The Beauty of Data

Cardiff Media Blogs

The word ‘data’ may not conjure the image of a Madonna and Child, but with a bit of manipulation, numbers and facts can be made into something beautiful.

Although numbers, formula, tables and graphs may sound uninspiring, we don’t live in a world of colourless information.

We all use data, and people are not colourless.

Politicians, monitoring bodies, health organisations, charities, businesses, the media and individuals alike, we all use data in some shape or form, often to inform us of trends and to make decisions.

Data can be used creatively to explain, enlighten, educate and improve. It is as vital to journalism as it is to business.

Data is powerful. It can be used to encrypt secretive information, it can open up access to people and reveal the practices and decisions of those in power. CD’s with data can fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds and can bring down politicians, just as in the expenses scandal in 2009.

This is a typical example of how the Guardian visualises data in its newspaper – in this case showing the MP expenses dataset.

But with the expansion of the internet, the uncontrolled influx of data can often be overwhelming. It can present a great challenge to journalists, as their primary task is being shifted from obtaining data to dressing it up for the consumer. The task of the journalist becomes as much about aesthetics as it is about raw data, as more people have access to information, we should bear in mind that the audience wants to be entertained as well as informed.

Online tools like Wordle can help in this process. This tool can dress up the Wikipedia entry for ‘data’ making it more aesthetically appealing, while it informs the audience of the nature of data.

Wordle: data

But let’s take a more recent example: the wikileaks revelation of various US diplomatic cables known as ‘cablegate.’

The guardian website has an interactive guide to the leaks. The information presented up in an accessible and interactive way, allowing the user to search through the data in an interactive map, allowing us to navigate to the information we want.

As data becomes more widely available, surely there will be a greater need for data specific journalism. Data presentation skills will become more important than ever and with it the apt use of online tools such as Wordle, Many Eyes, Facutal, Swivel, Socrata, Verifiable.com, Google Fusion Tables, Widgenie, iCharts, Chart Tool, Open Heat Maps, Fusion Charts, Excel, Google Docs and Yahoo pipes.

Of course data can be manipulated and it is the job of the journalist to identify where PR wallpaper is covering the cracks in any political system.

Data is the journalist’s companion, together they can inform, educate, warn and criticise.

It may just take a while for a new relationship to flourish in the new online environment.

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3 thoughts on “The Beauty of Data

  1. If it is not contextualised and explained in accessible terms, data presented by journalists and newspapers can essentially be used as a sort of ‘intellectual Page Three spread’ – solely aimed at grabbing the attention of the reader. Beautiful data is one thing, but it should be the means to an end rather than an end in itself.

    For example, the Guardian’s Wikileak coverage is flashy, and makes the ‘user’ feel like they are active in ‘uncovering’ the story, but does it in fact simplify what is a very complicated set of issues that goes beyond diplomatic rows and presidential gossip?

    Surely the value of using data should be measured by the impact on contributing to informing readers. Manipulating datasets should never take away the responsibility of journalists to make connections, critically analyse and explain clearly the sense of the data.

    Well presented data is far better than incomprehensible percentages and facts and figures splatted on a page. In an age of digitisation and almost overwhelming access to statistics, the role of the journalist as ‘translator’ is vital.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      I take your point that there is a danger of dressing up information just to draw the reader in an ‘intellectual page three.’

      Of course journalists have a duty to inform and it should not be compromised at the price of aesthetics. Context is important to enable people to make informed decisions based on an objective (as far as possible) presentation of information. I completely agree.

      At the same time, one of the main challenges facing the media right now is a ‘fight for attention’. Data is increasingly available on the internet. If data can be accessed directly at its source, there is nothing stopping a user switching their attention from the news site and taking their much valued attention elsewhere. It naturally pushes news sites to entertain as well as inform.

      The difficulty comes in being creative, objective and fair within the time available.

      My post on data is not meant to belittle the fundamentals of good journalism, but to contribute to the discussion.

      What do you think should the Guardian not have done with its Wikileaks interactive map?
      Each point on the map leads to a news story, providing context.

  2. I do not doubt for a second that you were belittling the fundamentals of journalism. In the ‘fight for attention’ you mention, however, is it not inevitable that the push to entertain comes distracts somewhat from the primary role of the journalist – to write?

    In terms of The Guardian’s coverage, yes – each point on the map leads to a story, but the link is to the ‘original’ source, with what is considered to be the most important aspect of the cable highlighted. This does not explain the context and therefore the potency of the implications is lost. Of course, it is impossible to write a story on each of the cables, but given that The Guardian, like the other newspapers involved, has selected what it deems the most important documents/’revelations’ (a few hundred out of a quarter of a million) perhaps it isn’t too much to expect some more in depth analysis of those that it has chosen to publish.

    Interestingly, and going back to the issue of data and its presentation, the Spanish newspaper El Pais has a much more substantial graphical representation of the topic.

    http://www.elpais.com/graficos/internacional/intercambio/documentos/zonas/calientes/planeta/elpepuint/20101128elpepuint_2/Ges/

    If you were to look solely at The Guardian’s interactive map, there are 63 dots. The El Pais map does justice to the truly global nature of the leak. This isn’t to say that every single leaked cable is revelatory and contains a story, but nevertheless The Guardian’s map, in my opinion, is problematic.

    Firstly, the dots don’t tell us anything about the density of diplomatic correspondence originating from (or concerning) specific countries. For example, a dot located on the map in the UK puts a single cable about Prince Andrew’s arrogance on an apparent par with cables about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

    Secondly, the manner in which The Guardian has selected (included) the cases to be ‘mapped out’ could be very misleading – it gives the impression that there is little of interest in Central or South America, for example, something which is far from true.

    Thirdly, the source material that the map links the reader to is arguably more likely to baffle than enlighten the reader.

    Le Monde doesn’t appear to have gone down the graphical data route at all.The New York Times hasn’t done a Guardian-style interactive guide either. On the NYT homepage a short, selected quote from a cable appears with a photo (which corresponds to the story), and, in a ‘slide show’ style the stories are rotated, replaced by the next selected quote. Crucially when you click on one of the photos, the reader is taken to an article about the relevant cable, not the source material.

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