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February 16 2011

19:00

Dataviz, democratized: Google opens Public Data Explorer

Two years ago, Google acquired Gapminder, the Swedish graphics-display company whose Trendalyzer software specializes in representing data over time. (You may recall the company from this awesome and much-circulated TED talk from 2006.) Since the acquisition, Google has built out the Trendalyzer software to create its Public Data Explorer, a tool that makes large datasets easy to visualize — and, for consumers, to play with. The Explorer has created interactive and dynamic data visualizations of information about traditionally hard-to-grasp concepts like unemployment figures, income statistics, world development indicators, and more. It’s a future-of-context dream.

“It’s about not just looking at data, but really understanding and exploring it visually,” Benjamin Yolken, Google Public Data’s product manager, told me. The project’s overall mission, it’s worth noting, is a kind of macro-meets-meta version of journalism’s: “to make the world’s public data sets accessible and useful.”

The big catch, though, as far as journalism goes, has been that users haven’t been able to do much with the tool besides look at it. If you’ve gathered public data sets that would lend themselves to visualization on the Explorer, you’ve had to contact Google and ask them to visualize it for you. (“While we won’t be able to individually reply to everyone who fills out this form,” a contact form noted, “we may be in touch to learn more about your data.”)

Today, though, that’s changing: Google is opening up its Explorer tool. Yolken and Omar Benjelloun, Google Public Data’s tech lead, have written a new data format, the Dataset Publishing Language (DSPL), designed particularly to support dynamic dataviz. “DSPL is an XML-based format designed from the ground up to support rich, interactive visualizations like those in the Public Data Explorer,” Benjelloun notes in a blog post announcing the opening. (It’s the same language that the Public Data team had been using internally to produce its datasets and visualizations.) Today, that language — and an interface facilitating data upload — are available for anyone to use, putting the “public” in “public data.”

It’s an experimental feature that, like the Public Data Explorer itself — not to mention some of Google’s most fun features (Google Scribe, Google Body, Google Books’ Ngrams viewer, etc.) — lives under the Google Labs umbrella. And, importantly, it’s a feature, Yolken notes, that “allows users who may or may not have technical expertise to explore, visually, a number of public data sets.”

The newly open tool could be particularly useful for news organizations that would like to get into the dataviz game, but that don’t have the resources — of time, of talent, of money — to invest in proprietary systems. (The papers of the Journal Register Company, a news organization that has made a point of experimenting with free, web-based journalistic tools, comes to mind here — though any news outfit, big or small, could benefit.) The Public Data team had two main goals in opening up the Explorer tool to users, Yolken notes: Increasing the datasets available to be visualized and, then, distributing them. “First, we want to have lots of data sets available that are credible and useful and interesting,” he says. Second, the hope is that the tool’s embedding capabilities will allow for easy sharing of those data sets.

Though the Explorer platform is now open to anyone — and though Yolken and Benjelloun mention teachers and students as groups who might do some interesting experiments with it — they hope that journalists, in particular, will make use of the tool. Even more particularly: “data-driven journalists.”

To that end, the tool isn’t as intuitively understandable as, say, the awesomely easy Ngrams book viewer tool — “we realized that, in order to show the data properly, to make the data understandable, you really needed to describe the metadata,” Benjelloun notes — but nor does it require special expertise to use. “This format doesn’t require engineering skills,” Yolken says; then again, “it’s not as easy as a spreadsheet.” It’s somewhere in the middle — akin to learning, say, basic HTML. (Here’s more on how to use it.)

But if journos can get beyond the initial learning curve (one that, for data-driven journos, in particular, won’t be especially steep), they, and their readers, could benefit doubly. The Explorer tool allows users not just to create dynamic data visualizations, but also to avail themselves of a new way to understand those data in the first place. In other words: The tool could prove useful from both the presentation and the production ends of the journalistic spectrum. There’s something about watching data move over time, Yolken notes, that changes your perspective as a consumer of those data. “It makes you start asking questions that you wouldn’t have asked before.”

October 05 2010

21:46

Six Stunning Projects That Show the Power of Data Visualization

Data visualization is taking the web by storm and, with a little luck, it might be the next big thing in online journalism. Buoyed by the open data movement and accelerating change in newsrooms around the country, it has become something more than just flashy graphics and charts -- it is a new form of visual communication for the 21st century.

In the coming months, I'll be writing about this emerging field for MediaShift. We'll cover best practices, free tools and resources. We'll also analyze the best of the best and talk to some data visualization or viz bloggers about what's hot and what's not. From time to time, I'll share some of my own data viz experiences with you and seek your feedback.

What is Data Visualization?

