The art of making sense of data — and it is truly an art — is a key element in building the future of journalism. Interactive presentations created from data can be personalized by the reader, giving a more engaging news experience. Data-based applications can also lead to new business models, through paid or subscription-based applications that give extra value to readers by providing a new dimension on news coverage.
One of the leaders in data visualization is Stamen Design, which has worked with news organizations and museums alike to help make sense of the world through its unique views of data.
Speaking to a Hacks/Hackers event this week at the Gray Area Foundation For The Arts, Stamen founder Eric Rodenbeck discussed some of his firm’s work and philosiphy.
Some highlights from the presentation:
Create maps as tools for exploration
Stamen doesn’t have any preconceptions for what they want their visualizations to show. They aim to create interfaces that allow users to come to their own conclusions about what they see. Part of this is insuring that the data they use is as complete and accurate as possible. They also don’t try to clean up outliers in their data that might appear to be unexpected noise cluttering up a visualization.
Issues of data access
When Stamen was about to release their visualization of crime data in Oakland, the city shut off access to the data pipe. Access to open data is obviously essential for these applications. This is one area where journalists and developers can work together. With their experience finding sources and doing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, reporters can help obtain the right information in the right format so that designers and developers can build a complete visualization. That takes an understanding on both sides of what’s available and what format is required.
The best data come from human actions
Data that come from actual human activity is best starting point for creating visualizations. This means information based on how people behave in the real world, not doing something like filling out surveys.
Current tools are complicated and expensive
There are some easy-to-use tools for doing this work, such as Google Maps. But when you want to go beyond just sticking red pins on a map, it can get complicated very quickly. Stamen’s projects require complex and expensive tools that aren’t easily usable by non-techies. Perhaps this will change and there are some people working in this space, such as IBM’s Many Eyes project.
Print-on-demand as a way to bridge the digital divide
Print media through small on-demand runs could be a way to bridge the digital divide and bring some of the information gleaned from data analysis to a wider audience. There have recently been some efforts to use downtime on big presses for short runs.