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My new perspective on math – it’s a journalistic tool!

Posted by on Jan 4, 2010 in Blog, class | No Comments

Tomorrow, Jan. 4, means the beginning of an end to my formal graduate education. It’s the first day of my final quarter at Medill.

I’ll be returning to the Evanston campus for the first time since June 2009, primarily for an independent study on data visualization with Medill professor Rich Gordon. I’ll also be taking an introductory course in statistics, which I’ve already seen to be essential in the world of data viz. A quick glance at the syllabus (stored and locked up on the internal Blackboard site right now, so no link) yields a few things I solidly remember from high school math, some things I have fuzzy memories of (U and upside-down U means union and intersection, but I couldn’t have told you that without a quick Google search) and some concepts I don’t think I’ve ever encountered before. I’ll also be taking Arts Reporting, to indulge my theater and fine arts passions. But as one professor pointed out to me, even the arts are ripe for data analysis, with tools like the New York Times’ Movie Review API available. Reviews of movies, and the trends they reveal, provide actual facts that can back up some powerful pop culture analysis.  I’m hoping to do one project with this data, whether big or small, for class or just experimenting.

I now view math as an essential component of journalism, and I revel in it. I never disliked the subject, and I always liked solving problems, I just never really understood the point of some of the more complicated concepts. Oh, sure, basic operations are needed for figuring out discounts and budgets, but why would anyone use statistics? For me, math and computer science have become much more applicable, as well as easier and more fun, when I realize how they can be used to inform the public and find hidden stories. Doing anything just to do it seems so much more…blasé.

Also, in my life, math has always just been around. I’ve been thinking a lot more about this recently.  Both my parents majored in it, my mom gave elementary students a lifelong love of it, many former students stop us at Jewel and remember working at the school store. My father uses it as a computer scientist at Argonne National Lab, instructing supercomputers to perform operations that we only touched on in school. It goes back to my childhood.  When I first learned what a ball was, it was a “sphere.” That three-sided shaped toy was an “i-sos-ah-leez” triangle. The Count was my favorite Sesame Street character, well, after Ernie. When family friends would come over, I would ask if they wanted to hear me count to 1,000. Without waiting for a response, I would then start “One, two, three.” I think I eventually increased the options to include French (Un, deux, trois) and Hebrew (Echad, shtayeem, shalosh).

I never considered any of this though, when I was going through college.  My true love was literature, the power of the written word. I remember my father telling people that I could go into computer science, but I had Steinbeck in my soul.  I didn’t stop to ask if both could combine.  Who knew they would one day come together?

But these subjects aren’t disparate, they’re not mutually exclusive.  And there’s certainly no reason to be afraid of either one. No reason to be a “English person” or a “math person.”  The commonality in the subjects is in their ability to educate. Words and figures convey new facts that illuminate our lives — they teach us something new. When I say I’m a journalist, and people respond, “So, you’re a writer?” it never sounded right to me.  My impulse was always to say, “Yes, but I’m a journalist. Writing’s part of it, but there’s more — whatever journaling means, whatever tools best convey the story.” From now on, I’m done just thinking it, it’s time to say it and mean it. That starts today.

So, I start my data viz independent study, looking at it from a new perspective. All readings and assignments are tools of exploration, not busywork, not means to a grade. The work will contain two main thrusts: theory and practical knowledge (download syllabus here). I explain this because all my new knowledge and attempts will be fully documented on this site under the “class” category (just click where it says “class” at the top of this post.) On the theory side, I’ll be using Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations as a framework, thinking about how his thoughts affect the visualizations I create. I’ll explore his other books/work as time allows. In conjunction with this, I’ll be delving into the Processing language, and using it to create smaller data visualizations, and ultimately, a more detailed final project.

In the process, I’m hoping to figure out where I fit in the techno-journalism space. I never knew about all the different options before. Is data viz my specialty? Is it the CAR behind the visualizations? Is it in designing the interfaces that presents visualizations, and other multimedia, online? Is it something totally different? If you told me three months ago that I was considering applying a journalism degree in an occupation called interface engineer, I would have laughed at you. But now, it’s a serious consideration. Writing, programming, math skills — it’s all a part of it. Time to stop talking, and start doing. It’ll take more than a quarter to find all the answers, more than a lifetime probably, but the sooner I ramp up the intensity, the further I can get in the coming weeks.

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