Introduction: The Island of Knowledge and the Shoreline of Wonder

Never before have we had so many tools to learn and to communicate. Yet the art of talking, listening, and ascertaining the truth seems more elusive than ever in this Internet and cable age, lost in a bitter stream of blather and misinformation.

—Maureen Dowd, “Toilet-Paper Barricades,”
The New York Times (August 11, 2009)

It’s a fact of life that kids put their parents to the test with their boundless and unpredictable curiosity. I have three small children, ages 4, 8, and 10. Here are some of the questions that I got from them while writing these lines, followed by my thoughts and the actual answers I gave them.

Ten-year-old boy: “Daddy, how can I build a hobbit house in the Minecraft video game?”

My thought: “That’s a damn good question. Would it be possible to build J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth in Minecraft?” (Sorry, I’m a nerd.)

My answer: “No idea, kiddo. I don’t even know how to play Minecraft. Why don’t you watch The Lord of the Rings movies again? I will be happy to watch them with you.”

Four-year-old girl: “Daddy, do you have a baby in your tummy?”

Thought: “Man, kids can be brutally honest.”

Answer: “No, sweetie. Only mommies can carry babies in their tummies. Daddy just has big muscles.”

Eight-year-old girl: “Daddy, why do planets never stop spinning?”

Thought: “Huh...”

Answer: “Why don’t you Google it, honey?” (Just kidding, although I believe that many parents in my position would go for that one.)

My actual answer was: “Can you give me a few hours? Then I’ll be able to explain it to you.”

My daughter’s question forced me to take my fingers off the keyboard and think for a minute. My memory of Newtonian physics was a bit rusty, but I was sure that the fact that planets keep rotating is related to the laws of motion. I dusted a couple of popular science books from my shelves and also looked for some articles on the Internet. Then I grabbed a pencil, a pen, and some crayons: I think more clearly when I draw. I ended up with a series of sketches that I’m going to call an “infographic,” a graphical display intended to convey information.

Here’s the story I told my daughter.

Our First Infographic

Let’s begin here, on planet Earth. When you throw a ball (Figure I.1), it tends to move forward and spin around its own center. The faster we throw the ball and the heavier it is, the more momentum, or impetus, it carries. There are two kinds of momentum in this case: linear (forward motion) and angular (spinning.)

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Figure I.1 The first sketch that I made for my daughter. When you throw a ball to the floor, it tends to move forward (linear momentum) and to rotate around its own axis (angular momentum).

It is obvious that the ball will not move forever. Eventually, it will stop. Why? First of all, the ground, as well as the air, provides friction (Figure I.2). Air is a fluid, like water. Imagine that you jump into a swimming pool. When you enter the water, your speed decreases, right? That’s friction at work. Friction is a word we use to describe an interesting phenomenon: the air and the ground absorb the momentum that the ball carries.

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Figure I.2 Gravity and friction with the air and with the ground will make the ball stop moving.

Now, imagine that you’re an astronaut floating in deep space (Figure I.3). (My daughter pointed out that this illustration is inaccurate; the person in it should be wearing a spacesuit! Extra credit for her.) There’s no air in space. Therefore, there’s almost no friction. If we throw our imaginary green ball, it is likely that it will take millions and millions of years to stop moving forward. It won’t stop spinning until then either. We call this conservation of momentum: if there’s nothing to interfere with the ball, it won’t stop moving.

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Figure I.3 No visual explanation is perfect, and this one isn’t an exception. Notice that the drawing isn’t accurate, and not just because the person in it isn’t wearing a space suit. If the hand adopts that position when throwing, the ball won’t spin that way, or at all.

Next, let’s go back in time zillions of years, to the era when none of the planets in the solar system existed. Just the sun was there, surrounded by large clouds of dust particles. These clouds spun at a very, veeeery slow speed.1 The particles were held together and bound to the sun by gravity (Figure I.4).

1 Where did this initial momentum come from? There’s some homework for you!

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Figure I.4 Our solar system, zillions of years ago.

Something interesting happened then: little by little, gravity made these little particles move closer and closer to each other. And the closer they were, the faster they spun. The reason why that happened is a bit complicated to explain, but it isn’t crucial for now, so let’s leave it for another day.

