Q&A: ProPublica’s Lena Groeger on data visualization and writing about design

Image courtesy of Lena Groeger.

How can typography save your life? Can bad design actually damage our democratic process? How can sneaker and tire treads tell a story?

These are just a few of the fascinating questions ProPublica’s Lena Groeger explores in her “Visual Evidence” essay series. She also speaks regularly at conferences about, for instance, the explanatory power of GIFs. That is, when she’s not contributing code, design, and data visualizations to ProPublica’s award-winning investigative stories—such as “Insult to Injury,” which looked at disparities in worker’s compensation among states. Just yesterday, Groeger published “The Immigration Effect,” a tool that models the effect of immigration rates on US economic growth.

Groeger joined ProPublica in 2011, and her current, hybrid job title is “journalist/developer/designer.” In June, I spoke with Lena about her process. Below are edited excerpts of our conversation.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a series of interviews with visual journalists who write code and work with data. The first, with David Yanofsky of Quartz, can be found here.

 

I love your “Visual Evidence” design essays. How did these start?

Sign up for CJR's daily email

I started last year. It was basically all these ideas I had, like, Oh this would be a fun potential future talk…Let’s talk about how typography can save your life. I think about it like taking a bit of a step back from doing design work, or data viz work, and thinking about it from a regular person’s perspective: Why does this matter?

The first design write-up was after the NICAR and OpenViz conferences , where I gave a talk on “Wee Things” [a look at how small, repeated visual elements are used in information graphics]. I basically turned that talk into a written article. I use talks as an excuse to think about subjects that may be tangentially related to stuff that I do every day—issues that come up in design or data collection—and think about them from a perspective of someone like my mom.

 

What is your favorite challenge when working on a story?

My favorite challenge usually has to do with exploring some unique way of visualizing data: figuring out what it is about this data that you could take advantage of to make it a little more interesting than a bar chart.

Working with Michael Grabell and Howard Berkes at NPR, we did a series about worker’s compensation. Depending on where you live, when you get injured on the job, your body parts are worth dramatically different amounts of money. One piece of this long story chronicled the tale of two men who both lost their arms on the job. One was relatively generously compensated and set for the rest of his life, and the other one was totally ruined. They lived across state lines. It was hundreds of thousands of dollars difference depending on the state in which you were injured.

 

 

We had dollar amounts for 12 different body parts for each state… So we asked, How do we go about showing this? We came up with the idea to show the cost of each body part, sizing each arm, or leg, or toe according to how much money you would get from each state.

We knew going in that this was going to be new—body part visualizations are not super common—so we were certainly going to give up some ease of readability. It is hard to overcome this hurdle of, “How do I read this thing? I’ve never seen it before.” In some cases [a novel visualization] may not be worth it, or may be too confusing. So we were trying to walk that line of what will be able to get out of it. We want to make it as intuitive as possible, but at the same time, still try to do something different with the dataset.   

ICYMI: Two dozen freelance journalists told CJR the best outlets to pitch

 

What did you study in college and how does it apply to your work today?

I double majored in biology and philosophy. In college I was thinking I would do the pre-med requirements, and possibly go to med school, but that didn’t really happen. I realized I didn’t really miss labs, but I did really like science topics, and talking about science and society,  psychology and neuroscience, was really interesting to me.

I went to NYU’s science journalism graduate school program, which is geared toward people who have a science background but want to become journalists. I thought, “I’ll write about science topics and talk to scientists but I won’t be doing the actual research, this will be fun!”

In grad school, I came across data journalism. When I started out in journalism, I thought, “Oh I’m going to write long articles about the brain”—which I’m still really interested in—but now [my job] is more about perception and people’s ability to perceive information in a visual form.

 

You have some experience in graphic design, correct?

I’ve always really liked fonts, typography, and print design. I was fiddling around using Photoshop for a long time. In high school there was a technical art program, and one of the classes I took was commercial design. For college, I went to Brown University, which is right next to Rhode Island School of Design, so I took a couple of classes there.

My Toolkit

  • Sublime text
  • Ruby
  • JavaScript
  • HTML / CSS
  • D3
  • Sketching
  • Photoshop 
  • Google Drive 

The year after college, I worked at Brown’s health education department creating posters for the student body about drinking, nutrition, and sexual health. A lot of the work was pamphlets to hand out to students, or posters to put around campus. That’s where my design skills were used for a good cause.

When I came across data visualization, I didn’t know much about it except that you have to use the visual part of your brain to come up with an easy, clear visual display. How do you visualize different complex biological processes, or how do you explain some phenomenon that’s not in a physical form?  I liked that idea, but I didn’t know how to do anything for the web.

In grad school I took one class in basic HTML, but pretty much everything else I learned at ProPublica, when I started interning. I wanted to do a visualization, but I didn’t want to just mock it up in Photoshop. I wanted to see if I could build it.

 

Do you write a lot of code now in your job?

Yes. Depending on the project.

Because there are so many different ways of building a data visualization or coming up with a story idea, or telling a story, every project is going to be totally different. Even if you have lots of skills in one area, there’s bound to be another project that comes up where I have to learn QGIS [for example], which I didn’t know. On every new project, there’s bound to be things that you’ve never seen before, data with interesting problems you’ve never encountered before, and you have to figure that out.

There are some days where I couldn’t possibly sit down and think about writing paragraphs, and in that situation, making the mobile version of a chart—which is what I was doing today—that’s really appealing. I can procrastinate on one while doing the other. And then with writing, I really, really enjoy being done. The satisfaction I get with coding is more immediate: “I solved this puzzle! I hit refresh, and it worked.” Writing takes a bit longer, it takes going back and forth with the editor. It’s more of a painful process, but ultimately pretty rewarding.

ICYMI: What kind of journalist are you?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Keegan is a senior research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and a former visual correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Find him on Twitter @jonkeegan.