Data visualization is a tool that is applicable in many industries. Some visualizations are made to help business owners make decisions, some to help reporters perform analysis to make discoveries. But what takes a visualization, or interactive piece, from something that helps a news producer, to something that helps a news consumer, requires someone who understands what a user is looking for. It necessitates the melding of editing and design, someone who can use the left part of the brain to write structured code, and the right part to think of creative ways to display information. Data must be conveyed in a clear and engaging way – whether that data is a series of numbers, photographs, a collection of user-generated content, or another sort of information. The person who makes an interactive experience enjoyable, understandable and instinctive can be called many things. At the New York Times, one such person is called an interface engineer, and his name is Tyson Evans.
This profile of Evans is a part of my continuing series I’m calling “Data Delvers,” where I pass on summaries, quotes and audio clips from conversations with journalists using technology to find, analyze and convey data-driven stories and/or projects to the modern audience.
How he got there
Evans came to the New York Times in November 2008, and had previously worked as a new media design editor at the Las Vegas Sun. He started his design career as an intern for the Los Angeles Times in 2005.
For several years, he’s been an active member of the Society for News Design, including having had a major hand in the recent redesign of that Web site.
The combination of data and design
“I have a hand in how we combine information into one interactive piece through editing and design,” Evans said, describing his position. “We want to help people make discoveries on their own.”
Sometimes as little as two people work on a given project, other times it can be as many as six.
“I spend my day mostly in HTML,” said Evans. He points out that it’s not about the tools but how he uses them, saying the goal is to analyze the data first, and let that drive the structure and aesthetic quality of the interactive.
“We talk a lot about simplifying the display of data,” said Evans, saying that knowing where to look first, or what button to press should be intuitive. He echoes the Tuftian principle of data-ink ratio (although maybe here it’s data-pixel ratio?) Either way, the idea is that the design of a piece should not use aesthetics solely for aesthetics’ sake , but because the design is helpful or useful.
But unlike a static graphic, Evans must also be concerned with other issues, such as looking at how a data-driven experience will perform for the user when it scales, and thousands or millions of people are viewing it at once. Worrying about the organization and performance of the database itself, often known as the “back end,” is often the work of someone collaborating with Evans.
Learning to code
Evans, like so many journalists who practice the craft using coding, is self-taught, and has no formal computer science background.
He picked up a lot while he was redesigning the Sun’s Web site. “It was really a crash course; a case of learning as I went,” said Evans. He said he read every article he could get his hands on and attended as many conferences as he could, and that patterns in how code operates simply emerged.
Even so, he and many other journalist-developers without a computer science background look to those who do have that background to help the team observe best practices in coding. That means everything from how to create and access different versions of code, to how to organize the various components so it’s easy for someone else to pick up where you left off.
Helping others through technology and journalism
Evans sees himself and his team as working to build new tools for the news consumer that can help disperse interesting and necessary information.
An example of this was the tool built by the group to help people find friends and relatives in Haiti during the recent earthquake. Users could submit photos, they were stored in a database that was searchable by name, in an interactive project called “The Missing in Haiti.”
In the hours and days that followed, Evans’ colleague Jacqui Maher, as well as representatives from other media organizations, worked with Google to tie similar tools together, so people were not having to search in multiple places, but could simply use Google’s Person Finder.
“We were able to help, and it wasn’t that difficult, we just adapted an internal tool,” Evans said.