The story behind Datawrapper

Conversations with Data: #72

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Welcome to our latest Conversations with Data newsletter.

In this week's Conversations with Data episode, we caught up with data visualisation designer and blogger Lisa Charlotte Rost. She speaks to us about the DataVis Book Club she hosts on behalf of Datawrapper and explains why data visualisation has become more prominent since the pandemic.

You can listen to the entire podcast Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts. Alternatively, read the edited Q&A with Lisa Charlotte Rost below.

What we asked

Tell us about your career. Was there a pivot moment when you fell for data visualisation?

I'm coming from a design background and I studied visual communication for six years. I focussed on print design learning how to layout books and magazines. And because of that interest in magazine design, I went to New York City to do an internship at Bloomberg Business Week at the end of my studies. That was 2013. I wanted to figure out how to design magazines. But on the first day, the team sat me down and asked me to join the graphics department. I thought, what the heck was that? I had no idea. At first, I asked if they meant illustrations, but they said, "No, we mean data visualisations -- like pie charts, bar charts, maps, etc." And I thought, OK, sure, why not. I like numbers.

It was the best internship ever. So after graduating, I was sure I wanted to go more in this direction. I applied for jobs at newspapers. I worked for mostly German newspapers. And then in 2016, I got an open news fellowship at the NPR visuals team in Washington, DC. In 2017, I got lucky again and the current CTO of Datawrapper convinced me to join his company. I've been there ever since and have been very happy there.

Tell us about Datawrapper and how it began.

The idea for Datawrapper came about in 2012 when a journalist named Mirko Lorenz teamed up with developer Gregor Aisch. Mirko was doing a lot of data training and didn't have an easy way to develop charts, graphs and maps. So that's how it began. We work together to create the best charting tool for everyone who wants to show their data in beautiful charts and maps.

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How important is localisation to Datawrapper? What languages is it available in?

So far Datawrapper's tools are available in German and English. It's in German because it was built by a German founder, but in English so that people all over the planet can use Datawrapper. But the more customers we got from different countries, the more they asked for more languages. Recently we added Spanish, French, Chinese and Italian to our UI languages. So you can now use Datawrapper in six languages.

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Speak to us about the DataVis Book Club that you started on behalf of Datawrapper. Who is it for and how can journalists get involved?

I started the DataVis Book Club in 2018 and it's for everybody who wants to learn about data visualisations and maybe bought a book or two and can't find the motivation to read it. The book club exists to motivate people to offer a deadline and then also open an interesting discussion with fellow readers and the author of the book.

So we've read 10 books right now. We are discussing our 11th book at the end of April. We read everything from data visualisation research papers to books by authors Andy Kirk, Alberto Cairo, RJ Andrews and Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic. The book club's format is in a shared notepad -- almost like a Google Docs document -- you go to a URL and everyone starts typing in different fonts and discusses the book at the same time. That's been a welcome change given the huge amount of online audio and video conferencing since the pandemic.

How do you decide what book to pick?

Sometimes I decide because I'm excited about a new book. But I also started doing surveys to ask people what they want to read next. We have participants from all over the world, so it can take time for the book to become available in all of those different regions.

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What about any recent trends you've noticed since COVID-19 in the data visualisation world?

I think the whole data visualisation field just got way more important during the last year. Datawrapper got 10 times the views in 2020 than in 2019. So many of our users put our charts on their homepages. And normally you wouldn't see so many charts, maps and tables on a homepage of a news organisation. But in March, April and May 2020, you had these data visualisations always explaining the latest numbers. So that's great for the data visualisation scene, but it also comes with some challenges.

For example, many of these COVID-19 charts, maps and tables are live updating, which is an interesting phenomenon, because now we see lots of people expecting them to live update. They didn't expect that in 2019 or 2018. Datawrapper supports live updating, and we've seen a four-fold increase in our users using this feature since the pandemic.

You mentioned you worked in the United States and Germany in the data visualisation world. Did you spot any striking differences?

The data visualisation scene in the U.S. is definitely bigger than in Germany. A few years ago, I would have said the U.S. is ahead when it comes to innovation and experimentation. They try out new things, which is then copied by news organisations in Europe. I'm not sure if that's the case anymore. We've seen some excellent dashboards about COVID-19 in the last year coming from European news organisations. I think it is becoming more balanced, which is nice to see. A lot of data journalism teams in U.S. newsrooms pitch and do their own stories and have their own bylines. Some news organisations in Europe and even in parts of the U.S. still treat the data team as a service desk, but that is changing.

Finally, what's next for your book club and for Datawrapper?

We are currently reading Jonathan Schwabish's book "Better Data Visualisations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers and Wonks". After that, we plan to read "Data Sketches" by Nadieh Bremer and Shirley Wu.

As for Datawrapper, we've already had a busy year. We launched our new website to explain to people what Datawrapper is. We also launched our new accessibility feature. It's now possible to write an alternative description of a chart so screen readers can pick that up and explain to blind people what a chart is about. We are also redesigning our My Teams and My Charts pages. This will make it easier for people to collaborate, access and find old charts. We are also hiring and expanding our team!

Latest from DataJournalism.com

By popular demand, DataJournalism.com has launched a data journalism Discord server for our community. We are looking for data journalism and data visualisation enthusiasts to test out the BETA version. So far we've had 213 user applications and our server is off to a great start. Want to take part? It will only take a minute to create a Discord account. Don't miss out! Sign up here!

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Discord, Twitch, Clubhouse, are just a few of the social media platforms that are currently generating hype. Aside from being fun, how can they be used for your data journalism studies? We’ve tried some of them out and here’s what we discovered. Read the full blog written by Andrea Abellan here.

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Dr Amelia McNamara guides us on a journey through the history of handmade data visualisation. She provides an in-depth tutorial for journalists and cites a variety of resources to help your experiment with hand-drawing visuals for your next story. Read the long read article here.

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Our next conversation

Our next Conversations with Data podcast will feature Professor Deborah Stone, a renowned political scientist at Brandeis University. She will speak to us about her new book Counting: How We Use Numbers to Decide What Matters.

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As always, don’t forget to let us know what you’d like us to feature in our future editions. You can also read all of our past editions here. You can also subscribe to this newsletter here.

Onwards!

Tara from the EJC Data team,

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