State of the industry

It’s an hour long which is why I’ve only just found time to watch Geoff McGhee’s Journalism in the Age of Data. I hasten to add it was an hour well spent in the company of experts who between them pretty much define the industry, past, present and future: see the credits below.

Not only is it beautifully made and well illustrated but I also found it reassuring. In a period of uncertainty regarding the data-frenzy that the internet has generated/become it’s apparent that everyone’s facing similar challenges. What’s different is the vast array of skills out there being applied to tackling them. There’s no single answer but everyone’s having a go, getting their hands dirty, learning from the process, watching what other people are doing and enjoying themselves.

But maybe more importantly, in amongst all this new-ness, there still seems to be value attached to the art and craft of telling a story. Which is what distinguishes this lot from the barrage of visual info-stuff that masquerades so often as ‘data visualisation’ or ‘infographics’. And it’s the numerate types who are coming into their own with their number crunching abilities that unearth the stories within the data in the first place.

If you haven’t got time to watch it, or you want a sneak preview to encourage you to watch it, a few notes are below.

The idea of having an editorial steer, or not, cropped up frequently. The argument for it – one I strongly endorse – is that the audience generally want a story. So you should explore the data thoroughly to find the story and then that’s what you use your visualisation to tell. The counter argument is that the best way of understanding data is by making it all available with an interface that allows everyone to have a go manipulating it. Organisations with the time, budget and resource ideally would like to do both.

Some of the best in the business – Ben Fry, Amanda Cox – produce work that fits the former model, telling a story. They derive satisfaction [ha! ha! inadvertantly typed statisfaction there] from getting people curious in the topic and challenging people’s perceptions, respectively.

Currently programming prowess and wow-factor visual aesthetics are in fashion, slightly eclipsing storytelling, but it’s not terminal. It’s a skills balance between programming, design and journalism. Start learning, keep learning all three. Oh, add statistics to that list too. Start learning, keep learning all four.

Other buzz words no piece worth its salt would leave out were also of course mentioned: context, collaboration and rapid iteration.

I think Stamen’s Eric Rodenbeck sums up well at the end of the film when he observes that “data visualisation is becoming a checkbox on people’s media plans. I’m not sure if that’s the best or worst thing ever”. It would be unfair of me if I didn’t add that he concluded he was erring towards it being the best thing ever.