Paint Sticky Data (Please)

I'm into info. I want it accurate, relevant and clear.

On the radio, we try to paint clear, understandable, and journalistically-sound images of the mind -- the vivid mental pictures you see while listening to good storytelling.

Actual images can tell rich stories, too. The best photojournalism certainly does. Some pictures hit you in the chest.

But images drawn from data -- infographics, or visualizations -- rarely tell a story so well.

And they almost never hit me in the chest.

Why not? With all of the technology available, why can't we create really good visualizations that project understanding, timeliness, utility and ... dare I say ... stories?

I'm on the lookout. And I'm defining what I want to see.

For that definition, I've made a checklist based on one of my all-time favorite books, Made to Stick, by Chip Heath & Dan Heath (Random House, 2007). The initial words come from their Six Principles of Sticky Ideas; the rest is my application of their concepts.

For me, the best information images are ...
Simple: Non-geeks can absorb it within a few seconds
Unexpected: It fills a gap in our knowledge
Concrete: It takes advantage of our senses and understandings
Credible: It is journalistically sound, from a trusted source, without bias
Emotional: It hits you in the chest, you feel the data
Story: It tells one
And I'll add one more:
Relevant: It is timely, current and useful
Got examples that ring all seven bells? Maybe even four? Share them in the comments here or email me: john (at) designAgitator.com.

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The map detail above is from my favorite example at the moment, which is on Slate. Jump over there, take a look, and then run it through the checklist:

Simple? Once you know that blue is jobs gained and red is jobs lost, you're set. Just press play.
Unexpected? Seriously so. The speed of change is amazing.
Concrete? The familiar map orients me at a glance; I respond quickly to the circle sizes, colors and densities.
Credible? Bureau of Labor Statistics, Slate.
Emotional? Oh yeah. I saw someone actually shiver while watching it.
Story? Definitely.
Relevant? Yup.
Rings my bell.

The Man Behind The Zipper

I've joined an exclusive club of New York City microbloggers.

Twitter? Ha. Facebook? Kidstuff. We're talking bricks and mortar, baby.

Quite literally.

My missives scroll across the facade of WNYC's building in west SoHo, zipping into your field of view as a parade of little red lights. It's the WNYC News Zipper.

As you walk to work or sit in traffic on Varick Street, I've got your eyeballs.
NY terror-plot suspects indicted
None of this 140-character stuff. Better to use just five words; seven max. (I used a nonessential adjective clause once. Lost everyone by the second comma.)
Media banned from covering Iran protests
And I know where you are, no fancy GPS required.
Building collapse on Reade Street, up ahead
Even if it's partly cloudy in the Bronx, I am absolutely certain you're in a downpour.
This rain ends by evening
User customization? Easy. I can sense you're in line for the Holland Tunnel on your evening commute home. So how about a little news about your governor and his chief rival?
Corzine, Christie speak to biz group tonite
It's tempting to simply repurpose our tweets or web headlines, feeding them automatically to the sign. But it's also clear that wouldn't be as special. Or impactful. Or memorable. So I've been recrafting our material specifically for my particular version of a hyperlocal, mobile user.

I've been doing this for a few weeks as a prototype, and soon WNYC's editors, producers and hosts will feed lines to the sign. What I've learned by writing -- and watching -- those little red words will help our staff craft the phrases that catch your eye as you zip by.

Rapid News Visualizations: Prototype 1

In my quest for timely, interesting, understandable info-graphics, I've set up a prototyping challenge for myself: Upon finding news data, turn it into something visual, compelling and useful ... as fast as possible.

I'm prepared to fail quickly and often.

In this case, "as fast as possible" was three days to make, another two to find time to post it. The result is not wholly useful. And you can't absorb it quickly. And it's a little misleading.

But it's a start.

Here is what I made. It's a visual representation of the attendance rates for every public school in New York City on Thursday, May 21, 2009. The New York City Department of Education started posting this data the previous day as the Swine Flu/H1N1 outbreak was causing kids to stay home.

It tells me two things off the bat:
1) Queens and Brooklyn schools had much lower attendance rates than Manhattan and Staten Island schools.

2) Teens skip school on nice May days.
No. 2 is apparent because almost every red square is a high school, which have notoriously low rates this time of year. For a better indication of potentially flu-related absences, I'd chart the difference between these absentee rates and a typical May day at each school ... which is info I don't have. Yet.

Initially I published this in Google Maps, which was interactive and allowed you to click on schools for specific info. But Google Maps only plotted about 100 or so schools, and there are more than 1,000 here. Instead, I did it in Google Earth on my own computer and took a snapshot. Here's another.

Kinda cool. Was fun to do.

Next!

