Teaching Examples

Interactive graphic: Wealth calculator
June 11, 2007, 11:48 am
Filed under: data, graphics, interactive, journalism

I don’t use the word “interactive” carelessly. (Most things that people typically call interactive are not one bit interactive. Video games are interactive. Newspaper Web sites? Not!)

Wealth Calculator from The New York Times
With all the journalists chattering about Adrian Holovaty these days, some are feeling that they must transform themselves into programmers to compete in the 21st century. I’m not convinced that we need to clone Adrian (although having more like him couldn’t hurt).

I offer you this example as a starting point for 21st century thinking about journalism: The New York Times’s Interactive Wealth Calculator. (Adrian was not involved!)

The “programmer” is only one part of this excellent production.

The database design is vital to its success. Not all “programmers” know how to design a database properly. Many database designers would not know how to program this for the Web. (I have learned a lot from the non-software-specific book Database Design for Mere Mortals.)

The graphic design — the interaction design — make this project usable, clear, and fun to play with. Note too that the accuracy of the project depends on having a well-trained graphic designer — and not just someone who knows how to “make a Web page” or “animate in Flash.” If this concept is new to you, go to the library and check out Edward Tufte’s classic book Envisioning Information (or buy it).

The journalism know-how makes it accurate and reliable (click the Source Information link at bottom left in the graphic). Go ahead, try sending your programmer out to bring back reliable, up-to-date population statistics. I dare you! (See Mark Hartnett’s take on this. Matt Waite shows us how to tackle a mapping challenge.)

When Adrian designed and produced his famous Chicagocrime.org site, he collaborated with a skilled and talented Web designer, Wilson Miner, to make the thing work visually.

In my experience, far too many editors, publishers, news directors — and even trainers and educators — fail to understand the roles and skill sets that are part of the production of a real interactive journalism project.

All this fussing about “programmers” won’t get you anywhere if you don’t have savvy, professional information designers working hand-in-hand with your Django and PHP and Ajax and MySQL wizards.

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8 Comments so far
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While I agree that programmers are not the solution to everything, I think you’re missing the point of those of us who have learned some programming. Some of us *do* know how to get population data or other types of data. Programming is simply another tool in the toolbox, and labeling “programmers” as if they could never have anything to do with an editorial process is both short-sighted and avoiding what is actually happening at news organizations, particularly those with CAR folks.

Comment by Derek

Sorry if that sounded like a blanket statement, Derek — there are journalists who are also programmers (and vice versa) who fit both pieces together beautifully.

Few people, though, have all three pieces.

And then, there’s also the need to get people to work together effectively. If my super journalist-database wizard is not adept at visual/graphics, then I hope s/he can communicate with someone who is.

Comment by Mindy McAdams

True, few people have all three pieces, and you’ll get no argument from me on the need for first-rate graphic artists. But those making the argument for having more programmers involved in journalism aren’t doing so at the expense of graphic artists or anyone else; we’re saying they have become as necessary for certain tasks and should only be even more crucial in the future.

It’s entirely possible to imagine your post with some of the job titles reversed (or even without quote marks)!

Comment by Derek

I couldn’t agree more re: the utter importance of visual design/information architecture.

My old boss would say: If you don’t have a solution, give it to the designer.

Nine times out of ten — an editorial problem is really a design solution waiting to happen. And no matter how good a programmer is — if the design, user interface, etc sucks — well, so does the whole package.

Comment by DigiDave

Fair enough about the quotation marks, Derek! (Grin!) I just feel a little frustrated by the way everyone is using that word, “programmer,” because it can be used to refer to a person who has his head down in the bits, you know, and THAT is not a solution to many of the puzzles of online journalism. Plus there are people such as Joe Weiss (Soundslides), who write a lot of code, but is it accurate to call him a programmer?

Put it another way: If I say I want to hire a programmer, will I get Joe Weiss?

Comment by Mindy McAdams

Whatever you call it, programming is programming. I may not be a good programmer, but I do write some code. I’m not sure why it’s such a bad word, or any worse than any other title. I think we too often get hung up on stuff like that.

Hiring a programmer for an online news operation isn’t much different than hiring anybody else – we just don’t have a lot of experience in it, so there are bound to be times when it seems like a scary or weird enterprise.

Funny thing: most of the best investigative reporters I know often could be described as “having their heads down in the bits.” Seems to work pretty well for them.

Comment by Derek

I’m pretty sure that the The New York Times’s wealth calculator was designed, programmed and implemented by Tom Jackson.

So in this case most of the team was in Tom’s head.

Comment by Joe Weiss

Tom Jackson AND Matt Notowidigdo, who appears to be at MIT …

Comment by Mindy McAdams

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