Interview with data visualiser Ri Liu

Ri Liu, data visualiser at Pitch Interactive. Photo credit: Ri Liu

Good design is key when trying to tell stories in an interactive or visual way.

I spoke with Ri Liu from Pitch Interactive, an interactive and data visualization studio based in California. The studio is best known for its interactive detailing the victims of every known drone attack in Pakistan.

In her spare time, Ri recently created We Can Do Better, which is a visualisation of gender disparity in engineering teams in the tech industry. I was interested in how a reasonably simple data set could be made much more engaging through the visualisation.

Ri's We Can Do Better visualisation. Click the image for the full interactive version.
Ri’s We Can Do Better visualisation. Click the image for the full interactive version.

What was the inspiration for We Can Do Better?

It’s an ongoing issue in the tech industry and as a female in the industry I just asked myself ‘what can I do?’. It’s frustrating when you see this inequality and imbalance.

This data has actually been around for a little while now but in the form of a spreadsheet. It’s great and a lot of people have added to it, but it’s quite technical and has to be updated by submitting a pull request on GitHub.

So I thought, since I have the design and coding background and I’m in tech, maybe I could bring it to a wider audience.

I want to let people touch this information and engage with it, instead of seeing rows and rows on a spreadsheet.

It’s definitely a lot easier on the eyes.

Yeah. I’m glad it’s been shared a lot, and maybe different people and journalists can now engage with this data more easily than before.

The data in its much less engaging spreadsheet format. Click the image to see the full spreadsheet.
The data in its much less engaging spreadsheet format. Click the image to see the full spreadsheet.

Which tools do you use and how long did you spend on it?

I spent a few weekends on it and the visualisation itself is built using D3.

This project is actually on GitHub, I’ve put a creative commons license on it so anyone can look at the code.

Was it worth putting the the time into?

Definitely. Personally, I just wanted to see this data visualised. I’d seen these numbers but it wasn’t really connecting with it in a meaningful way.

I didn’t expect for it to be tweeted around as much, but that’s been really awesome.

How easy would you say it is for someone to learn to use D3?

It’s definitely not the easiest tool to get started with, but once you do get a grasp of it it’s incredibly powerful. When you want to do something you’re not limited by the code at all, so you’re able to say ‘I want to explore the data this way’ and have the tools to do that.

I hardly ever geek-out over technology, but this is the one exception where I rave about it. Compare it to the other end of the spectrum, like the rudimentary graphs in Excel. They just leave you feeling trapped.

Have you noticed increasing interest in interactivity and visualisation from journalists?

We work a lot with publications and I think they’re realising that we need to present these figures visually and in a more compelling way for them to reach people.

That’s definitely been a shift and I think we’ll see more places engaging with data viz companies and studios, as well as more doing it in-house as well.

I’m also interested in how interactivity is being used to tell non-data stories, the most obvious example being Snowfall.

I’m a very avid web user but the problem is that I don’t read a lot of longform content because I just have so much to read that I don’t absorb a lot of it. A lot of sites are just competing for that attention and working out how to make this digestible for people.

I think it’s great to have more visual imagery and better design and it’s great that a piece like Snowfall got such wide attention. It’s like ‘oh, let’s actually pay attention to the design of these articles instead of just dumping text in front of people’.

I’d like to see what the reader stats were for it.

People spent roughly 12 minutes looking through it.

That’s really good.

Because there’s a lot more time gone in to presenting the content like that, I’d also be interested in what that means for the timeliness of certain articles. That was a good piece because it wasn’t about something current, it was just a story.

But it’s a great way of presenting stories which isn’t just dumping traditional print content onto a screen.

Are the tools getting better for making interactive things more quickly? Could we see more timely articles being made interactive?

I wonder whether it’s even possible to produce a piece like that without putting the effort in and finding the best visuals and other  content.

Obviously there are technical aspects like the parallax and scrolling effects they put in, which could just be bundled into tools. But I think that the real beauty of it is in the thoughtfulness, and I’m not sure you could match it without effort and time.

Should we expect more personal projects from you?