The last step is the easiest to understand. The particles in the clouds moved so close to each other that they ended up merging. Earth and the other planets were born from collapsing dust clouds (Figure I.5), and they keep spinning, at least for now, because there’s very little in space to stop them from doing so.

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Figure I.5 The particles collapse and form the planets in the solar system.

I must confess that my daughter didn’t get all this at first. It was just a bit too much information to digest. So I went over the entire sequence of drawings with her again. While doing it, I realized that this exercise embodied a few points that I make in all my courses, namely:

When you design a graphic to explain something, getting the information right comes first. No good infographic or data visualization—we’ll learn the difference between the two soon—can be based on deficient data and analysis. The quality of your graphics depends fundamentally on the quality of your reporting or research, not just on how good a graphic designer you are.

Being concise and clear doesn’t imply oversimplifying. Any act of communication involves a controlled reduction of complexity, up to the point when reducing matters further would hurt the integrity of the information. I adapted the message to my audience by getting rid of jargon and equations, but I respected the essence of the facts and my daughter’s intelligence.

Good design isn’t about embellishment but about structuring information to enable understanding. That said, aesthetic appeal is a worthy goal, as it can help make our messages more attractive and, as a consequence, more effective.

Graphics that encode information function as cognitive aids. If I had described the process using just words, it’s likely that you’d feel compelled to mentally visualize little balls and arrows. My drawings are intended to do that work for your brain.

If words are sometimes useless by themselves, so are charts, maps, diagrams, and illustrations. It is in the combination of words (spoken or written) and visuals that the magic of understanding often happens.

Quite good for such a simple exercise, right? And there’s more.

The Island of Knowledge

I got another insight from this tale about spinning planets. After I finished the explanation for the second time, my daughter remained silent for a few seconds. Then she asked, “OK, I get it. But Earth spins very fast. Why aren’t we thrown into space, then?”

Understanding never quenches the thirst for more understanding, does it? Quite the contrary is true: the more we learn, the more aware we become of the gaps in our knowledge. As physicist Marcelo Gleiser wrote, “The knowledge that we have defines the knowledge that we can have... As knowledge shifts, we ask new kinds of questions that we couldn’t have anticipated.”2

2 In his book The Island of Knowledge, (2014).

Gleiser’s book is titled after the most evocative metaphor I know about the human quest for understanding: the island of knowledge. It seems that the first person to refer to it was New York Methodist pastor Ralph W. Sockman, who is believed to have said: “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.”3

3 I haven’t been able to track the source of this quote, so take this with a grain of salt.

Chet Raymo (1998) expanded the metaphor beautifully:

All scientific knowledge that we have of this world, or will ever have, is as an island in the sea of mystery. We live in our partial knowledge as the Dutch live on polders claimed from the sea. We dike and fill. We dredge up soil from the bed of mystery and build ourselves room to grow.

Of course, being a visualization designer, I couldn’t resist making a little illustration of what happened inside my daughter’s brain (Figure I.6): the island of knowledge expanded for her, but so did the shoreline of wonder, draining new land out of the sea of mystery.

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Figure I.6 The island of knowledge and the shoreline of wonder.

Finding the right answers to good questions makes us capable of posing even better and more profound ones. We can all enjoy this process. If you allow me a brief digression, this is the reason why I believe that we should teach our kids to love not knowledge per se, but learning. They should be encouraged to cherish the very quests they undertake, not just their products.

Good data visualizations and explanation infographics communicate information and, as a result, they can increase our understanding. That’s their first role, and it’s what I was focusing on when I made the drawings for my daughter.

But graphics may also prompt exploration. They reveal as much as much as they lead to new questions. A graphic may tell you a compelling story, but it can also invite you to expand the shoreline of wonder in ways that its creators didn’t predict. Here’s famous visualization designer Moritz Stefaner in a manifesto titled “Worlds, not stories.”4

4 Moritz Stefaner: http://well-formed-data.net/archives/1027/worlds-not-stories

Data visualization can help us both to understand complex issues a bit better, but also to provide images to debate about, to refer back to, and sometimes just to meditate over... I want [people] to use the visualizations I provide as starting points for their own explorations... Consequently, any serious visualization of a sufficiently complex topic should always aim at exposing the complexity, the inner contradictions, the manifold nature of the underlying phenomenon. I like to provide users with a structured way to explore a complex phenomenon on their own terms, in a sensually rich mosaic of media and facts rather than a pre-digested narrative with a surprise at the end. To me, interesting topics rarely boil down to a single story.

