Data Journalism: Using Charts, graphs and data visualization

 

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This map of bike thefts in Vancouver was created by The Vancouver Sun’s Chad Skelton, who is one of Canada’s top data journalists. (Vancouver Sun)

Data journalism a relatively new kind of journalism that uses the power of computers to find stories in large sets of numbers or data.

It often uses information from government reports or academic studies. It can include geographical, medical, criminal or demographic information.

Before they are graphed the data sets would make little sense to most people, let alone appear to be interesting as a news story.

But once on the computer of a good data journalist, with a lot of time and patience, they can be turned into visually interesting and compelling stories.

You can make all kinds of charts quickly in Microsoft Excel and then post a screengrab online.

You can make all kinds of charts quickly in Microsoft Excel and then post a screengrab online.

Former Vancouver Sun journalist Chad Skelton is one of the leading journalists in this field and it is worth checking out his blog to see some great examples of this sort of work.

There are also plenty of online forums and blogs about this subject if you care to spend the time.

But not all data journalism has to be hard and complicated. There are a couple of simple tools that most online journalists can use to create basic graphs and charts for their stories.

The first one is Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet program, which makes all sort of charts.

You just enter the data, and click on the charts tab and select a suitable style for your data.

You can change the way the data is represented, the colours, the size, the headers, the kind of legend. It just takes some patience to play around with it.

Google data tools

Another option is Google Code Playground, which lets you code your own charts in HTML. Then you can either post a screengrab or embed the code right in a website (but not on wordpress.com unfortunately).

Google Code Playground lets you create charts and graphs in HTML.

Google Code Playground lets you create charts and graphs in HTML. (Google)

It requires a bit more computer literacy and patience, but it can also be customized more that Excel.

If you enjoy playing with this sort of software there is a whole world of data journalism that awaits you.

Other power programs include Google Maps Engine and other Google tools, and Tableau.

One of the simplest online data tools is infogr.am, which is also free, but does not work on WordPress.com.

Parking project

This map of the most expensive parking in downtown Vancouver was created by Algonquin College journalism student Rachel Aiello during her internship at CBC recently using Google Fusion Tables.

Even a seemingly simple project like that took two days to create. This is can be a time consuming task, organizing the data into usable tables, and making sure you have all the correct information for each cell laid out.

The next important stage is to experiment with the visualization to make sure it tells the correct story.

In this case we decided to map the cost in three simple colours that people would instantly understand.

Optional exercises

If you want to try a quick project, try recreating my simple Excel table and pie chart using this data. You’ll need to know how to create a simple table in Microsoft Excel to do it though.

Once you build the table use the options in the menu to create the pie chart, then take a screen grab of it, which you then need to save as a jpg and then crop and upload to WordPress. It is a lot of work!

Another option is to create a free infogr.am account and try creating a graph with the data. While you many not be able to use infogr.am in WordPress.com, it can be useful for future projects.

Type Pets in Vancouver
Dogs 534,895
Cats 678,908
Birds 100,345
Fish 301,980
Rodents 80,782
Reptiles 58,987
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About Mike Laanela

Mike Laanela is journalist, photographer and instructor based in Vancouver, B.C.
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