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Piece de resistance: Data viz wrapup

And, scene.  That’s a term borrowed from theater, it’s used as an act or scene closes.  My giant Chicago art gallery persistence project is completed.  We’ve got a trend article that uses CAR techniques, and a Flash visualization and a searchable database.  The main thrust to the story is that of the galleries that existed in Chicago in 1990, about half have survived.  What’s enabled them to survive, though, has varied.  And while I can give you the overall picture, maybe you, as someone interested in the topic, care more about a certain medium or gallery or part of the city.  You must be able to find the part of the story that matters to you.  This is the non-linear storytelling first mentioned in the beginning weeks of Medill.  But for me, it is no longer just an idea, it is a reality.

Visualizing through graphics

The Flash component allows you to search by art medium accepted, or by neighborhood.  The neighborhoods are determined by groups of zip codes, and the ten art medium categories are made of various combinations of the more than 60 categories itemized in the Chicago Artists’ Coalition’s list of galleries.  One important thing I’ve learned about data reporting is that you have to use journalistic discretion to pare down the options.  60-something categories of media can be extremely overwhelming.  If you fail to use discretion when creating a project, you’ve failed the user.  I used Tuftian principles for the graph itself, keeping it as simple as possible.  I liked using the idea of duplicates to make up the units of a bar graph.  I went with houses to symbolize the gallery buildings.  My first instinct was to use paintbrushes, or paint palletes.  But that doesn’t work when you are sorting for the decline of these galleries that sold wearable art. The Monopoly-style house was the best generic choice.  I went with the blue accent color since it was calm and unobtrusive, but more visually interesting than a solid black and white graph.  I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the power of an accent color, and sticking mostly with the neutral to pack a punch.  Other tweaks I made as I went along included adjusting the size of the ticks on the y axis.  I found myself thinking more about interface design than usual, when you have a certain filter on, the background color on that button should be different to indicate what variables you are looking at.

And I learned something about myself.  When I set out, this type of piece is what I saw as the definition of a visualization.  Now, I see data-driven applications, especially those allowing for you to dig deep using the power of frameworks, as a form of visualization. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, in fact, I think they play off of each other.  But I’m not a visual person.  It’s fun to play with, but I know designers who could have packed more of a visual punch with this piece.  But by keeping it simple, I’m hoping it works.

Searchable databases are visualizations, too

You can read most of my thoughts on how this came out here, and I’ve made a few small tweaks since then.  Most notable is dealing with the list of media accepted on the detail page.  I was trying to form a sentence with the media that were accepted, but was having trouble figuring out how to display “and” before the second-to-last template tag that was actually displayed.  I solved the problem by turning the accepted media list into a list of bullet points.  I think it reads better this way, too.  I like the idea of being able to get an overview of sorting the data through the Flash visualization, and then digging as deep as you want with the searchable database.

Not providing current gallery information

Going back to the Flash visualization, throughout the quarter, my independent study adviser Rich Gordon and I debated the merit of putting the number of current galleries into the visualization.  I eventually opted not to.  That’s because this whole project is about persistence of art galleries — what happened to the 96 that existed in 1990?  Introducing the number of current galleries is a completely different data set.  I tried making it another node on the graph, but it made everything else seem tiny.  Even listing the number of current galleries just seemed out of place.  I believe the lesson here is to stick to your data set.  Comparing the galleries that persisted to total number of galleries is a valid project, but a different project — that was my ultimate conclusion.

Flash as a viz tool

Some other challenges I encountered included proper alignment of the various house icons (thanks to Flash’s grid feature for help on that).  Knowing when to use the right tool was an interesting battle.  At first, I was trying to get Flash to create the detailed views that Django is ultimately better suited for.  By combining Flash and Django, I think I came up with a significantly better combination.  Even if someone doesn’t explicitly go into design, I would heartily recommend they read Tufte and try experiments in Processing, Flash and Django.  It’ll all help in the long run.

Looking toward the future

There was a time, not that many months ago, when I prided myself on the fact that I knew enough about programming to communicate with coders.  Now, I just do the programming myself — or at least, as much as I can.  I’ve determined that visual design isn’t my forte, but I understand enough about it that I’ll be able to integrate smoothly with an art director or Web designer.  I even understand enough about Flash that I’ll be able to collaborate closely with front-end interactive designers.  But I wouldn’t know any of this if I hadn’t tried a lot of new things. I’ve applied my journalistic curiosity, that I typically use for subject matter, to new ways to tell stories, and tools with which I can bring those stories to life.  It is for that adventure that I embarked on this journey.  As I said after my Washington quarter, I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve also learned just how little I know. It will be an ongoing quest. But how fun and educational it’s been to ramp up my skills in these past ten weeks.

The power of community

As I’ve been pursuing the independent study, one of my other goals has been to blog regularly.  By that, I mean more often than once a month, which has been my typical pattern.  And through the excitement I’ve gotten from my exploration of programming journalism and visualizations, I’ve been able to do that.  I’ve promised myself it won’t end at this point, there’s so much more to explore.

But if you’re reading this, I want to thank you. Your comments on the site, via email, or on Twitter have enhanced my learning process.  You may not be receiving tuition money, but whether you helped me troubleshoot my Django app, discussed the intracies of Flash, pointed me to a great GitHub tutorial or just chatted with me about where I might fit in the grand scheme of things, I couldn’t have done it without you.  The greatest asset of the CAR community, as I see it, is the community itself.  I look forward to keeping in touch for years to come.

It’s for that reason that I couldn’t be more excited about NICAR later this week.  (Less than 72 hours till I leave!)  I can’t wait to meet you all in person, to hear even more inspiring ideas that I can bring to my first “real job” (not sure where that is yet, but I’ll keep you posted).  Heck, I’m even giving a five-minute lightning talk on some cool tricks I’ve been playing with in Javascript.  It’s a beautiful thing when an almost-graduated student’s knowledge is valued that much.  But from what I’ve seen, I shouldn’t be surprised.  It’s not about a judgment of age or experience, it’s about sharing something with each other.  That’s what makes NICAR, this quarter and journalism in general so special.  As it says on my high school class ring, knowledge is power.  I’m ecstatic that we all will continue that journey together for years to come.

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