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Anatomy of the process:

Daily absentee data from the school system is here.
An Excel spreadsheet with general data on each school is here.
I crossed these two data sets in Access to match school numbers with addresses.
I got the latitude and longitude for each address, in 500-line batches, here.
I spent a lot of time learning about KML files, writing them, failing, trying again.
I made colored icons in Photoshop, and used Excel to assign each school the correct icon.
I put all of the relevant data into one spreadsheet and fed it to this little helper ...
Which gave me this KML file ...
Which I fed to Google Earth, running on my Mac.

Feeling Information

Information and raw data are piling up faster than our ability to absorb it. And the tools available to access, understand, visualize and feel that information are woefully inadequate.

I believe journalism, design thinking and information technology can be wielded to express these stories in ways never before considered. And I'm part of a small posse poised to do just that.

If this interests you, or if you'd like to join our rag-tag group, write me: john (at) designAgitator.com.

In the meantime, assume some of the gaps in designAgitator postings mean we're hard at work helping to explain the world(!)

Rethinking Internships and Enchancing a Staff (In Turn)

The newsroom intern. Bright, eager, ambitious. Ready to learn. Ready to help.

And, all too often, working for free. An intern's compensation, the story goes, is experience, a resume entry, nearness to greatness ... and maybe, just maybe, a byline.

That's all wonderful except for two things:

1) You can't buy groceries with a byline.
2) It's bad for journalism.

Let me grab a sticky. Okaaay ... a quick tally reveals that roughly half of our newsroom and talk show staff started out as interns, fill-ins or temporary workers.

That means that if we are working to cover one of the most diverse, complex, and interesting cities in the world, we would be remiss in our hiring -- and our journalism -- if we drew interns only from the pool of people with enough cash to work full time for free.

Instead, we have a robust and successful internship program and a staff with a variety of backgrounds and skills.

(And, um, we don't pay our interns.)

Crafting a Successful Internship Program

So here are some key concepts I've collected from different programs at different companies in different cities.* They're based mainly on newsroom and media work, but could apply to pretty much any workplace. Mix and match as you see fit; adjust for altitude as necessary.
Pay your interns.

If you can't pay your interns, design the internship so they can earn money elsewhere. This may mean having two or three interns working two or three days a week, and being open to nontraditional start and end times. This is what we do in our newsroom. Covering basic transportation and meal costs helps, too, even if just $10 per day.

Build a process. Write a notice that welcomes applications and explains your intern program. Set application deadlines, selection dates, start dates and end dates. Pull this together into something schools and institutions can post, either online or on a wall.

Seek outside the box. Not enough Spanish speakers in your organization? Post in communities were people are fluent. Lacking in general math talent? Contact the university math department for prospects. Need more local expertise? Try a community college instead of the world-renowned graduate program. If your intern program becomes a good feeder for your staff (even years later), expose it to people with skills you lack.

Prototype prototype prototype. Ever wonder whether an epidemiologist would be a good reporter? I do!

Be clear on the responsibilities. Have an established list of intern duties. If they can change during the term, set out a schedule. Be sure to leave room for individual skills and talent.

Be clear on the future. In most cases, an internship does not a job become. Don't assume interns know this. Actually tell them there is no guarantee of a job afterward. Oh, and don't use the chance of a job to inspire good work. If you need that carrot, you've picked the wrong intern.

Be clear on the term. Confirm the start and end dates at the outset. When the end date arrives, thank them for their work and help and say goodbye. Thirteen weeks is a good length, and often corresponds with academic work.

Set limits. There are some things you probably don't want your interns doing, including representing your operation as staff when they are not. Be clear about those situations. At our shop, interns are not used on air and don't interview major newsmakers.

Don't use interns as substitutes. Or, rather, do use them if they're qualified, but only if you actually hire them for the gig. If they're doing the work of a fill-in, pay them as a fill-in.

Have interns write a letter to the next intern. Keep these in a folder, real or virtual, and let interns read them when they first arrive. It'll give them another sense of your place, and their place in it.

Keep in touch. This is super important. When an intern finishes their term, be sure you have a current email address and phone number, and implore them to keep you posted on their whereabouts. Put their information in a file or database with details on their performance, strengths and interests. Check in with them occasionally. And when a job opens or project develops, call them up. I've hired interns years later, even after they've landed other jobs.
I welcome input, thoughts and experiences you've had as an intern or as an intern manager. Just post a comment below.

[Photo by FredArmitage (cc)]

*As with everything on this site, these are my thoughts alone. They may or may not reflect the opinions or practices of my employers, except where explicitly noted.

Break Glass Now

Consider, for a moment, the location of your nearest fire extinguisher.

And just how well did you use it last time?

Right. Chances are you're not prepared to skillfully put out a fire where you are sitting. At least you're not practiced.

