Graphics are great tools to complement your reporting.
This two-part series will talk about why and how to create charts and graphs using Google spreadsheets.
The first blog post is a tutorial explaining the basics. The second will describe the more complicated Google motion charts.
Why Use Charts At All?
Simple. Charts help people digest large chunks of data. They also add color to stories and help break up text.
But most importantly, they help people better understand the information that is often the foundation of your stories. (And help the reporter see trends that can get lost in a sea of numbers.)
Like anything, there are ethical considerations when creating your own charts. Your information source needs to be credible. Make sure the proportions on your charts don’t distort the real story. Make only like comparisons in data. For example, don’t compare five years of test scores at one school to three years of test scores at another school.
Get familiar with Google Documents, if you haven’t already.
You’ll need a G-mail account to use Google Documents. Once you’re set up with one, create a new Google docs spreadsheet. (It’s just like a Microsoft Excel document.)
Figure out what kind of information you have, and what kind of chart you can use to display it.
Pie charts easily display percentages.
Chart Possibilities: How much of your town budget goes toward education and how much goes toward town expenses? What percentage of the total budget is taken up by payroll? Pie charts are a great way to show that, instead of just saying that.
Line graphs pinpoint changes in data sets over time.
Chart Possibilities: Did the budget increase over time? How does that compare to the town’s population changes over that same time period?
Bar graphs often compare several data sets in one snapshot in time.
Chart Possibilities: How does the town’s spending compare to other similar sized communities this year? How does the tax increase compare to area towns?
Import your data. (Warning: You may be required to do some math to set up the information in the correct way to transform it into a chart.)
Keep in mind that most charts can compare two or three sets of data. So keep it simple. (We’ll get into large, complex data sets in the second part of this blog series, when we talk about Google Motion Charts.)
In Google Spreadsheet, you’ll need two columns. Column A will be words: Payroll, Utility Bills, Transportation….. Column B will be numbers — specifically the percentage of the budget those corresponding words make up. (You need to do the math first.)
You’ll need three columns: First will be years. Second and third will be data sets.
Don’t worry too much about how you set up your information. Google Charts can often recognize what kind of chart you are trying to create, or you can change things around later.
Highlight the data set you’ve created and click on the Insert tab in Google Documents. On the drop down menu there’s an option for Charts. Click that.
You can chose from a variety of chart options in the menu.
Click on the tabs in the pop-up window to customize the titles for each axis and the chart title.
Once you click the insert button at the bottom of this pop-up window, the finished chart will appear within your spreadsheet. Voila!
Once the Google Chart appears in your document, you have a couple options for how to export it.
Each chart will have a title in the left hand corner. Click on that title, and a drop-down menu appears.
If you click publish, you get HTML code to drop into a website or blog window.
If that’s your decided method, make sure you save your document and don’t alter the data. If you don’t save the document, the code doesn’t work. And if you change the data, the chart will update with the new information.
The easier way to save the charts is to simply click “Save Image.”
Coming up next, we’ll talk about the much more interactive Google Motion Charts. The second part of this tutorial will appear later this month.
If you thought static info-graphics were powerful tools for displaying data, just wait! Motion Graphics will blow your mind.
Jodie Mozdzer is a web journalist for the Valley Independent Sentinel in Connecticut. She is a member of the SPJ Digital Media Committee and the treasurer for the Connecticut chapter of SPJ. Jodie is getting her masters degree in Interactive Communications from Quinnipiac University, with a focus on interactive news graphics. You can follow her on Twitter @mozactly.