Data Visualizations in the Newsroom

If you consume any political news or watch late night television, Congress has become the punchline of many an editorial or frustrated monologue. But does Congress really suck?

With a data visualization, Nikanth Patel, an Editorial Production Associate at The New Yorker, hopes to help people answer that question. Created in his time away from the office, Patel entered his latest data visualization project “Does Congress Really Suck?” in the BiCoastal Datafest sponsored by Columbia and Stanford Universities, where it won the “Best in Insight” prize.

By aggregating public data into a sleek and interactive interface, Patel’s project allows users to judge Congress through comparisons to past sessions, by following the money trail, and a real-time view of the public’s opinion of Congress on social media.

Why data visualizations? For starters, it makes information easier to consume. Since we have the technology to make data look sleek, even artful, and let readers interact with it, why not? Patel sees data visualizations as just another step in the evolution of the image. Reporters have used pictures, then video, to help tell their story. Why not data visualizations? As long as it’s in context, of course.

I think one problem that newsrooms have right now is that they understand the importance of big data and that it’s necessary to use it to find trends and report on emerging changes in the world or the way people live. But I think sometimes they rely too much on amassing a giant amount of data and then not really being able to translate it into something the average person can consume. Data visualization is a double edged sword, because on the one hand you have this chance tell this awesome story, but on the other you also have to avoid just putting a bunch of numbers into circles and graphs on a page and hoping the reader can understand it, because most of the time they cant.

Patel thinks most newsrooms run into problems when they try to do “too much with data,” he says. Instead, it’s better to zero in on one or two smaller issues, and illustrate those for readers.

Everyday at print papers, they decide every morning what graphs and photos need to be in the paper. And it should be the same with data visualizations.

In addition to being picky with data, you also can’t be too picky.

It’s harder to find an anecdote in words to use to your advantage than it is to find a statistic that tends toward your point of view. For every [statistic] you find that works to your advantage, you have to even more actively find conflicting data to achieve balance.

With the New York Times“Snow Fall,” published in December 2012, high production value, including 3-D flyover maps, lent itself to not only page views, but an enhanced reader experience of the almost 17,000 word story. The success of pieces like that highlights the need for “visual journalists,” as Patel calls them, in the newsroom.

It’s highly specialized work. And it’s hard for the average reporter to add projects, like Patel’s “Does Congress Really Suck,” to their repertoire.

But there are tools out there. Patel says he’s even working on some to make it easier for the non-visual journalist to produce visualizations like his. In the meantime, he’s leaving “Does Congress Really Suck” up on the web as a resource for those looking for those kinds of statistics.

Do you have any tips or tools for the budding visual journalist? Is your newsroom working on any visualizations?