Learn how to turn data into maps that tell stories
Geographer and informatics consultant Hugh Stimson on the tools and approaches that make for great data stories.
By Tyee Staff
Hugh Stimson transforms raw data into compelling visual stories.
Over the years, Hugh has made digital maps of simulated oil spills for the Georgia Strait Alliance and Raincoast Conservation Foundation, natural capital for the David Suzuki Foundation, and carbon sinks and sources for The Tyee.
If you’re a news consumer, you’ve seen the explosion of maps and graphics on new sites and social media feeds. Hugh cites The Upshot, a New York Times data-driven venture that uses maps and graphics to explain policy, politics and the economy, as a superbly crafted example of map-driven news presentation.
On March 21, Hugh will teach a Tyee Master Class that will get anyone quickly up to speed on the latest tools and techniques for turning information into online maps that engage the public and go viral.
As Hugh says on his “Web Mapping and Data Herding” Master Class info page: “There are stories in the data. You need to get them out of there, and onto a map, preferably on the web. We’ll talk about what tools to use, how best to use them, and do some hands on work to get you started.”
Hugh first gave the class two years ago. Since then, the technology has evolved rapidly, making digital map-making easier than ever. Read: Less code.
“Two years ago I’d say: ‘Now to do the next part, we have to write some code.’ Even in the last year, the amount you can do without code has shifted so much that now I’ll be running a course where we’ll do super cool maps and you’ll never touch code.”
Who can benefit from the class apart from journalists? Fundraisers, marketers, activists, policy analysts, or anyone with access to large troves of data, Hugh says.
It’s also a good choice for those “who want to be able to make maps to understand who their constituents are, who their funders are, who their user base is, who their customers are,” he says.
We caught up with Hugh to ask him about developments in digital map making.[node:related]
What pleasure do you find in turning data into “maps” the average person can understand and use?
People are really good at understanding things, even complex things, if they can just look at them laid out over space. Tables and sometime even charts can be tough, but humans are almost supernaturally good at cueing into patterns of spatial arrangement. Rezoning listings? Boring. A map of the Downtown Eastside with proposed condo developments lit up a certain colour? Potentially quite interesting.
In a town like Vancouver there are so many organizations that can benefit from the ability to tell spatial stories like that, and the tools are increasingly there to be used. Putting them together has a high reward-to-effort ratio.
How do data maps on the web change our basic understandings about journalism?
Not much, but they do expand the kinds of stories that journalists can apply their traditional principles to, how they dig into them, and how they deliver the results.
Many stories have an important “where” component to them, and I think we’re going to remember the time when that component could only be described in the text of the piece as a bit like the time before reporters carried cameras. Not every story needs a photo, but many benefit from them and some really need it. Likewise with maps and other visualizations.
That benefit is set to increase as stories are increasingly going to emerge out of what you might call “data”—spreadsheets, government databases, structured police reports, document dumps from access to information requests, and the like.
Reporting is still going to be about acquiring facts, using experience to spot important narratives in those facts, and then framing those subjectively identified narratives within objective delivery of the surrounding information. But with a map or an interactive chart or a sortable inline table, a reporter can do more of both at the same time: highlight the narrative they think is most important, but also allow the reader to peruse the underlying data to find other stories, or just to convince themselves that the reporter’s narrative judgment was sound.
What kinds of mapped data projects attract the most traffic?
People assume that to get a lot of activity, it has to be a very fancy map, with a lot of data. There are certain projects where that is absolutely necessary, but a lot of time the most successful maps are the ones that are moving through social networks. It means very quickly telling one’s story. It’s glance-able. It tells a simple story. And that’s a design effort. And that’s one of the things that we get into a little bit in the course: How do you choose the units? How do you package up the data? How do you choose your colours so that they tell a story without being too heavy-handed?
Do you see a new kind of journalist—or maybe a better word is “information-sharer”—emerging on the landscape with a new mixture of skills? And what are those skills?
We now have a category of professional data journalists working in cross-disciplinary teams to mine massive data dumps and author epic visualization features. There are also individual reporters with traditional journalism backgrounds (like Chad Skelton at the Vancouver Sun) who are becoming one-person data journalism departments. I’m interested to see what happens as subsets of those skills filter out to people who work on diverse beats and who don’t think of themselves as data pros.
For those folks, a great deal can be accomplished just by knowing where to do your mouse clicking and which things to click. Tools like Google Maps, Google Map Engine Lite, and Google Fusion Tables are all free and make pretty good maps. And if you’re willing to get adventurous you can take advantage of the recent explosion in geoweb startups, who have made some really elegant mapping platforms that produce beautiful and highly customizable interactive cartography.
But I think the most important skill is being aware of when a story might be mappable. When you see a spreadsheet with a street address column, do you wonder what it would look like if you ran those addresses through a geocoder and stuck the resulting points on a map of the city? If you haven’t seen that spreadsheet, do you consider deploying your reporter savvy to acquire it? Data-thinking is the real new skill, and I think web maps will increasingly be a way for reporters who are also data-thinkers to share the results of that mindset with their readers.
This article originally was originally published in The Tyee.