Stefaner doesn’t reject traditional linear narrative techniques outright, but he prefers to build interactive displays that enable discovery. His work embodies this approach. In 2009, he partnered up with the Bergstrom lab in the biology department at the University of Washington to create Eigenfactor,5 a project that visualizes citation patterns between scientific journals.

5 Visualizing information flow in science: http://truth-and-beauty.net/projects/well-formed-eigenfactor/

Some of those visualizations are illuminating. Take a look at Figure I.7 (on the previous pages). What do you notice? To me, besides the striking beauty of this Sankey diagram,6 its central message is clear: modern neuroscience is the result of the confluence of several disciplines.

6 There’s some jargon for you! We’ll learn about Sankey diagrams soon.

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Figure I.7 Visualization by Moritz Stefaner (http://moritz.stefaner.eu), in collaboration with Martin Rosvall, Jevin West, and Carl Bergstrom at the Bergstrom Lab, University of Washington.

That’s the main story I extract. Yours can be different than mine. What you’ll get from this graphic depends on the knowledge that you had before facing it. As a journalist, I can be standing on a different place of the shoreline of wonder than a scientist. Stefaner’s visualization may expand the shoreline in slightly different directions for each of us (Figure I.8) and, therefore, it will lead us to stare at two increasingly disparate patches of the horizon above the sea of mystery.

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Figure I.8 The island of knowledge expands in different directions, depending on your previous knowledge. The role of scientist in this illustration is played by my friend Sisi Wei, who works for the nonprofit investigative journalism organization ProPublica.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a graphic designed by data scientist Gilad Lotan (Figure I.9) that further illustrates how the communication and exploration dimensions of visualization design complement each other. In an article published in the Los Angeles Times and on the website Medium.com,7 Lotan described a particularly quirky experiment.

7 Gilad Lotan: ‘(Fake) friends with (Real) benefits’: https://medium.com/i-data/fake-friends-with-real-benefits-eec8c4693bd3

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Figure I.9 Visualization by Gilad Lotan (http://giladlotan.com/). Lotan writes, “This is a network graph representation of my Twitter followers after I acquired the bots. The top cluster represents my ‘real’ followers, who are intertwined: many follow each other, clearly a community of users. The bottom purple region represents the fake accounts, who are completely separate—structurally they’re clearly not a real community, with very little connectivity between the accounts.”

In the past few years, services that promise to increase your standing on social media are thriving. For a few bucks, you can be followed by thousands of fake Twitter accounts. Lotan wanted to answer two questions: first, does buying fake followers lead to more real followers? And second, how are fake followers connected to accounts created by actual people? The short answer to the first question is yes. To understand why, you should read Lotan’s article.

The answer to the second question is in the visualization that Lotan designed with the data he collected. The multi-colored blob on top represents his 2,600 followers before the experiment. Being part of a virtual community, the nodes are strongly connected and close to each other. The purple cloud at the bottom corresponds to the 4,000 faux followers Lotan paid for. Notice how scattered and sparsely linked they are. No community exists here. This is the main message revealed by transforming thousands of data points into a visual shape.

Many more insights could hide in this intricate display, though. To discover them, we’d need to scrutinize it attentively. Again, communication and exploration go hand in hand. We can tell stories with graphics, but we can also let people build their own stories with them.

To rephrase all this a bit, let’s say that a good visualization is:

1. reliable information,

2. visually encoded so relevant patterns become noticeable,

3. organized in a way that enables at least some exploration, when it’s appropriate,

4. and presented in an attractive manner, but always remembering that honesty, clarity, and depth come first.

This, in a nutshell, is what half of this book is about.

The other half is about what precedes design. There are obstacles that hinder the expansion of the island of knowledge. It’s not possible to become a professional visualization designer without learning how to overcome them.

Some of these obstacles arise from the territoriality of academic disciplines and the lack of communication between them. I still remember the first time that I read an introduction to cartography textbook, for instance, and my surprise at realizing that many of the design principles that I had learned in journalism school were almost identical to the ones that makers of data maps follow. Academically speaking, I’m one of the least territorial people you’ll ever meet, so in this book I will shamelessly borrow from graphic design, journalism, the philosophy of science, statistics, cartography, and many other areas.

