Whilst in New York City last week I had the pleasure of meeting Amanda Cox, Graphics Editor at the New York Times, to ask her some questions around storytelling and data visualisation. This was a busy week in news terms (the Boston bombing and Texas factory explosion occurring), and owing to both our circumstances we met late in the evening in the Wall Street area. After failing to find a coffee shop or bar open in the area we settled upon the steps of Federal Hall. I thought it was a fantastic and unusual location for an interview…
CT) There seems to be a lot of conversation around storytelling in visualising data. One of the things with storytelling that occurs to me is that its about order and coming to a point. Whereas in data visualisation, sometimes, there’s less order and it’s more disparate or incomplete. Do you think it’s easy to reconcile storytelling with visualising data?
AC) Yeah, I think that the definition of what story telling means in data is a little sketchy. In that I think really what people mean a lot of the time is more the idea reducing your data until the point where it means something. Shaping it I think, or moulding the data, that can either be by choosing a form that reveals something particular about the structure, as opposed to a more generic form such as a bar chart. I think the idea of what it means to tell a story with data is a little bit amorphous, like its probably true for a lot of art, like in a painting, is there a story within a painting…is there a story in Jackson Pollock pieces or in Mona Lisa.
CT) Do you think it’s possible to ‘see’ a story?
AC) Yes I do think it’s possible. I think to define precisely what that story is is a little more difficult to pin down. Even in simple line charts, so you think of like the canonical Al Gore example, even if you did the average and think of it as one line, I think there is a clear story in that. Who the characters are in the story may be missing from the line chart, but when there is an axis of time the stories are embedded in the time axis, so it can be constant, constant, constant – then something changes, that to me is very clearly tied to the idea of a story.
CT) I read a lot about narratology and story structure. David Herman, a narrative scholar, said that there are four key things that qualify a text to be as story… 1) a story has to have events that happen in time 2) there has to be a named individual or people who have to face decisions 3) there has to be a disruption of a state of equilibrium 4) there has to be a foregrounding of human experience. Do all four need to occur in data stories?
AC) I feel that the Al Gore example of time series fits that quite well. There is a dramatic change in events, it changes because of characters. So I might not disagree with that definition.
CT) Do you ever encounter data visualisation work that is not a cohesive story that, has a lot of uncertainty or indeterminacy in it so you have to work quite hard to figure out with the story is?
AC) I think things with a lot of data – the image I have is of Aaron Koblin’s Flight Paths, which I think is great and brilliant and will hold up 20 years from now which is rare in data visualisation, but to argue that there is a story in something like that, well there is in that planes take off, but its a weak story, it’s not that compelling that plane A took off, plane B took off. But at a deeper level the pattern is compelling in itself, but it’s not really a story.
CT) I see a lot of your work has a strong sense of cause and effect.
AC) I think part of our mission or mandate, working for a newspaper, is that it’s difficult and off course to make things that just look pretty. There is a deep question of ‘why are we doing this?’ and ‘what is it?’ – so that being our mandate shapes the work and makes it more simplistic. Questions like ‘why are you showing me this?’ or ‘what do I think a reader should get out of this?’ – it’s our job as journalists to do some of that work.
CT) How much work is it reasonable to expect a reader to do to ‘get’ the visualisation – should the barriers to entry quite high and if so what does the reader get out of it?
AC) It largely depends on what the data is and how easy it connects to people’s experiences. If you’re making a local census map, where the reader is asking ‘tell me about my neighbourhood’ you can shove all of the burden onto the reader, things that people are deeply interested in we would expect people should have enough background knowledge and context to be able to figure it out. On the other side there’s business stories or things that don’t fit into people’s experience, things that people can’t be expected to interpret on their own.
CT) Do you think that storytelling is a way into adding that context of ‘why this matters’?
AC) There is a sense of handholding in data visualisation. We ask ‘who is going to use this?’ at sketching stages. I feel like a tour guide. Instead of dropping you into an area and telling you to find a bar, I’m giving you a list of the best 5 cool places!
CT) Does data visualisation have a rhetorical angle (intentionally or not). I’m thinking you may be able to curate or visually preference data. Is that a good or a bad thing?
AC) All visualisations, even those without a story are an interpretation of something. The choices that you make, like Koblin showing a full day of flights all at once, people will think its crazy, but if you reduced the lines then you’d get a totally difference impression. Editorial decisions, about form, how much data you’re showing definitely suggest some interpretation.
CT) Your readership presumably comes to you for an editorial perspective?
AC) I think what we value at the NY Times is the analysis and finding the right experts to tell you what things mean. Not like the front page of the Newspaper which is very edited. It’s more hands off, they just run the baseball scores.
CT) How do you think storytelling devices from non-fiction, like for example closure, narrator voice, having suspense, or characterisation could play with data visualisation?
AC) I think the chief device seems to be surprise. It seems to be a common thread in a lot of the good visualisation that we see. The most successful visualisations have an element of surprise, something happens that you didn’t expect.
CT) That would certainly make a piece more memorable! Do you think, like people have favourite films, books etc, that its possible to have a favourite data visualisation?
AC) I think it is. That’s an interesting question. I suppose my favourite films or books made me feel something which I think is the same with data visualisation if something resonated with me in some way.
CT) Do you think that data visualisation can tell a story on its own, or is it a catalyst for something else, or does it need other text?
AC) I think it could by itself, but not maybe in its entirety. I think we are pretty good in data visualisation at handling the what, where, when questions, but we’re bad at the why questions, which are often much more interesting. I think its probably the same in something like film too – is it really possible to get in a characters head? I think I would argue that on it’s own data visualisation is always telling a story, but it might not be a sophisticated story.
CT) That makes me think of Hans Rosling’s Gapminder, where the application itself gives you the what, where and when – but when he narrated it at the Ted talks it brought so much more of the why.
AC) I think that Hans Rosling is a brilliant presenter and very enthusiastic. I think that Gapminder on its own is fine but there’s nothing special in a scatter graph.
CT) It seems having an enthusiastic narrator can makes the data more interesting and understandable! So, moving away from story and onto you! How did you get into all of this?!!
AC) A happy accident! I was in statistics grad school not having a very good time. I started applying for random things. I did a summer internship at the Times. Then an opening came up when I finished grad school.
CT) Has the field changed a lot in your time?
AC) When I look at some of the work that the guys at Fortune were doing in the 1950s, it was incredible and is better than the work we are doing today. At its core I think it’s still the same, but when I started at the Times we did nothing on the web at all. The opportunities are so different because of the changes in technology.
CT) Where would you like your work to go in the future.
AC) I feel like there’s a lot of room for more actionable work. The highest compliment you get is that your work is ‘interesting’, but I’d like to make more of an impact on the world. I feel that the work can go further in its relevance. I want to be able to look back on my work today in 5 years and think its terrible!
A big thank-you to Amanda for taking time out of her schedule to meet me, and for being a wonderful sport.