I’m always playing around with new technologies. I’ve been meaning to do something with semantic analysis and playing around with words to see biases and other insights.

I’m interested in making people aware of what they’re subconsciously doing and the assumptions they’re making. We’ve got a lot of traces of that on the internet these days, on Twitter, blogs and all these social networks, so it would be cool to do something with it.

That’s just in the back of my mind though. I’m playing around with it but nothing concrete so far.

Opinion: Data journalism is about more than finding a shocking figure

Ampp3d data journalism

On Tuesday, the Guardian’s Teacher Network hosted an online debate around how schools make use of data.

From the start, teachers expressed concerns that too much focus on data is getting in the way of teaching.

On the panel of experts was Simon Warburton, deputy headteacher at Hitchin Boys’ School in Hertfordshire. He wrote: “We are awash with data but we don’t always see the interrogation of it that can lead to effective intervention and support.”

Others, such as Rachael Lizzie Harper, agreed. She wrote: “Data is of course important in telling us what is going on but it doesn’t say how or why.”

In other words, data by itself can’t tell the full story.

The discussion was interesting because while it was happening, some similar conversations were taking place in a pub at King’s Cross Station.

A few of the Interhacktives had gone to the social to mingle. Some questions were raised over whether the type of data journalism that places a heavy focus on charts and figures, such as that produced by Ampp3d, can sometimes miss the mark in terms of telling the full story.

Of course, Ampp3d’s mantra is around exploring key facts and figures from the day’s news agenda and so telling the full story isn’t necessarily its goal. But thinking about the full picture is crucial.

A shocking statistic can often seem like it must be the story, but without finding out the reasons behind it or seeing what effects it might be having on people, it can be meaningless or even misleading.

Daily Mail data journalism
Missing the point … data journalism from the Daily Mail

As an example, take the Daily Mail’s September announcement that we’re now facing “Global Cooling”. It suggested that because the Arctic ice cap had grown by 29% in a year, global warming predictions were wrong.

But environmental journalist Tom Yulsman wrote a detailed blog post demonstrating how focusing on one big figure at the expense of context completely changes the story. The article had not taken long-term trends into account which have seen year-to-year variations but still an overall decline in sea ice extent.

What we can all take away from this is that we should never rely on the key figure to tell a story. We should still be speaking to the right people and delivering whichever contextual information is needed.

Data is a powerful tool in a journalist’s arsenal, but it must never be the only one.

“Keep an eye on Google Plus” talk from Sarah Laitner of the FT

Last week Sarah Laitner, communities editor of the Financial Times, came to chat with us about engaging effectively with readers.

As the 125-year-old business continues its “digital first” strategy, Sarah’s is a role which will only become more important.

Here are some of the highlights from the discussion.

Rewarding commenters

Rewarding commenters for good behaviour is a great way to encourage thoughtful comments which actually add something to the story (rather than having comments fitting into certain stereotypes).
Continue reading ““Keep an eye on Google Plus” talk from Sarah Laitner of the FT”

Your website should be a hub

Even though we’re spending so much time giving the site a makeover, our second Top Tip is to remember that your website is just one part of what you have to offer.

Your site should act as a hub, and should be a good first point of call for users to find out about what you’ve been up to.

But with so many tools and social media available much of your activity is likely to happen off-site, so your website should be able to direct users to it.

A quick glance at discussion taking place on Twitter using #interhacktives.
A quick glance at discussion taking place on Twitter using #interhacktives.

Continue reading “Your website should be a hub”

Regular features hook in readers

As we continue to redesign the site, it seems right to base this week’s Top Tips around websites.

And with that in mind, this week’s first tip is to use regular features as a way of bringing people back time and time again.

Though of course it’s good to have completely unique, fresh content whenever possible, the benefits of having a core set of regular posts should not be undervalued.

Take a quick glance at our first post and you’ll see a number of weekly features promised, including the Friday interviews and the Top Tips you’re reading now.

When Sarah Laitner, communities editor at the Financial Times, spoke to us last week, she was singing the praises of the daily Markets Live web-chat as a good example of this.

Continue reading “Regular features hook in readers”