Other obstacles to the expansion of the island of knowledge are much more insidious.

Candid Versus Strategic Communication

This is a book not just about how to design information graphics but about how to design candid information graphics. At its core lies a simple idea: The purpose of infographics and data visualizations is to enlighten people—not to entertain them, not to sell them products, services, or ideas, but to inform them. It’s as simple—and as complicated—as that.

What I call candid communication is practiced by professionals whose main goal is (or should be) to increase society’s collective knowledge. They usually come from disciplines like the sciences, statistics, journalism, cartography, information design, and so on. Their importance in a world increasingly brimming with nonsense and propaganda is paramount.

This is no trivial challenge. See Figure I.10. It compares the number of public relations specialists with the number of journalists in the United States. It reminds me of a problem I’ve written about elsewhere:8 in the past few years, strategic communication—the world of advertisement, PR, marketing, etc.—has hijacked the very word “infographics.” This word used to define data-rich graphical displays intended to spread newsworthy information. It has a long and noble history in the journalism industry.9

8 Reclaiming the word “infographics,” http://www.thefunctionalart.com/2012/12/claiming-word-infographics-back.html

9 The most venerable news graphics conference is called the “Malofiej Infographics Summit” for a reason: http://www.malofiejgraphics.com/.

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Figure I.10 The number of professionals working in public relations has expanded greatly in the past three decades, while the number of journalists has dropped. (Graph based on McChesney and Nichols, 2011.)

Today, the word “infographics” generally means puerile posters used as clickbait. Search for the word on the Internet and you’ll see what I mean. No candid communication here, in general. You’ll mostly find bland, simplistic, and tendentious visuals based on shaky data, designed mainly to draw Web traffic, not to inform.

Needless to say, journalists can and do lie to the public, and most strategic communicators may be honest, but it’s also fair to acknowledge that “convey your best understanding of what the truth is” is the core mandate for journalists, while “never deceive the public [but] present the facts in a way that sheds as much positive light [on your cause or company] as possible”10 is the central position for specialists in strategic communication. The second portion of that sentence is crucial, as it renders the whole statement contradictory.

10 Principles of Public Relations: http://smallbusiness.chron.com/10-principles-public-relations-10661.html. A classic definition of PR: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics” (1982, Public Relations Association of America’s National Assembly). This is as vague as it gets. That “mutually” doesn’t mean that the relationship is equally beneficial for the organizations and for the public.

One of the most intriguing books I’ve read recently is All Marketers Are Liars (2005). The title is a joke—in part. Its author, Seth Godin, writes that marketing is about creating compelling stories. He explains, “A great story is true. Not true because it’s factual but true because it’s consistent and authentic.”

Godin excuses himself saying that marketers “are just storytellers. It’s the consumers who are liars. As consumers, we lie to ourselves every day... Successful marketers are just the providers of stories that consumers choose to believe.”

As a good marketer, Godin enjoys toying with words. I’ll have some things to say in this book about storytelling in visualization, but I can give you a heads-up: the stories I’m interested in are not the ones that are shiny simulacra of truth, no matter how “authentic” and “consistent” they are. In fact, reality is rarely consistent, but messy and nuanced. Therefore, messiness and nuance should be part of any candid act of graphics communication.

Second, there’s a substantial difference between lying and deceiving (ourselves or others). Lying is always a conscious action. You know what the reality is, but you choose to frame it in a way that advances your agenda. Deceit, though, isn’t necessarily conscious. You can simply be oblivious of reality and, as a consequence, you may mislead yourself or others.

Third, it’s true that human beings can’t be completely factual or objective. Our brain is a flawed meat machine chiseled by evolution, not a computer. We all have cognitive, cultural, and ideological biases, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t strive to be factual. Truth is unattainable, but trying to be truthful is a realistic and worthy goal, and there are certain techniques that can help us pursue it.

There’s a deep difference between those who surrender to their own biases, or willingly embrace them, and those who work hard to identify and curb them, even if they’ll never completely succeed. This book is a tribute to this second group.

