Posted by: structureofnews | April 24, 2011

Visualize This

It’s obvious that it’s getting easier and easier to collect, analyze and visualize data – not just the numbers we can see and grasp clearly (crime statistics, calories we ate today, etc), but even the less obvious information (cellphone location, building temperature, etc).  But we’re still miles away from really using that ability effectively.

Not that it’s a bad thing to have so much more computing power at hand; it’s simply that it’s early days yet – not unlike when desktop publishing came into being two decades ago and immediately enabled every color-blind designer and engineer in the world to turn out unreadable, multi-font, cheesy fliers.  It all turned out OK in the end, even if we had to suffer eyestrain in the interim.

And so it is with visualization software.  The New York Times had an interesting piece about the plethora of free and semi-free sites out there that allow people to visualize the data in their life.  It’s a huge step from even just a few years ago, when IBM’s ManyEyes project was one of the few open sites to allow ordinary folks to play with data and quickly explore them visually.

It’ll just take a bit more time before we really see widespread benefit – after all, it takes more than software to make sense of things; sometimes it takes sense as well.  But all in good time.

The NYT piece lists sites like, which lets you track relatively simple things, like what you eat and who you meet, although in many ways it seems a refined version of an Excel spreadsheet.  Not that that’s a bad thing; lots of people could use help with Excel.  The GeoCommons lets you throw together and map lots of data sets, allowing people to get a sense of what correlations there might be between various events and information. Then there’s TouchGraph, a site that we originally looked at when I was at the South China Morning Post to power the WhoRunsHK project; eventually we settled on ThinkMap, but TouchGraph has some interesting elements to it, not least helping visually map out your social network and connections.

“We started out with patents and medical documents, and we would look at how different companies were citing each other, how inventors were working together and how scientists co-authoring medical literature were co-authoring papers together,” said Alexander Shapiro, the chief executive of TouchGraph.

One of the real advantages of software like this is that it doesn’t require a huge amount of user input, which makes it easier for people to try out visualizations on information they already have – such as a network of friends.

That’s why a site the Times mentions,, is especially interesting, which describes itself as “a convenient, secure & scalable platform that helps you connect to & build the ‘internet of things’”.  It encourages you to:

Store, share & discover realtime sensor, energy and environment data from objects, devices & buildings around the world.

In other words, find out what your refrigerator is saying to the world, and graph/map/visualize it.  Or, more topically, what your cellphone is telling your provider about your location.  Not to jump into that whole iPhone/Android furor, but it’s another example of what Nick Diakopoulos talked about at Hong Kong U about the ubiquity of sensors and information, and how journalists should be thinking about how to tap into that world of information.

As the NYT piece notes:

Other services, among them,,,, or, gather information from an expanding network of sensors like accelerometers in cellphones or shoes. Users can plot the data — like how far they have run or walked in a day — and see on a chart whether they are meeting their fitness goals.

Jason Jacobs, the chief executive of RunKeeper, which plots information related to fitness, said his company was working to expand its collection of data beyond speed and distance of workouts. New efforts would gather data from Wi-Fi bathroom scales and sleep monitors so runners could monitor their speeds in relation to their weight and sleep.

“There’s going to continue to be innovation with new, powerful data around the plumbing of the human body,” Mr. Jacobs said. “What everyone is starting to realize is that it’s great to collect data, but somebody needs to make sense of all of this data.”

It’s true – someone does need to make sense of all this data.  The trouble is, it’s not all that easy to do that, powerful software or not.  Just read Junk Charts – a fantastic site devoted to critiquing graphics – regularly, and you’ll see lots that wrong with professional charting and visualizations, let alone what regular folks turn out.

There’s obviously lots that you can learn simply by mapping or charting data, and it’s great that it’s easier and easier to do that.  But taking visualization to the next step requires much more understanding and focus, just as writing professionally takes more understanding and focus than churning out this blog.

We’re not anywhere close to having that broad understanding of graphics and visual journalism among professional journalists, not to mention figuring out how to design interesting and immersive interfaces for data apps.  It’s frustrating how many journalists dismiss visualization as something to pretty up their story, when it could – and should – be so much more; not just a tool to present information to readers, but one that allows journalists to explore and understand their world better.

Add visual literacy to the long list – which includes numeracy – of things we journalists need to get on top of if we want to earn our keep in a world where anyone can throw a chart together quickly.


  1. See SSPP Blog Post: “If a Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words, What’s a Moving Picture (with Interactive Variables) Worth? ”

  2. […] piece from Reg Chua, formerly of SCMP and now back with Reuters, on the future of visualization for journalists: We’re not anywhere close to having that broad understanding of graphics and […]

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