Getting to grips with data visualisation

This is my first word tree, made today using Many Eyes and the full text of the Chancellor’s Budget speech from the FT – I happened to pick out ‘Economy’ but this is a living visualisation so it can be reset to search for other words and terms.
I joined Many Eyes some time ago but I’d never got round to actually doing anything with it. I’ve also just been dabbling with Chartporn and Flow Chart which is a pretty poor showing given that I love looking at others’ visualisation and presentation of data.

(Click to enlarge)
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Anyway, there are two things I’ve set my heart on this year – one is to knuckle down and do a Masters degree, and the other is to really try and get to grips with different ways of gathering and visualising relevant data. It’s time to start learning things again.

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Newspapers and Ronald McDonald – guest post by Neil MacDonald

I was talking to friend and colleague Neil MacDonald (over on Twitter as xxnapoleonsolo) the other day about dodos. It had been a long, rather difficult week, and I happened to express the opinion that dodos deserved everything they got, as they hadn’t been able to evolve fast enough to overcome changing circumstances.The rather tortured parallel I was drawing was with certain sectors of the newspaper industry; it had been, as I say, a rather dispiriting week.
Anyway, Neil (the seasoned blogger behind the truly excellent Scyfi Love blog) came back with much better example of his own. I told him he should blog about it and he did – but since it doesn’t really pertain to science fiction I’m hosting his thoughts here.
Over to you Neil:

McDonald's Canada at a Wal-Mart Canada in Toro...

I NEVER thought I would be looking up to Ronald McDonald as a role model – whether that is because of the ginger curly hair, the fact clowns give me the creeps or the enormous ginger curly hair again.

But that is the position I find myself in today and it is a position every journalist should share too. (Stay with me, this is going somewhere)

If you remember back in the day, McDonalds was the unchallenged king of the high street fast food market. With an essentially unchanged product since it first came to the country, it was the king of the castle and I – like a lot of kids my age, used to get taken there as a treat.

What is more, if you didn’t like it, you could go home.

Realistic alternatives were in short supply unless you liked a slightly different type of burger, and any rivals were crushed beneath the sheer scope of Ronnie and his multi-kajillion dollar business.

But then … something changed.

People started to care much more about the quality of the food they were putting in their bodies as healthy living moved into the mainstream of society in Britain.

The treats stopped as more than ever before people were working out, getting in shape, watching the calories and turning their back on fast food which was seen as unhealthy and even dangerous. To a lot of people, McDonalds became the bad guy.

So what did they do about it? Hope it would all work out for the best? Pretend nothing had changed as they were still making big money, albeit less than they used to?

They changed too, to move with the times and ensure they kept their customers. What is more, they are still evolving. It is a constant process.

How? By developing their core product, for instance by highlighting the quality of beef in their burgers, and printing a calorie count on the boxes.

They also started to sell new, healthier products or use other meats and vegetarian options, while good quality coffee was suddenly on the menu.

Finally McDonalds changed the experience of visiting their restaurants by massively redesigning them using new designs and furniture and offering other incentives to eat there like free Wi-Fi.

So what? So I obviously know waaay too much about McDonalds.

But so this…

Everything they have done can be applied to the news industry to help take advantage of the internet and the opportunities it presents.

* Developing the core product – not rejecting it wholesale – to better fit current trends and tastes.

* Expanding into new areas which you didn’t even think about before. Some will work, some won’t, but it is worth giving it a go.

* Offering something new – a new space for people to experience what you produce
Changing the whole experience of consuming.

The work McDonalds has already done offers a step by step map for any journalist or news organisation to follow.

Or we can do nothing except order the heart attack burger with extra fries.

Me? The ginger wig is on order and I am wearing incredibly large shoes. Just call me Ronnie.

Image via Wikipedia

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This is not a blog post… this is a confession

This was quite a taxing post to write. It took me a while to work through my thoughts and I suspect it might irritate some as, essentially, it advocates allowing the people we interview to see and change copy before it’s finished.

So, before I get to the point, here’s a story.
As a trainee reporter for a weekly paper I once arrived in newsroom to find a note in my pigeonhole from Fierce News Editor. His handwriting was – still is, I’d bet – too poor to decipher. So I asked him, and braced for impact.
Turned out he’d scrawled me a compliment along the lines of: “Liked your piece on Bird Woman; you’re turning into a decent feature writer”. I remember his words practically verbatim not because of any warm glow they produced, but because of the guilt.

The ‘Bird Woman’ of his note was a former personality who had dedicated her twilight years to bipeds of the feathered-variety. She refused requests for interviews from local (or, on occasion) national journalists but, after months of cajoling, she agreed to give me an interview… so long as she got to see the copy first. She said ‘see’, we both knew that potentially meant ‘change things’; I wanted that feature and so I went along with it. Sending my article to her before it was published was a big deal to me; moreover, I think I’d have got absolute carpeting if my news editor had ever found out.

I interviewed her, I wrote it, I posted a draft to her (yes, it’s that long ago) and a corrected proof arrived a few days later. The corrections were, to my shame, mostly spelling but I also remember some adjectives (it was for our magazine so the odd random act of prose was permitted) were replaced – ‘small, elderly’ became ‘sprightly’ for example, and ‘eccentric’ became ‘a local character’ – vanity changes that were important to her, as a septuagenarian dealing with a teenager who couldn’t spell ‘receive’ properly. The feature ran, I had lovely feedback from readers and colleagues, but it was ashes in my mouth.

I’ve sent my copy out for approval on two other occasions and both subjects were rape victims – one a young girl who recounted her ordeal as her father stood, frozen and grieving, behind my chair watching my shorthand, the other was a woman in her eighties, reunited for the first time with the son she’d conceived during the attack. I broke the rule for a simple reason – I simply couldn’t bear the thought of getting their stories wrong. Hence, I broke it for me, not for them.

All journalists get asked the “Can I see the copy” question at some point; most news editors will advise trotting out something along the lines of: “I’m sorry, it’s against company policy”. I think newspaper-types feel a little wounded by the request – why, anyone would think you don’t trust us. But, culturally and professionally, print journalism is undergoing a sea-change, which is sweeping aside long-held tenets.

Letting others see your copy-in-progress in advance of publication is no longer the issue it was, because we’re already showing the thought-processes behind articles via blogs, tweets, liveblogging, crowdsourcing, livestreaming and more. The big ‘Ta-daa’ moment of revealing an exclusive is a lovely thing if you’re the reporter writing it but if others are blogging or tweeting or commenting on forums about various angles before you’re anywhere near a print deadline what are you gaining?

I’m not saying journalists should just hand over all articles pre-publication, whatever platform that article is intended for so individuals can approve (“Could you just ask the defendant if he’s happy with this latest trial update M’Lud?”) although John Terry would probably like that a lot. But I do think we need to challenge the ‘never let them see your work’ attitude.

The rise of collaboration and the opportunities for openly developing a story mean that those involved can be active participants rather than passive subjects, and I also think platforms like Google Wave can allow reporters to develop interviews, ideas and question threads in real time.
For the newspaper industry, especially for print journalists, I think the sooner we grasp the concept that collaboration means showing our hand the better. If someone shares their story a reporter, then asks to collaborate with them by seeing – and most probably amending – the article pre-publication, then an automatic “No” is a difficult position to maintain.