Illustration by Antoine Orand

Democratizing Visualization By Lowering the Barrier of Entry

By Alberto Cairo & Simon Rogers, Google News Initiative

Alberto Cairo
Jul 23 · 5 min read

TThose of us who began our careers decades ago remember a time when visualization tools were expensive and hard to learn, data was sparse and difficult to obtain, and the literature about how to design visualizations was scant and heavily biased toward statistical analysis alone.

How things have changed. In the last decade, visualization’s popularity, adoption, and diversity have increased dramatically. We believe that democratizing it even further is a goal worth pursuing — by promoting flexible principles and good practices, and by creating software tools that aren’t just easy to use but also free and open-source. We believe that, pretty much like writing, visualization can be learned and used by anyone.

Back in 2016, we began a collaboration consisting of inviting top designers from all over the world to create experimental, open-source, data-driven stories based on Google search and YouTube data and Alberto’s art direction. The results were projects such as Moritz Stefaner’s The Rhythm of Food, Nadieh Bremer’s Beautiful in English, and Xaquín G.V’s How to Fix a Toilet., Xaquín G.V., Xaquín G.V.
LEFT: The Rhythm of Food, Moritz Stefaner | RIGHT: How-to-fix-a-toilet, Xaquín G.V.

We quickly realized that these projects could fulfill several goals. As we encouraged designers not to fear experimentation, and even make mistakes, they could push the boundaries of what is acceptable and orthodox in visualization. Fast Company captured this aspect of our collaboration by writing that we were turning “artists loose”. That was indeed one of our purposes. We’ve done stories, similar to those you might find in a traditional news publication, related to elections in Germany, Mexico, France, and Brazil, the Oscars, and the World Cup. We’ve also done quirkier ones, such as this story about the kinds of restaurants people search for the most in different parts of the United States.

We envisioned this collaboration as an educational endeavor. As you can see in our repository, most designers that we partner with write making-of articles about their projects. We want these articles to help new generations of visualization designers understand how experienced professionals think, what their process is, what roadblocks we often find, and how to overcome them. Many of these articles are illuminating. Just read Maarten Lambrecht’s thorough writeup of his Eurovision visualization, Giorgia Lupi’s explanation of Accurat’s AR project Building Hopes, or Schema Design’s explanation of how they compared Google searches for diseases with actual incidence of those diseases. Moreover, the code of most of the projects we’ve done is shared through GitHub, so it can be easily repurposed.

Building Hopes, Giorgia Lupi

Around 2017, we took things one step further. We thought that our collaboration could go beyond designing one-time data-driven and visualization-driven stories. What if we created easy-to-use browser-based tools that anyone could use to design their own data projects? That same year Google News Initiative helped fund Flourish, a freemium tool developed by visualization studio Kiln which allows anyone to create interactive data visualizations without code. Flourish offers free and paid versions, but the premium version is available for free to any news organization.

Later, we released two free and open-source tools, Morph and TwoTone, in collaboration with Datavized. Morph is a playful generative art tool that lets you upload any dataset, map it into objects such as lines or bars, and then randomize properties of those objects such as color, rotation, and position. TwoTone is the first data sonification tool that works entirely on your browser: upload any data and then transform numbers into sounds and music. We are already planning to launch a few other open-source tools focused on other needs when it comes to working with data, such as cleaning datasets and getting them ready to be visualized, or analyzing textual information.

Video still from Data Visualization for Storytelling and Discovery

In parallel, we may take yet another step in our collaboration: training. Both of us have plenty of experience teaching free online classes and workshops, such as those hosted by the Knight Center at the University of Texas since 2013 (here are the materials from the latest one). These have helped tens of thousands of people from more than 100 countries learn how to design graphs and maps.

In the Fall semester this year we’ll launch a new MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) that will cover all steps in the data journalism pipeline: how to use free software tools to find and download data, verify it, clean it, wrangle it, and explore it. The course will also provide an introduction to technologies such as machine learning and AI with an in-depth discussion about how to present numbers as graphics or stories. More details will be available soon through Twitter and other platforms (@albertocairo @smfrogers).

Data and data journalism have arguably never been as vital as they are now, as readers and students all over the world hunger for the facts behind the story. We want to help aspiring data journalists the world over realize that now is the time to take the field and make a difference. Truly, anyone can do it — and we want to help.

Alberto Cairo is Knight Chair in Visual Journalism at the University of Miami and author of books such as ‘How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter about Visual Information’. Simon Rogers is Data Editor at the Google News Lab and Director of the Data Journalism Awards.


The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

Alberto Cairo

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The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

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