Lies, damn lies, and visualizations

The intersection -- and accompanying questions -- of data science and journalism.

Visualization comes up a lot in the context of data science, conjuring images of people in white lab coats doing dispassionate experiments in pursuit of Higher Truth. While this might occur in some contexts, such as medical or scientific fields, visualization is often used just to tell a good story. In this context, it’s much more useful to think of visualization as a tool of journalism, and of the storyteller as a journalist, rather than a scientist.

Adrian Holovaty’s chicagocrime.org (now part of EveryBlock) is one of the original, and perhaps still the best, examples of visualization as journalism. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, chicagocrime took data from publicly available sources in the Chicago area and plotted it on a map. While there was nothing there that didn’t already appear in the local paper, seeing the data superimposed on a map made it much more accessible and engaging. The project won a variety awards and inspired similar data-driven projects at Washingtonpost.com and NYTimes.com.

Consequently, I’ve often found it useful to think through the hallmarks of good journalism when looking at a new visualization. First, is it accurate: do the underlying facts (or data) map to reality? Second, is it objective: has the storyteller kept an objective view of the data and presented it dispassionately? Third, since individual pieces often fall into a broader story, how does it fit within the larger informational context?

As an example, consider this recent visualization called Your New Health Care System from the minority members of the U.S. Senate’s Joint Economic Committee, led by Republican U.S Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas.

health_viz.png
(Click for larger version or download PDF)

As a pure piece of design, it’s incredibly effective. Every element — shape, color, size, orientation, typography, and layout — conveys a sense of bewildering complexity and raises an unstated message of “See how complex this is? It can’t possibly work.”

As much as I admire this from an information design standpoint, it raises questions from a journalistic standpoint:

  • How accurately are the connections depicted? The accompanying article doesn’t provide any insight into where the connections come from or why they were drawn that way.
  • The design choices are simply too suspicious for this to be a completely neutral schematic. For example, note how the IRS is portrayed in an eye-catching, scary bold font, and how the “Physicians” and “Patients” elements are as far apart as possible across the bottom. (I’ve even had several debates with people about whether the choice of a 7-pointed, yellow star for “Patients” was an intentional choice to evoke references to the Holocaust, and while most people think that’s a reach, I still wonder.)
  • Finally, considering the larger context of lockstep Republican opposition to health reform and the source of the visualization, it’s hard not to conclude that this is a piece of advocacy journalism intended to guide the viewer toward a preordained conclusion, rather than a neutral schematic that accurately depicts a complex system.

Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking a strong position, assuming the underlying data and facts are accurate. (This is a really good reason we need open data.) However, it’s important for the audience to recognize it as advocacy, not as science, even when it comes wrapped in a really cool visualization.

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  • Robert Kosara

    Visualization and infographics are often mixed up, and this is clearly an infographic. A visualization would be a more general design, which would also work with other data. This, on the other hand, was clearly custom-designed to convey a particular message (as you point out).

    There is nothing scientific or objective about infographics, because they are always made for a very particular purposed. Often, that purpose is to shed light on a topic or explain, but sometimes it’s also done to give information a spin. One of the most famous infographics, Napoleon’s March by Charles Minard, is a very clear and interesting presentation of information on the surface, but has an underlying anti-war agenda.

    Visualization techniques are much more general, and don’t adapt to the particular data as much. That makes them harder to use for spin, but of course you still can choose a technique and parameters (like the baseline in a bar chart) to tell a particular story. Like everything, that can be used for good and evil purposes.

    A graphic can distort anything, no matter how good or bad the underlying data is. It’s like writing an article in a particular way without outright lying: you can still leave out so much and use particular language to make something appear completely different.

  • DavidS

    Excellent post, but Robert is absolutely right IMO.

    All would be better served if you could please call this what it is–propaganda with a thin, vaguely scientific veneer–rather than “advocacy journalism.”

  • Al Evangelista

    Interesting, and it is an infographic; but, it is not, on its face, “propaganda”-a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position (Wikipedia def).

    The question is, “Does this 2500 page bill create all these intersections and convolutions, or not?”

    Since the bill was put together by committee, and no one actually read it, let alone made any attempt to trace out the integration of the new and old parts (remember Nancy Pelosi’s infamous statement before the bill was passed: “We’ll have to pass it [the bill] to find out what’s actually in it.”), the infographic in question may actually be accurate.

    I know I haven’t read it-nor do I intend to-and, apparently, since there are no specific infographic missteps, or errors, noted, neither has any one else who’s posted here-or, the more scary option: there are none: the infograph exactly describes what congress and the president have created and are passing on the the American people.

    Therefore, my conclusion is that the problem is not with the infographic but with the commentators-who may have their own reasons for posting as they do.

  • Laurie Bennett

    Thought you might find Muckety, a site founded by veteran newspaper journalists, to be interesting along these lines. We provide interactive relationship maps that help readers visualize news stories. Here, for example, is today’s post on lawyer Gloria Allred:

    http://news.muckety.com/2010/08/11/gloria-allred-at-the-center-of-another-storm/27611

  • Carrie Weiner Campbell

    As a longtime journalist now building a practice in infoviz, I completely agree that IV/info graphics must adhere to the ideals of journalism. Indeed, these visual elements increasingly serve that very purpose in the larger society.

    As for a political agenda in this graphic, I suspect the final product was intended to look complex and unreadable, because that was the position the chart makers sought to further. On the other hand, Robert Palmer did a rerendering (link below) that suggests the multi-part plan is manageable, an approach that is helpful not only to the proponents of the legislation but also to the average reader. To me, this makes Palmer’s work less disingenuous, since it does attempt to make sense for the viewer.

    http://datavisualization.ch/showcases/clearifying-the-democrats-health-care-plan

    • http://radar.oreilly.com/andrewo Andrew Odewahn

      Carrie — Thanks for this link and background. Palmer’s diagram is a fantastic counterpoint to the original version, and really shows how the design decisions steer the viewer’s interpretation of the same information. I wish I’d done this, but I was just too lazy… ;)

  • Carrie Weiner Campbell

    At the risk of overstaying my welcome: I happened across another excellent diagram created to clarify the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. This one won a design contest GOOD magazine did on the topic, and for good reason.

    http://datavisualization.ch/opinions/visualizing-the-health-care-reform

    I remain hopeful that most of us will use our infoviz powers to clarify rather than obfuscate.