Charts, fever lines, maps and diagrams: They aren’t just for the Graphics Department anymore.
There once was a time when reporters dealt with words and someone else dealt with the numbers and the pictures. But not anymore. There are plenty of free, easy tools now to get any journalist, regardless of their word-centricity, started on data visualization all by themselves.
That means you can do you can do your own quick and easy data visualizations to go with your own online stories or blog posts.
My Digital Media Committee colleague Jodie Mozdzer, who is working on her masters in news infographics, recently blogged for us on some handy Web sites you can use to learn more about data visualization. With Jodie’s gracious permission, I’d like to pick up that thread and add some more.
If your newsroom is a small shop like mine, doing your own data visualizations is great because you don’t need your own dedicated graphics staff to turn out a professional-looking pie chart or fever chart. If you’re in a larger newsroom with its own graphics department, your (probably overworked) graphics staff may not be in a position to crank out a fever chart every time you want to do a quickie blog post about the new revenue projection numbers from the city finance department. But you can do a simple visualization all by yourself.
But this isn’t just about generating pictures to dress up your blog posts. As a reporter, doing your own simple data visualizations using free tools — especially earn on in the reporting process — allows you to spot interesting trends that you might not always see easily just by reviewing a spreadsheet full of numbers.
And, best of all, it prevents the situation that one former newspaper graphics guy complained to me about recently: The moment when a graphics guy/gal realizes that the reporter who’s writing a spot story about tax revenue projections going up has just handed over a spreadsheet of numbers that, when plotted on a chart, show the projections actually going down.
With free data visualization tools, reporters can draw their own quick-and-dirty graphics and make sure the squiggly lines really are going up, up, up, and not down, down, down before they make 17 phone calls asking the city council how the city should spend all that extra tax money.
We’re going to talk mostly about free, browser-based tools today.
For basic charts, fever lines, stock-price-type charts and old-fashioned pie charts, go to Google Docs. You’ll only need a free Google or Gmail account. Go into the Google Docs spreadsheet and type in or import your data.
Then, go to the icon in the toolbar that looks like miniature bar chart showing, say, your state budget’s spending on highway pothole repairs. Hit that button, and it’ll walk you through the steps of creating a chart with a custom title. You can then save that chart as a .jpg or .png image file and place it in your Web story or blog post like you would any other image you would use in your CMS. (Microsoft Excel will also create nice charts and has more customization features for charts than does Google Docs, so if you have Excel and know how to use it, you can try Excel. However, my older version of Excel won’t let me export a chart as a separate image file, so I use Google Docs anyhow.)
To compare the size of different things — relative size — try making a “bubble chart” using IBM’s free ManyEyes site. This generates a graphic that I see in the New York Times probably more than any other major news outlet site, one that looks like you’re looking at a glass jar full of marbles, with little marbles of various size and big “shooter” marbles mixed in. (For those of you who also read the SPJ Generation J blog: “Marbles” was a game children used to play before they invented Nintendo.)
Here’s an example: A ManyEyes visualization of the fates of chihauhuas brought in to a California animal shelter. Like Google Docs, ManyEyes allows you to save your graphic as an image file and then upload it to your CMS, which enables me to plop this chart right down in the middle of this post. (What is going on with the seven chihuahuas that escaped, by the way?)
But notice one thing: The data shown here regarding chihuahuas could also work just as well as a pie chart. I mean, we’re talking about one finite set of numbers — all the chihuahuas brought into a certain shelter in a certain year. So, the most crucial aspect to be visualized is what proportion of the whole wound up being adopted out, euthanized, escaped, etc. And that’s what pie charts generally show, proportions of the whole.
Let’s imagine a bubble chart that shows something that you couldn’t show with a pie chart. Say you wanted to show the amounts of emergency preparedness spending in the current fiscal year budgets for all the cities in your MSA.
You can’t show that very well in a pie chart, can you? I mean, there’s more than one pie, because there’s more than one city involved. But the size of the bubbles in the chart will help people see the sizes of the emergency preparedness budgets relative to one another.
Scatterplot charts: I’ll be honest with you: There’s something about scatterplot charts that makes my head hurt. If you’re really needing to use a scatterplot chart, you’re probably an education reporter (or a former ed reporter having a post-traumatic stress disorder flashback to your last statewide standardized testing data-dump day). A statistically minded friend of mine tried to tell me not long ago that scatterplot charts are just fever charts with a really fuzzy fever line, which makes more sense to me than any other explanation I’ve ever heard. But if you’re in need of a scatterplot chart, ask yourself, “Am I still an education reporter?” If the answer is yes, both Google Docs spreadsheets and Google Fusion Tables will create scatterplot charts. If the answer is no, you probably do not need a scatterplot chart. You just need a stiff drink.
Wordles: We’ve all seen a Wordle: A computer program takes all the words in a given piece of text, analyzes them and diagrams which ones were repeated most often. This may not count as the purest form of “data” to visualize, but can sometimes be kind of entertaining, such as when people have dumped the text of gubernatorial “state of the state” speeches into the computer brain. You can also try some variants of Wordles like word trees through ManyEyes.