At its core, data visualization is the visual representation of information served up with a healthy dose of innovation and creativity. A truly stunning data viz becomes more than the sum of its parts. This new digital alchemy can turn a simple spreadsheet into something that can shake up the debate, measure progress or even change the world.

This periodic table of visualization methods by the folks over at VisualLiteracy.org illustrates a number of different elements or viz building blocks. A data viz can take the form of an infographic, a timeline or a map. It can be a motion chart, a short video clip, an interactive dashboard, or even a web app.

Below, you'll find six examples of data visualization from around the web and across the globe that provide an overview of the techniques and approaches to data visualization.

1. Work With Passion Like Hans Rosling

Data_viz_1.jpg

Any discussion about data visualization has to start with Hans Rosling. He is a professor of international health and co-founder/director of the Gapminder Foundation. He created the Trendalyzer, an advanced motion chart that makes statistics come alive.

If you are not excited about the power of data visualization, you will be after this video of his talk at TED where he talks about health in the developing world. The magic begins at around three minutes in:

You can make your own international health comparisons using an interactive motion chart or download the free Gapminder desktop application for a hands-on data experience.

2. Visual Can Also Be Visceral

Latoya Egwuekwe, a former classmate of mine at American University's Interactive Journalism program, made national headlines with her visualization of county-level unemployment data. See it for yourself: The Geography of a Recession. This viz has received over 1 million hits since it was launched in October 2009.

Data_viz_2.jpg

Every day, I work with labor statistics and I am still floored every time I see this viz. It goes to show that you don't have to be a pro to have an impact. Around the web, students, citizen journalists and bloggers are breaking new ground.

3. Making a Story Hit Home

Data visualizations can be used to tease out and illustrate trends from data in new and unexpected ways.

Timothy Noah over at Slate introduced the concept of "the Great Divergence" and then he used a data viz to take readers on a visual tour of income inequality in America.

data_viz_3.jpg

Dubbed the United States of Inequality, this 10-part series and viz shows a widening income gap.

4. Use Motion to Move Your Audience

A visual look at aging around the world by General Electric incorporates motion beautifully. It allows you to compare age cohorts from different countries over time -- think Baby Boomers, Generation X, etc. Watch as your generation grows old and dies based on United Nations population projections.

data_viz_4.jpg

This viz is called Our Aging World and is presented as an interactive motion chart.

5. Seeing Something in a New Light

This viz by NMAP.org shows the web like you've never seen it before. If you've ever clicked a mouse before, you're probably familiar with favicons -- the tiny images that appear next to the website URL in the address bar of your browser. This viz includes close to 300,000 of them.

data_viz_5.jpg

The size of a company's favicon corresponds to the reach of its website on the web. As you might have guessed, Google is the largest. Check out Icons of the Web, a gigapixel image with an interactive viewer.

6. What's A Billion Dollars Between Friends?

Visualizing numbers can add context to any story. Last but not least, we have a viz by Information is Beautiful's David McCandless. It's called the Billion Dollar-O-Gram and is an interactive tree map. He created this viz out of frustration with media reports citing billion-dollar amounts without providing the proper context.

data_viz_6.jpg

Not only is this viz useful and informative, it's also an example of open data in action. McCandless does something that should be an industry standard -- he links to the entire data set used to create the viz. You can also see how he has updated the viz over time; view the original version, which uses different facts and figures.

How Else Can Journalists Use This?

Besides using them to tell data stories, journalists can use visualizations in the newsroom or on the go for several essential activities. Here are a few more examples of how data visualization can play a role in finding, processing and communicating information:

The Most Beautiful Viz You Have Ever Seen

What is the most beautiful viz you have ever seen? What is your favorite viz of all time?

My pick for most beautiful is more form than function. It's Chris Harrison's Visualizing the Bible. Check it out for yourself.

data_viz_beautiful.jpg

My current favorite viz is a triple threat. It's beautiful, useful and also a great way to link to old movie reviews. It's the New York Times' Ebb and Flow of Movies.

I'd be doing you a disservice if I also didn't share with you a data visualization that I produced. This viz examines the state of the nuclear stockpile, and is called Between Five Countries, Thousands of Nukes.

Please share your favorite examples of data visualization in the comments, and stay tuned for my future posts about this emerging storytelling form.

Anthony Calabrese is journalist based in Washington, D.C., who specializes in data visualization and digital storytelling. He works as a web producer for the State of the USA where he blogs about measuring the nation's progress. Previously, he worked as a data researcher on the Best Colleges and Best Graduate Schools publications at U.S. News & World Report. He holds a master's degree in interactive journalism from American University and is an active member of the Online News Association.
You can follow him on Twitter @2mrw

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