Continuing with Godin: In another part of his bestseller he writes, “Maybe who is lying to whom isn’t all that important, in the end, as long as the connection has been made and the story has been successfully told.” In other words, what really matters is if consumers buy your product, service, or idea, not if any of them has any substance.

Godin points out that marketing techniques can be used to advance good causes. No doubt about that. But I’d like to add something right away: in strategic communication, you may begin with a message and then look for information to support it. In candid communication, you begin with the information, and then you thoroughly analyze it to discover the messages worth spreading are. Or you begin with a message, but then you collect your information in a way that it could lead you to refute that very message.

If our quest for truthfulness leads us to conclude that the stories we wish to tell or the graphics we are so eager to design are inaccurate or plainly untrue—well, we’ll need to be ready to drop them outright. We must never distort our data so they fit into our preconceived narratives, no matter how much we love them.

You may think that this is just a platitude. Twisting reality a bit to get your story across effectively isn’t that inappropriate, is it? After all, we all do it every day, and nobody gets hurt. Nobody? It’s all a matter of degree.

Let’s think of an extreme case. The Discovery Institute, a non-profit organization based in Seattle, is dedicated to misinforming people about science. This is not really how the folks who work there describe themselves, of course, but it’s exactly what they do. Numerous books by scientists, like Donald R. Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters (2007), include long sections describing Discovery’s misdeeds in detail.

Discovery’s main activity is to popularize creationism, although the organization prefers to call it “intelligent design.” This is the fallacy that Darwinian evolution cannot account for the appearance of new species in our planet.

Discovery has a budget of millions of dollars. Most of it seems to be devoted to promotion, as the organization doesn’t conduct any proper research. Its websites, graphics, books, and lectures are sleek and lavishly produced. Discovery does fantastic marketing and PR—according to Godin’s definitions—but its marketing and PR hurt society by distorting data and spreading baloney.

Excellent strategic communication, which is what Discovery excels at, isn’t always backed up by excellent information. If you think that this doesn’t have harmful consequences, think again. According to the Pew Research Center, 33 percent of U.S. adults are incorrectly convinced that “humans existed in present form since the beginning of time.”11

11 www.pewforum.org/2013/12/30/publics-views-on-human-evolution/

It’s rare to find a case that is as clear-cut as this one. Truth and untruth aren’t absolutes but stand at the end points of a fuzzy continuum. Still, a warning is worthwhile: there are people out there who aren’t in the business of expanding the island of knowledge by navigating beyond the shoreline of wonder. They are in the business of transforming that shoreline into a dark, impassable marsh.

In the kind of visualizations I’m interested in, the quality of the information precedes the quality and visual appeal of the graphics themselves. It’s impossible to have one without the other. Many pundits, marketers, and activists of all ideological stripes are willfully ignorant of this precept. This endangers us all by muddling our public discourse.

This is why the chart in Figure I.10 concerns me so much. I feel uncomfortable with the world it announces.

In the Good Ol’ Days...

Before the advent of the World Wide Web, in the early 1990s, we used to get our information mainly from newspapers, radio, and TV. If you are my age, you probably remember the pre-WWW days, waiting for the morning paper or the evening news to learn what had happened in your community, your country, or around the world.

News organizations, and the journalists who worked for them, acted as gatekeepers: they decided what information was worth publishing. They chose their sources—sometimes unwisely—and they filtered and shaped our view of reality.

It was far from an ideal world. I’m no romantic. Journalists are as prone to error and bias as anyone else. We can be tricked by spin doctors, and we often miss the most relevant stories of our time.

Not to mention that news organizations have carelessly helped promote bad ideas, such as climate change denialism and unproven alternative medical therapies, just to name a couple.12

12 Supporters of these causes have traditionally been very fond of professional marketing, by the way. Do read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks (2010) when you have three or four hours to spare. You’re welcome.

It’s hardly surprising that trust in news media and professional journalists is low today. But robust journalism serves us well. Here is Charles Lewis, a famous investigative reporter:

In a society increasingly beset by public relations, advertising, and other artificial sweeteners manufactured by message consultants and communications flacks, how does an ordinary citizen decipher truth...?13

13 See “To Learn More” at the end of this chapter.

Helping people tell bullshit from facts should certainly be a duty for all journalists and information designers. Whenever we get information from anyone, we have to make sure that it’s reliable, to the extent of our knowledge and analytical skills. We need to ask our sources: how do you know? And moreover: how do you know that you know?, as that will force them to disclose the methods and data used to reach their conclusions.

