1801 newsletter: Facial recognition, uncertain graphs and a pie chart made of pie

Put your hands up if you think starting a newsletter about interactive journalism is a good idea! Only joking, there will be no worthwhile interaction between us: just me, an interactive journalist at The Times and Sunday Times, dictating at you, an underpaid, rootless, time-poor reader with a vague sense of disdain. Much better.

What will it be about? Interactive journalism is a legacy term, it’s not that helpful. Some of our best work doesn’t even have interactivity. But I will be covering the broad remit of digital storytelling, data visualisation, computational analysis, drones, and any nascent technology that conferences are buzzing about (*groan*). In short: it’s about cool shit.

Why? As the late Swedish data maestro Hans Rosling put it: “Few people will appreciate the music if I just show them the notes. Most of us need to listen to the music to understand how beautiful it is. But often that’s how we present statistics; we just show the notes we don’t play the music.” I want to celebrate the finest “musicians” each week. But also, I think our field has the potential to be lucid and compelling; often it is not. Spreadsheet anxiety is real. In the words of Mona Chalabi, I want to “take the numb out of numbers”.

P.s. 1801 is the year the earliest known pie chart was made, credited to Scottish businessman and economist William Playfair, who visualised the land owned by the Turkish Empire.

So, let’s get started.


The Wall Street Journal published a feature on the terrifying facial-recognition technology that China is now using on its citizens. Elliot Bentley used CLM tracker to create a facial-recognition tool within the piece, using your computer’s camera to render it right onto your face, sort of a la Snapchat. It’s quite something and has that chill factor.


Sticking with the People’s Republic: a look at the expansion of the rail system from Quartz. An animated graphic shows how hundreds of kilometres of track are built per year. I particularly like the map with the metro layouts for each city, colourful twizzles layering up with each year. They call it “beautiful” in the headline. They’re not wrong. (Editor’s note: promote that interactive longread on High Speed Rail 2 you did recently.)


The Office for National Statistics are putting out some increasingly great visual work. They don’t always have the sheen of some news publishers, but it’s always clear and robust. The barcode charts in this blog on life expectancy are lovely. The comparison with the national average is emphasised with colour coding.


The aforementioned Quartz are great with their distinctive chart grids. (We gave some a go in my piece on musical festivals with Basile Simon). Well, The New York Times have gone for a map grid, a mapsicle, if you will. They took data from the NYC Resident Feedback Survey on dozens of topics such as fire services, traffic, and rat control, plotting a map for each. They arranged the maps from overall most positive to negative, making for a pleasant, intuitive viewing.


Der Spiegel has introduced margin of error to its line charts. Hard to imagine why they would be of use. Ah yes, Brexit, Trump, GE2017. We’ve got to rethink how polling data is reported and visualised. If haven’t already, read Nate Silver’s take on why the “shock” hung parliament result in this year’s general election shouldn’t actually have been a shock.


Speaking of uncertainty, The Outline has published a rather tongue-in-cheek “Will Trump Be Impeached”-o-meter, calculated using their “proprietary, machine-learning-based algorithm”. It swings wildly from left to right and the seconds tick by. Later they write: “Frankly there’s no real way of knowing, but looking at this dial hopefully gives you some sense that there is order to the world.” That’s all people want. It’s reminiscent of The Upshot’s dials used during the 2016 US election, which — perhaps, unfairly — were controversial for conveying margin of error.


The FT are the undisputed champions of data visualisation in the UK at the moment. A small slice of that comes via a feature on North Korea. To convey the distance that certain missiles are able to travel, two globes are shown, with red areas demarcating the zones. Readers are able to explore the globes using their mouse, but the two globes rotate automatically, meaning there is the option to simply watch. A nice choice for interactivity, especially given it’s a 3D object. Meanwhile, the FT’s Chart Doctor, a column on good data viz practice, continues to be a must-read.


Simon Rogers has announced that there is a new Data Journalism Handbook on its way. The original from 2011, which he says has been downloaded an impressive 150,000 times, was excellent. They’re calling for contributors to the latest edition, which I’m sure will be worlds apart. Elsewhere, Shinysense now has You Draw It-style charts, there is an awesome library for calculating the position of the sun and moon, and an NYT developer has explained their use of WebGL for a beautiful piece about Antarctica.


Lastly, I have started an Instagram series using food to visualise data. Sometimes things like crumbly pastry can made it difficult. It’s called Food for Thought.

That’s all for this week. Thanks for reading. Please give me your feedback because without you, dear reader, I am nothing. What did you like? What did you hate? Follow me on Twitter. Email me: peter.g.yeung@gmail.com. Share this baby. And tell me what I missed.

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