But what if you had a non-emergency reason to use a fire extinguisher every once in a while? Maybe to clean your desk. Or a spill. (Nearest paper towel, anyone?) Using it occasionally would help insure that in case of a fire, you would both a) actually use it and b) use it well.

To better prepare our on-air and online operations for major breaking news, I've been promoting a point of view that says we shouldn't put our emergency tools, systems and skills "behind glass." Instead, we should incorporate those efforts into our everyday work. (I even believe we shouldn't put our energy into efforts that can't be used on a regular basis because in a crisis, we won't use them anyway.)

The best example of this is the daily production of our national morning program, The Takeaway with John Hockenberry and Adaora Udoji. The show's staff may just be the best breaking-news response team in public radio -- because they make the show in real-time every day, incorporating fresh news as they go. When the news happens to be really big, they're not just prepared ... they're already there.

A few other examples:
Map maker, map maker
In case of a civil emergency in New York, we'd want to quickly map shelters, closed roads, danger zones, escape routes. Even locate our staff. But we weren't prepared to whip together those kinds of maps in mere minutes. Now we're honing those skills by incorporating such work into everyday projects.

Information integration
When news hits the fan, information flies everywhere. Consolidating that data is key ... and also happens to be handy in everyday work. In the course of discussing a Mumbai-like terror attack in NYC, we discovered that our news-editing software can also check a listener email box. That's one less window to watch.

Nobody move
We designed our newsroom so that in a crisis nobody needs to change seats, which would move them away from familiar surroundings. As a byproduct, when something doesn't flow quite right during daily work, I try to make sure we address it now so we don't get caught off guard later.

Expected events as prototypes
In planning for election night, and now for the inauguration, we developed tools and techniques that will serve us again in a major unexpected event. We now know how to quickly rip up our station's home page to focus on a single topic. And in order to provide real-time election-night returns, we found new ways to clear the information path between the editors and the home page.

Share and share again
We share a statehouse reporter with stations across our region. So when former governor Eliot Spitzer imploded in a prostitution scandal, we didn't have to think twice about how to move information and audio between stations. We just used the FTP site and email list we use every day.
I've long been a fan of drills, and there are many more of those in our future. But by incorporating a little drill into our regular routine, we're better prepared for situations that are anything but.

[Photo by IamSAM. Some rights reserved.]

Prototyping Terror: Mumbai in NY

Two hours before our company holiday party, several of us were contemplating mass murder in Manhattan.

Not exactly Christmas cheer. But some good certainly came of it.

Really.

Several top thinkers and decision-makers reviewed the horrible events in Mumbai last month and considered how our news department would respond to a low-tech, coordinated attack on multiple locations in New York.

Here are some of our points of discussion, which could apply to any organization, journalistic or otherwise:

The Visioning Thing. We didn't do a full-scale drill, we simply took time to really visualize how things might happen. It was pretty powerful.

First we tried to think like terrorists and, as a group, picked three targets -- a transportation hub, a hotel and a shopping center. No sense naming them here; suffice it to say, we all knew each of them well and could picture the devastation and chaos.

Then we carefully imagined where each of our key people would be on a weeknight at 9:30, when Mumbai's night of hell began. Who lives where? Who's still at work? Who could get in fastest? What route would they take? Where would the first available reporters go? How would they stay safe? Think.

Our Civic Duty. We're journalists. It's second nature to pursue the facts and try to present them quickly, accurately in context. But as a broadcaster in a city under siege, our public service mission takes on new qualities, and raises questions. What do we do for people still in or near danger? Can we be better oriented to provide public warnings, safety and health info, comfort, maps, conversation, rumor control ... help? The conversation has started to adjust our operating Point of View, and could make a huge difference in how we serve our city (lowercase c) in those first few hours.

Information Overload. Phone calls, reporters, sources, Tweets, network audio, news wires, emails, web comments, TVs ... we easily came up with more than 20 distinct streams of audio, text, and visual information key to covering the story. In an era when all of this information is available to everyone on our staff, are we ready to monitor them all in a sophisticated, organized way? (Ah, no.)

Online, Under Pressure. Our methods for broadcasting have changed since 9/11 and The Northeast Blackout. We now use web alerts, social media, maps, and other tools to convey information. But when the adrenaline pumps, and minutes matter, we have to be ready to take advantage of all of these channels while maintaining our standards of accuracy and context.

Bias Toward Action. It's been 7 days since this meeting, and we're far better prepared than we were 8 days ago. What we've done, and are doing, is the subject of my next post, Break Glass Now.

[Photo by Andy Eakin]

Let's Date!

On your first date, you wouldn't plan your wedding. Or sign a prenup. Or name your baby.

So why do so many collaborations start that way?

Companies and organizations clearly need to learn how to date. See if you click. Get to know each other. Play.

Prototype, really.