Journalists also do original reporting about relevant matters. Here by my side I have the August 24, 2014, edition of the Miami Herald. One long story in this issue explains how Haitian Americans in Florida are being preyed upon by Ponzi scheme crooks who advertise in Creole-language radio. Another one is a well-balanced study of a violent Liberty City neighborhood in Miami.

The Herald has a long tradition of heavy-hitting investigative reporting. In August 1992, category 5 Hurricane Andrew leveled much of south Miami-Dade county. In December that year, the Herald published a special 16-page supplement titled “What Went Wrong” that revealed that houses built between the 1980s and the 1990s were more likely to have suffered serious damage than older ones, due to lax inspection of building quality and zoning in the decade that preceded the hurricane. The supplement was supported by plenty of graphics (Figure I.11), and it won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1993.

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Figure I.11 (opposite) A sample of the graphics published by the Miami Herald on December 20, 1992. Here’s how the Herald described the project: “IN TODAY’S Herald is a 16-page report titled ‘What Went Wrong.’ Investigative reporters working with engineers and other experts examine why so many homes that shouldn’t have suffered heavy destruction during Hurricane Andrew did (...) The first comprehensive analysis of Andrew’s havoc concludes that shoddy construction helped turn a devastating storm into the most costly disaster in U.S. history. During a four-month investigation, the Herald analyzed damage reports on 60,000 houses and matched these by computer with millions of property and building records.” (Reporting, charts, maps, and illustrations by Stephen K. Doig, Jacquee Petchel, Dan Clifford, Lisa Getter, Patterson Clark, Jeff Leen, Luis Soto, and Don Finefrock.)

When I see stories like these, I wonder: aren’t we in danger of losing a central pillar of a democratic society, now that so many traditional news organizations are at risk of crumbling? If the Miami Herald and other publications like it disappear, who is going to expose wrongdoing in a systematic manner so the public can be aware of it?

You could argue that plenty of startups populate the current media landscape: Vox.com, Mic.com, FiveThirtyEight, The Huffington Post, Gawker, Quartz, Buzzfeed, and so on. Aren’t they protecting their readers against the roaring tides of noise and spin? Even if they try to, not all of them have been very effective so far. According to what Ryan Holiday says in his scathing jeremiad Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator (2012), many online news organizations don’t fact-check their sources, don’t do proper editing, and don’t produce much original reporting.

There are exceptions, of course. Vice News, for example, is deservedly famous for its excellent and edgy video documentaries. And, to be fair, the companies mentioned before are investing more resources every year in improving their journalism.

In the meantime, what’s left for regular citizens to do? Now that anyone can reach hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people through personal websites, blogs, and social media, who is going to make sure that information that goes viral on Twitter, Facebook, or on any other platform is accurate? And who’s going to create original visualizations that help people stay informed on important matters, and conduct better lives?

Perhaps the answer is me. And you. Any and all of us.

Your Inner Skeptic, Your Inner Journalist

Here’s a little secret: most of the maps, charts, and diagrams that I’ll praise in this book are “journalistic” in the sense that the designers who created them first did their best to make sure that their information was relevant, factual, and accurate, and only then did they present it in a way that was accessible and engaging.

However, not all of those designers call themselves journalists.

What Is a Journalist, Anyway?

When I was in college, I remember that one of my professors said that a journalist is someone in charge of producing the news. And what is “the news”? Here we can borrow from Jack Fuller, ex-president and publisher of the Chicago Tribune: “News is a report of what a news organization has recently learned about matters of some significance or interest to the specific community that news organization serves.”

Got it. But here’s a story: back in 2010, when I was the director of infographics and multimedia at the Brazilian weekly news magazine Época, I heard of a young computer scientist called Maurício Maia. Maurício lives in São Paulo, a city that suffers from heavy rains during the summer. Many streets in the city flood periodically, so he decided to create an interactive map and database of past floods, to identify the best and the worst areas. He downloaded publicly available datasets from government websites, and he transformed them into a tool that he made available for free.14 What would you call what Maurício did? I call it journalism.