Maps: So much of what we do as journalists involves not just data but data tied to geography, which means creating maps is a good way to do data visualization — but there are several ways to make maps depending on just what you’re trying to show.
The simplest way to do a map online — a map showing one dot on it — is with Google Maps’ My Maps function. Are you the 6 a.m. cop shift reporter at your shop who’s assigned to update your home page with breaking news, and you get a report that an F-4 tornado has just destroyed all of downtown Snodgrass, Okla., including the World’s Largest Upright Vacuum Cleaner, which had been housed at the National Museum of Vacuums and Cleaning Appliances in Snodgrass, and you need to quickly get a map up online showing the location of Snodgrass? Go to Google Maps, search for Snodgrass, Okla., hit the “link” button in the upper-right corner to grab the embed code, and plop that code in your Web story.
Multiple points on a map: But it’s much easier to understand the power of maps when you see how easy it is to plot multiple pieces of information on a map. Back a few months ago, the school system here in Houston was considering closing some “small” schools — schools with the fewest students, said to be less-than-economical to operate — to save money. A colleague of mine mapped the location of all 60-plus schools that were in play for closure using another free site called Geocommons, which allows you to upload a data file of many map points and customize the information window text for each point. (You can see her map below.) You’ll first need to add a column to your data file that includes the latitude and longitude for each point (each school, in this case), and if you have a relatively small number of points, you can do that for free using sites like Batch Geocode. Geocommons is free and its maps are easily embeddable.
You can also map multiple points using Google Fusion Tables, which has the added benefit of built-in geocoding (to “geocode” something is to find the lat-long coordinates for it). A nonprofit online news site in North Carolina used Fusion Tables to produce a super-cool map of damage by a recent tornado in the Raleigh area, for instance (at right). Again, free and embeddable.
You can get as creative as you want with tricking out the info window text in these custom maps. Here’s a map I did a couple of years ago where we took just about all the information we could find online for all 181 Texas legislators and married it all to a Google Map. Yes, it did take a long time to pull all this together, but with the incredible improvements recently in services like Google Fusion Tables and Geocommons, it’s a lot easier to do a map like this today than it was when I did it in ‘09.
Lines or routes on a map: Need to show the six different cities the governor flew to on state aircraft to rendezvous with his mistress? Go to Google Maps and plot each trip using colored lines for each of the flights using the crooked line tool in the upper-left corner of the map window. Then save the map, grab the embed code and embed that sucker in your blog post or story.
Maps with shapes on them: Sometimes it’s not enough to show a point on a map, or even a line. You need to show the boundary of a county or the proposed lines for newly redrawn legislative districts or the jurisdiction of a municipal utility district.
The map people call these shapes “polygons,” a word most of us haven’t used since high school geometry class, and it used to be, you’d need $2,500 worth of software like ArcGIS to do stuff like that.
Not anymore. Geocommons and Google Fusion Tables will both allow you to upload GIS “shapefiles” of city, county and other government boundaries — and you can often download those files directly from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Web site or get them from your local planning department. Just upload your map boundaries and tell it what color scheme to use. Here’s one I made not long ago that shows Houston’s 88 “superneighborhoods,” as defined by the city.
Comparing geographic areas: Need to show the difference in per capita incomes in each county in your MSA or state? I’ve always called these “heat maps” though I think the formal name is “chloropleth map.” Just like Geocommons and Google Fusion Tables will both let you upload shapefiles, they will also enable you to shade the polygons to show data characterisitics for those areas — the redder the red, the higher the per capita income in that county, for instance. Or, the bluer the blue, the more kids living in that Census tract who live at or below the poverty line. Just upload your map boundaries, upload your data, and tell it what color scheme to use. Here’s one (below) from ManyEyes, showing the number of youth homicides in the states of Brazil.
Again, not only is this a good way for readers to take in a whole lot of information easily, it’s a good way for you as a reporter to quickly spot trends that could make good stories. For instance, here’s a map (below) plotting county-by-county Census data. For instance, notice the counties with the high numbers of small kids in, say, several counties in Utah. Why? Might make a good story. In the very southernmost tip of Texas? What’s up with that? And a baby boom in western South Dakota?
Before I sign off, let me add to Jodie’s list of good sites to bookmark if you want to see cool data visualizations. My Facebook friend and former competitor Matt Stiles, late of the Texas Tribune but now of NPR, has a Tumblr blog on data visualization called the Daily Viz. I found the Census data map through his site, so check it out.
Jennifer Peebles is a deputy editor at Texas Watchdog, a nonprofit online news site based in Houston, and is chairman of the SPJ Digital Media Committee. A truncated version of this blog post appeared in the most recent issue of SPJ’s Quill magazine. Contact her at email@example.com, 281-656-1681 or on Twitter at @jpeebles or @texaswatchdog.