Recent discussions I've had with a large company about collaborating quickly turned to who was going to walk the unborn child to preschool and pay for her clothes. It reminded me that people and organizations almost compulsively skip the playful exploring time. And the fun.

So let's take lessons from the millions of partnership prototypes that happen over dinner every Friday night:
Start with dinner. Get together. Talk. Dream. Learn. Over food, of course.

Don't be self-centered. You'll kill a relationship quickly if you spend all evening talking about yourself, your needs, your wants. Instead, find out about your potential partner. Learn about their hopes and dreams. Think about how they may enhance or build on yours.

Don't name the baby. Put off the discussion of branding, naming the project, how credit is bestowed. This gets emotional fast, and quickly moves you out of the realm of low-risk prototyping.

Put off the prenup. In fact, I'd avoid writing anything down at first -- especially anything regarding goals, directions, duties, etc. This starts to define the relationship from the outset instead of allowing for open innovation and low-risk experimentation.

Respect each other. Be nice. Be giving. Be open. And if that costs a little, consider it an investment in the potential of the partnership. Pick up the check here and there.

Meet up again. And again. Make a plan -- and put it in your calendar -- for the key people to meet regularly, preferably over a meal, to check in on how everyone's doing. That's the time to make sure nobody feels disrespected, over-committed, or unhappy. Then adjust accordingly.

Break up gracefully. If the partnership just doesn't click, part ways, remain friends, and be sure your team gets together to learn from, and record, what parts worked.
I won't kiss-and-tell about our newest collaboration, but I will say this is the approach WNYC took when we approached Iowa Public Radio back before the Iowa caucuses. We made a concerted effort to learn about them and focus on their needs. We talked a lot. We shared info and a common effort. And we didn't name the baby. The result was an amazing night of radio, and smiles all around (scroll to the bottom). It's also how we've approached a lasting relationship with the wonderful folks over at the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network, where we first prototyped this kind of coverage.

Happy dating!

[Photo by hypertypos]

Passive, Aggressive Crowdsourcing

I've been awed by the power of passive crowdsourcing -- harnessing the power of crowds without the crowd realizing it.

Here are three examples, all by Google (natch):

Free 411. Dial 1-800-GOOG-411 and you get directory assistance from Google for free. No ads, no charges. Why would that be? As Wired pointed out, when you request the number for your favorite pizza place, Google captures your voice and actions to build and refine a voice-recognition system. You provide the error correction by picking from a list of its guesses, or even spelling out the request. Once a match is made, you get the phone number and Google's software gets a tiny bit smarter. The result? Today, Google added voice-recognition to its popular iPhone application.

Flu Tracker. Google has been able to track the severity and geography of the flu by watching the frequency and location of people searching for "flu symptoms" and other telltale keywords. Google's results closely match the CDC's national tracking data, which are based on reports from health care providers nationwide.

Location, location, location. When I got my new GPS-enabled phone home, I did what any self-respecting geek would do: use Google Maps to pinpoint my apartment to a silly degree of accuracy. For comparison, I then did the same thing on my wife's phone -- which also has Google Maps, but no GPS. To my surprise, it pinpointed exactly where I was! After a while, I figured out what had happened: With the search on the first phone, I had "taught" Google's systems the exact location of our particular combination of nearby cell phone towers, wireless networks, maybe even a bluetooth signal from the guy next door. When it saw the combination again, even without the GPS signal, it knew where it was.

So is there a role for passive crowdsourcing in journalism? I think so, but still thinking.

The driving force in each of these examples is that participation by the crowd is driven by utility: getting a phone number, searching for flu information, finding one's location. Hard to imagine a utility that a newspaper or radio station might provide to attract a large enough data set for a particular purpose.

However, I do know that people respond to direct requests by radio personalities and newspaper columnists to participate in crowdsourcing projects. Might such a request lead people to actively participate in a passive collection of data?

My friend Daniel Liss and I have brainstormed some nifty ideas we hope to try out.

Do you have any?

Election Night Design: Post-Vote Post

Prototype. Prototype. Prototype.

It really saved us. Monday we had everyone sit in place for a talk-through drill and discovered issues that would have been problematic on election night. The only thing that didn't work (once) was a wireless microphone setup in the newsroom which, ahem, we hadn't tried before.

One interesting tidbit: Virginia didn't prove to be the early key we thought it might be. In fact, with the earlier-than-expected call of Ohio for Obama, we knew he had won even before Virginia went his way.

And in a departure from many networks, we actually took our newsroom conversation to the air as early as 10:20 p.m.: Our host was honest about how we expected Obama to be called as President at 11 p.m., straight up, when the California, Washington and Oregon were declared his. As it then happened.

We're conducting a full internal critique Monday at Noon -- using the d.school's "I Wish, I Liked, How To" format.

Details to follow.