Data Visualization

Robert Kosara announces NewsVis.org, The Directory of News Visualizations

Robert KosaraRobert Kosara is a Visual Analysis Researcher at Tableau Software, and formerly Associate Professor of Computer Science at UNC Charlotte. He has created visualization techniques like Parallel Sets and performed research into the perceptual and cognitive basics of visualization. Recently, Robert’s research has focused on how to communicate data using tools from visualization, and how storytelling can be adapted to incorporate data, interaction, and visualization.

Robert received his M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in computer science from Vienna University of Technology (Vienna, Austria). His list of publications can be found online on his vanity website. He can be found on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and Google Scholar.

Robert’s Vision

When Robert was in Portland over the holidays a few weeks ago, he noticed a visualization in the local newspaper, The Oregonian. He had never heard of that before, nor of Mark Friesen, who created it. Robert began wondering how many news-related visualizations he might be missing, so he decided to build a website that would collect them all: newsvis.org.

Robert notes that there is already great news-related visualization work in The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc., but feels there are not many other Web site dedicated to data visualizations for journalism.

Dr. Kosara also feels it is hard to find news visualizations. He sites as an example “that scatterplot-like thing showing groups of voters who were going to vote for Romney vs. McCain in the Republican primaries in 2008”, but where was it? And when? He points out that, for a while, The New York Times was downright hiding its graphics: you’d see them on their front page for a short time, and then you’d never be able to find them again. Too bad, you’re too late; it’s gone! This has changed, and there are now Twitter accounts and tumblrs to follow, but none of them are searchable in any reasonable way.

He also notes that there are many other questions you might ask about news visualizations. When was the first scatterplot published? How many timelines have there been about sports in the last five years? Does The Washington Post create more bar charts or line charts?

NewsVis.org

NewsVis.org

To remedy this, Robert created NewsViz.org. Robert states that NewsVis.org can’t answer all those questions quite yet, but it’s a start. He notes that the site is fairly basic right now, but in the spirit of kaizen, he has decided to publish it and start collecting material and feedback for improvements.

There are three main parts to it:

  • The front page, which lists visualizations in reverse chronologic order (by their publication date).
  • The sidebar, with filters to pick particular visualization types, media, etc.
  • The submission form – easily the most important part of the site.

Making Submissions

Dr. Kosara points out that the key to making this work is the submission form. He feels he can’t possibly populate the site with all the work out there by himself. He also depend on readers to find the hidden gems that he is not aware of.

He notes that there is a trade-off between making this form too complicated and collecting enough data to make the site useful. While it may seem a bit overwhelming at first, it’s actually quite quick to fill out and submit a graphic.

The required information currently is the following:

  • The title of the piece
  • The byline, which is split into two parts. The first part contains a search field that has a few people already in its list. This will be expanded over time, so it will be easier to submit work by the same people. For authors who are not yet listed there, there is a separate input field. Robert will add all the missing names to the top field when he publishes a piece.
  • Publication date. When was this published? If you can’t figure it out, a reasonable guess also works.
  • The link to the piece.
  • The medium. Similar to the above, there’s a quick search field and a field for media that are not yet listed.
  • The topic. This is a taxonomy that he has built fairly ad-hoc and that he intends to keep as small as possible. He will expand it if necessary, and will take suggestions. But his goal is to not build The Ultimate Taxonomy of News here.
  • The visualization technique. Same applies as above, especially since news visualizations often don’t nicely fit into particular chart types.
  • The language. This is also a bit of a proxy for the country/region. Robert is still weighing if it makes sense to include countries, states, regions, political bodies (European Union, etc.), continents, etc. This can easily snowball into an unwieldy mess, so he is sticking to languages right now.
  • Interactivity. Since this is meant to provide inspiration, Robert also want to be able to filter to more or less interactive pieces.
  • A notes field. This is mostly to suggest things that don’t fit anywhere else (like new topics). It won’t be included in the actual published visualization page.

Robert notes that there is no limit on how much you can submit or whose work you submit. Submit stuff you like, or stuff you hate. Submit your own work! No reason to be shy, just submit it. You can provide a name, but there is no requirement. Provided submitter names are also not shown for now, but that might change.

Gatekeeping

The goal of this site is to be as complete as possible in a very narrowly-defined area: visualizations used in the news. Robert has set some rules listed on his the About page about what he consider news, but it’s pretty simple: if it’s published by a news medium, it’s news. If not, things get a bit more complicated and ad-hoc.

Every submission will get some loving hand-tweaking from him, and he will only publish submissions that fit the spirit of the site. Robert intends for this to be a high-quality site, with consistent standards for the images (cropping, resolution, etc.) and metadata. He feels that this is really the only way to make this useful and not drown in noise.

How to Contribute and Follow

Contributing is easy: just go to the submission form and submit stuff. It’s much simpler and faster than it looks.

You can follow the site via the RSS feed and on Twitter. Both will get every new submission. Since Robert uses the publication date of the visualization as the date of the posting, you will see items appear in the feed that seem to be coming from the past. By having just one date, he is able to avoid confusion, and the date the item was published on newsvis isn’t really all that interesting. This also makes it much easier to always keep the list sorted in chronological order of publication date (of the original), rather than submission date.

While the visualizations are their own content type on the site, there is also a blog. Blog posts will appear in the feed and on Twitter. Robert does not intend to write much there though, just notes about house-keeping and major changes or additions.

Under The Hood

Dr. Kosara built the site using WordPress, even though Drupal was, he feels, probably a more logical choice for this sort of database-centric site. After discovering Gravity Forms and seeing some documentation on Custom Post Types in WordPress, Robert decided to go with that, though. He notes that it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, the WordPress documentation can easily compete with Drupal in terms of disorganization and lack of reasonable navigation. There is also an incredible amount of noise when searching for answers, with lots of people simply repeating the same bits of information but never digging any deeper. But he feels overall the model is still simpler, even if also much more limited than in Drupal.

Either way, Robert plans on continuing to keep improving and growing the site, and he hopes that you will find it useful and contribute!

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