14 Maurício was puzzled when I phoned him to say that I wanted to hire him to work on my team. He said, “I am not a journalist!” I didn’t succeed; he was making too much money as a freelancer. His website, in which he discusses his projects, is http://mmaia.tumblr.com/

I’m not the only one. Jeff Jarvis, a professor at City University of New York, once wrote that “there are no journalists, there is only the service of journalism.”15 Maybe this is a bit too extreme, but it rings true. If you are a designer, you may have recalled Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s famous saying, “Designing is not a profession but an attitude.” We are all designers, in the sense that we’re creatures who have a taste for organizing matter and ideas into objects and patterns. Perhaps we all are—or can become—journalists, too, every once in a while at least.

15 Jeff Jarvis: “There are no journalists” http://buzzmachine.com/2013/06/30/there-are-no-journalists-there-is-only-journalism/

The Elements of Journalism, a classic introduction to the practice, says that “the purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” It then lists what is needed to fulfill this task:

1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.

2. Its first loyalty is to citizens.

3. Its essence is a discipline of verification.

4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.

6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.

7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.

8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.

9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

I’d like to argue that these shouldn’t be the exclusive values of a specific professional group. Society as a whole will be better off if they become civic values that the entire population embraces. The world will turn into a much nicer place if more of us learn about what data and evidence are and become more critical as a result. And it’ll be even nicer if we also learn how to convey that evidence in a clear, compelling, and useful manner through data visualizations, infographics, or interactive and searchable tables.

Maurício Maia committed an act of journalism. He spent time devising a visual tool that citizens of São Paulo could take advantage of. I believe that acts of candid, evidence-based communication and of useful design like Maia’s aren’t frequent enough, while marketing, PR, and advocacy are pervasive. Nothing against any of the latter—they have a role in a market economy—but the former are the ones that I hold dear and will feature in this book.

Who is this book for, then? This book is written first for designers and journalists who wish to communicate effectively with data visualization and infographics. If you’re in this group, this book may give you a glimpse into the worlds of science, statistics, and information design. It won’t teach you everything you need to know, but it may open many doors.

I also write for anyone who isn’t a professional designer or journalist, but wishes to understand and use visualization. Therefore, this book is also for scientists, data analysts, business intelligence types, etc.

If you are in this second group, please take a look at another quote by Charles Lewis:

Imagine a world in which individual researchers [and many other kinds of experts] and journalists are sometimes looking for truth in all the same places, using the same exciting new data technologies and analytics, exchanging ideas and information, and sometimes working and writing together, whether side by side or across borders and genres. These collaborative fact-finders, fact-checkers, truth-seekers, and truth-tellers will all come from different perspectives.... but all will share the deep curiosity, patience, determination, and mettle that have always characterized the investigative reporter.16

16 LEWIS (2014), page 224

Let me suggest something similar: we live in a world where special interests spend millions of dollars pushing their agendas, promoting their ideologies, and selling their unsubstantiated claims with almost no interference. They can reach us more effectively than in any previous era thanks to the Internet and social media. They like to use data, infographics, and visualization because they believe that people trust them more than they trust mere words.

Arguably, it’s time to push back. Perhaps after reading this book you will consider joining the virtual alliance of people whose purpose is to expand the island of knowledge by exploring the mysteries that lie beyond the shoreline of wonder. This process is much simpler than you may think. You decide that you have something relevant to communicate; you gather data and scrutinize them thoroughly to make sure that you get everything right; and then you design your graphics.

I will be delighted if, ultimately, I am able to convince you that this is an endeavor worth pursuing.

To Learn More

Authors who claim ownership of everything they write are delusional. Therefore, at the end of each chapter you will find a section like this that will lead you to the readings that inspired most of my thoughts. There’s also a complete bibliography in the last pages.

Here are some books to expand on the content of this introduction, besides the ones mentioned in the text itself:

• Gleiser, Marcelo. The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. New York: Basic Books, 2014.

• Goldacre, Ben. Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks. New York: Faber and Faber, 2010.

• Lewis, Charles. 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity. New York: PublicAffairs, 2014.

• McChesney, Robert Waterman, and John Nichols. The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again. Philadelphia, PA: Nation, 2010.

• Raymo, Chet. Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection between Science and Religion. New York: Walker, 1998.

• Starkman, Dean. The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

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