog, “How to Be a Data Journalist” and the follow-up on his personal blog, “Where Should An Aspiring Data Journalist Start?”, Anthony Calabrese on PBS MediaShift on the power of visualization, help forums from Hacks/Hackers, CJR’s Q&A in two parts with Chris Wilson and David Plotz on their data projects at Slate Labs, and the TED talk that David McCandless gave earlier this year on his own elegant design solutions for journalistic problems.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner