Between the Spreadsheets

CJR and the Tow Center's new column on data visualization takes on the Olympics

Data journalism and information visualization is a burgeoning field. Every week, Between the Spreadsheets will analyze, interrogate, and explore emerging work in this area. Between the Spreadsheets is brought to you by CJR and Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

Numbers have always informed reporting. But in the last couple of years, the appetite for big data, coupled with a willingness to experiment with how to present this information, has led to an eruption of visualized narratives and rich data explorations. Advances in multimedia have given rise to new opportunities for displaying these pieces, especially online.

As a consequence, media organizations are growing their interactive departments, and journalism schools are adapting curricula to incorporate computer science courses. Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, for example, is now in its second year of offering a dual degree in computer science and journalism.

If sports are a statistician’s dirtiest fantasy, then the Olympics are the ultimate playing ground for the datarazzi. Among the bickering and backbiting about logistics, budget, organization, and badminton, London 2012 has had another impact: giving news outlets their own podium from which to showcase excellent examples of data journalism.

One of the main things that makes something excellent in the data visualization world is whether a user can decipher the numbers immediately upon opening the infographic.

The New York Times both succeeds at creating this sort of clear data journalism and dominates in the aesthetic category. This sophisticated race interactive overlays graphics with narration to walk the user through the history of the 100 meter race. Its production harnesses the drama of filmmaking by following a clear narrative arc tracing the history of medalists from Usain Bolt back to the 1896 winners. Using graphics designed to replicate a racetrack, the animation pans out to show a line of racers; interspersed archived photographs contextualize and put a human face to the numbers.

Behind the bells and whistles, however, it’s just a simple plot graph. Andy Kirk, editor of Visualizing Data, produced a similar but less fancy graph version of race improvements—much of data journalism’s success is in helping readers look at old numbers in new and interesting ways.

Just like the sprinters, data visualizations have improved on their personal bests since the last summer games. This year’s New York Times medal counter is a rehash of the 2008 version. But the new incarnation has been tweaked—only slightly, as the previous version was already pretty involved—to give a more comprehensive breakdown of which countries won what medal in a given category, whereas four years ago a straightforward list of medals sat beneath the bubble chart. Users can click to see medal counts from every Olympics; the circles are arranged by the country’s geographical location and sized according to how many medals were won, and links take you to individual games’ pages.

The Telegraph and the Daily Beast’s data presentation are more straightforward. But they serve their purpose: at a glance, it’s immediately apparent who’s on top.

But as far as data visualization of Olympic results goes, The Guardian’s Data Blog, one of the first serious forays into embedding data into the news agenda—is in a class of its own. The newspaper (at which Tow Center’s Anna Codrea-Rado and Emily Bell have been employed) worked with the Royal Statistical Society and researchers at Imperial College London to devise an index that takes into account factors such as GDP, population, and team size, and the results are published in a simple table. The ‘reporting,’ as understood in a more traditional sense, is work done to ask what do the numbers mean. Just because counting medals puts China on the number one spot doesn’t necessarily mean China is the top performing country. When adjusted for GDP—which takes into account the cost of training athletes as well as population size because cost grows relative to it—Grenada takes the top spot. Jamaica and Mongolia follow, while China comes in at 44th and the United States 55th.

Data journalism aims to serve the same fundamental purpose of any other well-reported story. Be it an interactive, simple table or beautifully designed chart, data journalism should inform, challenge, and question. In terms of analytical rigor, the Guardian goes for gold.

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Anna Codrea-Rado is a digital media associate at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @annacod. Tags: , ,