Data visualization is a growing topic of interest among journalists, influenced in large part, of course, by the web and its repeated demonstration of just how ineffective large blocks of text can be.
As a result, there are lots of new toys and widgets available that reporters (and everyone, of course) can play with to try to effectively communicate data-driven information.
Effectively is the key word here. It can be interesting to look at data/information in visual forms, but it's not always that meaningful if the form of the visualization hasn't been chosen for a good reason.
The Flowing Data website is a great resource for looking at and learning about data visualizations, and this list of basic rules for making charts and graphs is very helpful.
I am not, by nature, great at thinking visually, but I am learning to spot visualizations that help me understand—see, to be literal about it—things about the data that I might have otherwise overlooked. Or, perhaps, undervalued.
Here's an example. Yesterday, I was skimming around the state's Recovery and Reinvestment office website, which offers tons of reports and information on NM stimulus spending and other economic matters. It would be a really great repository of information if all the reports weren't in stupid PDF form, making them hard to work with.
I wanted to check out the report labeled Economic Indicators August 2010, so I downloaded the PDF, and converted it to an Excel spread sheet. (It turns out to have been economic indicators for July 2010, but, you know, close enough.) The chart looks at all 33 counties in the state, and then gives their unemployment and poverty rates.
I could gauge the obvious by looking at the numbers in the spreadsheet, but I thought this was the type of information that would benefit from a more illustrative approach.
I've been wanting to do something on Many Eyes, so I figured this was a good opportunity. I've seen some great Many Eyes visualizations, as well as some that I thought didn't really use visualization in a way that was particularly effective (sorry New Mexico Independent, I'm not picking on you, and I'm hardly an expert, I just didn't feel like the bubble chart really showed me anything).
Anyway, I experimented with my data in all the different visualization templates (and they do word visualizations, as well, it's not just numbers), and ultimately ended up feeling like the bar chart was my best bet.
There are no great surprises but, I will say, the bar chart sort of drove home for me just how different Los Alamos County is from the bulk of the state.