Storytelling beyond charts and graphs
Conversations with Data: #58
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Here is a riddle for you. How do you tell a story for all ages using data without charts and graphs? That was the challenge set by data designer Stefanie Posavec and data journalist Miriam Quick when creating "I Am a Book. I Am a Portal to the Universe."
In this week's Conversations with Data podcast, they tell us about the book's concept and provide some useful advice for successful data design collaborations.
What we asked
Tell us about your work in data visualisation.
Miriam: I'm a data journalist, and I write data stories for news organisations like the BBC. I work on information design and have done projects for clients as a researcher as a data analyst and a copywriter. I also collaborate with artists like Stefani to make data art pieces for museums and galleries. So I'm interested in working with data about science, the arts, and particularly music because I have a PhD in musicology. I try to create musical visualisations whenever I can. I'm best known for my project Oddityviz with designer Valentina D'Efilippo. The project visualises data from David Bowie's song Space Oddity as a series of 10 engraved records, posters and animation.
Stefanie: As for me, I'm an information designer, artist and author. My favourite material to work with is data. I work with a lot of different forms from a project that you can dance through or hop through. I'm best known for my Dear Data project, a year-long project I worked on with designer Giorgia Lupi. Every week we collected our personal data and then we drew it on a postcard and would send it to the other person. The project culminated into a book called Dear Data, and then later into a journal that people can use to do this very personal data gathering and drawing process themselves. The project's postcards and sketchbooks are held in the permanent collection of Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Talk to us about the concept of your new book, "I Am a Book. I Am a Portal to the Universe."
Miriam: The book is called "I Am a Book. I Am a Portal to the Universe." It has been published in the U.K. just this September by Particular Books. The basic idea behind it is that the book itself is a measuring device. So you can use the book to measure things. Each one of the measurements of the book --from the thickness of its pages to the noise it makes when slammed shut --embodies a fascinating fact or data point. For example, hold the book to the sky and see how many stars lie behind its two pages. Or in the time it takes to turn one page, how many babies are born and how many people died? How many molecules is the book made of? All of these different stories use the book as a physical object.
What audience is the book targetting?
Stefanie: It's an all-ages book geared towards children age eight and up through to adults. The book aims to target a broad audience and is for people who might not necessarily pick up a book with the word data or science in the title. I think another critical thing about the book's concept is that we wanted to make sure that all of the data represented in it would be on a one to one scale printed on the book of actual size. So, there's no abstraction. We both think it creates a very particular effect to have the data represented in this way throughout the book.
What was the process like for coming up with the idea for this book?
Stefanie: We are used to collaborating on projects together and have been working together since 2012. We were sitting in a cafe together discussing ideas for new collaborations, and it came to us. We were given the opportunity by our agents to take this forward into a full book proposal. After we got the book deal, we started with the tone of voice and began researching the data. We also set ourselves a design brief which entailed coming up with design rules, such as no traditional charts or graphics allowed within this book. We didn't want this book to have anything that you might typically see in a traditional information graphic book.
How did this project differ from other collaborations you've worked on together?
Stefanie: I would say the process was quite similar. Most of the time, Miriam does the data, and the words and I do the design. Next, there is this kind of a fuzzy bit in the middle where they all start to mix up, and we begin to have opinions about each other's work. And that's where the really interesting stuff happens.
Miriam: I guess for me, any real difference is that compared to the other projects we've done, this was just so much bigger. It took two and a half years from start to finish, and there was a bigger project management element to it. For me, it was quite a new territory in terms of the material we were working with. I had to become familiar with all the publishing industry terminology quite quickly.
What advice do you have for designers and journalists collaborating on data projects?
Miriam: One of the things I've learnt as a data journalist is that drawing exploratory plots is useful as part of the data analysis. But also, while you're researching and gathering data, try and understand what kinds of insights data sets can visually support the story. My tendency early on in my career was to give the designer loads of notes, caveats and sources. But I quickly realised that they weren't reading them. So I learnt to slim that down. I think it's a case of striking a balance between giving the designer all the information they need and not overwhelming them with irrelevant information.
Stefanie: As a data designer, I think it is essential to work with a data journalist you trust. I love this collaboration because working with a data expert like Miriam means she can transform and analyse data in ways that I never would. I respect her expertise, and it makes me happy as a designer because it means that I can focus on the things that I love best, which is that translation of number to form.
Finally, what other upcoming projects do you have in the works?
Miriam: I'm working with the data journalist Duncan Geere on a podcast about data sonification. It's called Loud Numbers and it will be out early next year. The idea is that in every episode we will take a data set and sonify it. We will create music using code to represent the data. The whole episode will explore that data set through sound. You can sign up to our newsletter on LoudNumbers.net or follow us on Twitter or Instagram.
Stefanie: I am working as an artist in residence for a research project between Warwick University, Goldsmiths and Imperial College looking at the impact of data personalisation. The project is called "People like you" and has been running for a few years now. I am researching how the various stakeholders in a biobank perceive the ‘people behind the numbers’ who consent to their biological samples and data being used and stored for research. This research will inform the creation of a data-driven artwork aiming to communicate these insights to a wider audience.
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Our next conversation
In the next episode of our Conversations with Data podcast, we will speak with Emilia Díaz Struck, research editor and Latin American coordinator at the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). She will talk to us about the use of data in the FinCEN files, an investigation revealing the role of global banks in industrial-scale money laundering — and the bloodshed and suffering that flow in its wake.
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.
Tara from the EJC Data team,
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