A Tool for Instant Data Visualizations

How News Corp, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, and NYC Media Lab are working together to build something new

In the 2016 election, opinions will be formed first on mobile. This will be the first election cycle in which the majority of traffic to news sites will be on mobile devices. With the uptick in mobile device usage, journalists are faced with the challenge of presenting complex information for increasingly smaller screens.

As data proliferates and the appetite to consume data-driven, visual content continues to grow, journalists need tools to quickly explore and create interactive data visualizations and narratives. Visual programming tools offer a solution, giving nontechnical journalists the ability to produce professional interactive content in a simple workflow.

This is Lenses.

Here at NYC Media Lab, we’re working with News Corp, the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and the Integrated Digital Media Program at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering to develop Lenses, an open-source tool that lets anyone build and transform interactive graphics for mobile audiences. Lenses makes it easy to create and share mobile-friendly visual data about the 2016 elections, trending news topics, and other stories that matter.

Unlike existing easy-to-use data visualization platforms, Lenses is open-source and extensible, meaning that additional features can be added by its users, and the potential of the tool grows as more people use it. Each data visualization created in Lenses preserves the steps taken to create it, enabling new users to learn how to make sophisticated graphs by seeing how more advanced users have produced visualizations. Lenses encourages transparency and visual literacy, helping people investigate civic data.


“This project is about expanding the toolset for data driven and interactive journalism. It will not only allow non-technical journalists to access, manipulate, visualize and publish data but it will allow also allow them to publish their methodology alongside, which is increasingly important to guarantee transparency and accuracy.”

Kareem Amin, VP of Product at News Corp


A Peek Under the Hood

This open-source, extensible tool enables the rapid creation of sophisticated data visualizations and interactive graphics, perfect for non-technical journalists, bloggers, and citizen storytellers to use. The tool involves (1) open source web components called the Lens Elements and (2) a canonical implementation of how the web components would function together in a WSYIWG environment, called the Lens Composer.

A few core ideas behind Lenses include (1) exploration and publishing are a single step, done by a single tool, all in the web browser (2) Open source web components which each serve a specific function and can be connected together to grab data from various sources (3) Extensibility by allowing developers to add new components using HTML, JS, and CSS (4) Data provenance by saving and publishing the workspace used to create the Lens.

Lenses is perfect for anyone who:

  • believes that data-driven stories offer transparency, which leads to readers feeling informed, engaged, and empowered to follow developing stories
  • wishes the process for creating compelling data visualizations and interactive graphics were more easy-to-learn, accessible, simple and fast
  • enjoys producing stories based on visual and interactive information because that makes learning from the story feel compelling and fun
  • is interested in exploring data relating to a policy topic through creating a story, whether it be a quick tweet or a longform visual article on news blog
NYU Polytechnic students work with professor Luke DuBois to code components for Lenses

What We’ve Done So Far

The project is being developed through an NYC Media Lab seed project with News Corp, Columbia University, and NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering.

News Corp built the initial platform for Lenses, and is working closely with students from NYU’s Integrated Digital Media program to code components for the toolkit and design the toolkit’s interface. At Columbia, journalism students are testing Lenses with real-world stories by inputting civic data from local, state and federal government agencies and transforming the data into visual representations.

We are also pleased to be working with The Associated Press. A team led by AP Director of Interactive and Digital News Production Paul Cheung, will experiment with the tool for publishing news stories on mobile platforms. Associated Press is an affiliate member of NYC Media Lab.


“With this project, we are hoping to make a bold gesture, a domain-specific language for journalism. I believe that if we get the language’s underlying metaphors and abstractions right, data and code could become routine parts of how we find and tell stories.”

Mark Hansen, Director, Brown Institute for Media Innovation at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism


We’ve submitted Lenses to the Knight News Challenge (view our entry here), and will continue to develop it in the coming months. With News Corp, NYU, and Columbia, our goal is to have Lenses available to the public by January 2016 — but there’s a lot on our to-do list in between now and then, including:

  • Completing the design of the user interface
  • Creating new visualization components
  • Connecting & testing new data sources
  • Conducting user testing

Here’s How You Can Get Involved: Be a User Tester

We are seeking journalists, designers, and developers to help us user test this new tool over the summer. We want feedback about how this tool works under a variety of conditions, with real stories and real data, so we can continue to improve this tool. Interested? Sign up to become a user tester.

If you have questions, contact Amy Chen at amy.chen@nycmedialab.org.


NYC Media Lab connects companies with universities to create a new community of media innovators. Learn more at www.nycmedialab.org and follow us on Twitter at @nycmedialab.org.

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