CAMP 2015: Pre-conference data visualization workshop

By Kirstin Garriss, 2015 JAWS Fellow

(Photo by Kirstin Garris)

Stories and datasets have one thing in common — details. As journalists, we weave details in and out of sentences to create stories. You can do the same thing with data.

All day Friday, a packed room of journalists learned how to mine rows of numbers and text to extract stories important to readers.

During the 2015 DataViz workshop at JAWS CAMP in Whitefish, Mont., the journalists explored the world of data through visualization and learned how to creatively present data to an audience. Cheryl Phillips, a Stanford University data journalism lecturer, shared some quick tips for mastering Excel and explained how to incorporate your data into storytelling. Tableau customer community specialist Lauren Rogers showed how to turn data into visuals.

Here are 10 tips from Phillips and Rogers to help you write data-driven stories.:

  1. Before you start writing, think through how to organize and analyze your data. Also think through what is your nut graf, telling readers why this information is important to them.
  2. For first-time data storytellers, don’t use ALL your data in your story. This will overwhelm both your story and your readers. Remember (and use) narrative storytelling techniques when you’re using data and vary the amount of data that you use within a story. Use creative ways to display your data, said Cheryl, former data innovation editor at The Seattle Times. She suggested using bar graphs because often it’s difficult to distinguish the difference between percentages on a pie chart. When you’re analyzing data, look for the patterns. Use those patterns from your data to drive your narrative.
  3. Use your data as sidebars. These visualizations can support the main theme of your story. They can also help evoke a mood or an emotion from your readers or viewers.
  4. Remember to “Mind the Gap.” Look for the gaps in your data. That could be your story.
  5. Need help visualizing your data? Download Tableau, a software that helps you create visuals for your data. A public version is available for free, a desktop version is free for IRE members.
  6. When using Tableau, start with a question: What are you trying to show? This will help you decide what kinds of visuals you could use for your story.
  7. Once you start a Tableau project, you can organize your data into various graphics, including maps, line, bar graphs and pie charts. Need some more options? Click “Show Me” and Tableau will show you other graphic suggestions for the specific data you’re working with.
  8. Know your data. When you’re exploring creative ways to display your data, think about it and know exactly what it represents. The information you’re working with is often a subset from a larger database.

Bonus tip: Always remember to save, save, SAVE! Whether you’re creating graphics within Tableau or making calculations in Excel, always save early and often so you don’t lose your work.

These are a few tips to get you started but like anything else, practice makes perfect.

Phillips shares many more tips and tricks here.