Data journalists work at the crossroads of reportage and visual creativity. They tell stories by shaping information like journalists do, but they communicate through visceral and compelling visuals. The same can be said of data artists, who emphasize the illustrative qualities of visualization over facts and numbers—but communicate stories in much the same way.
As the data journalist Alberto Cairo, who is partnering with Google News Lab on a new artist-focused initiative, puts it: “The people we are collaborating with have this dual approach. Some call themselves artists, but their approach is journalistic in the sense that they don’t try primarily to produce art as a vehicle for self-expression, but as a means to communicate ideas.”
Since 2015, Google News Lab has worked to make the company’s huge trove of Search data accessible to newsrooms. Most of the lab’s previous projects—such as the annual Year In Search that digs back through the year’s headline news, or initiatives to train journalists to incorporate data into their stories—introduce tools that make it easier to use data in news reporting. As Google News Lab data editor Simon Rogers points out, Google has access not only to a giant swath of data—but also to data that represents what people are really interested in, honestly and without agenda. Google doesn’t get its numbers by polling people or prompting them in any way; it simply pulls them from what people naturally search for.
“It takes you beyond the echo chamber of social media into what the world really thinks and cares about,” says Rogers.
Rogers and his team wondered what would happen if they handed over access to that data to designers and artists instead–and gave them total freedom to choose not only what to visualize, but how. In collaboration with Cairo, they turned to a different group of professionals to parse Google’s Search information: data artists.
Their data visualization project, which began in December, aims to explore new ways of visualizing data through experimentation with artists and designers. The only requirements the project imposes on participants are that the work should push data journalism forward, and it should be mobile-friendly. The latter point, Rogers says, has recently become a challenge for data designers. “Data visualization has come a long way from just simple maps and charts, yet the formats we have have gotten smaller as the audience moves to mobile,” he says.
The nine projects that have been published since the initiative’s launch range interestingly in topic, aesthetic, and approach, and they feel very different from Google News Lab’s more news-focused work. The design studio Accurat, for example, created a graphic, gradient-tinged viz for the election. Meanwhile, German data visualization specialist Moritz Stefaner dissected the patterns of food searches with a visualization called, beautifully, The Rhythm of Food. His interactive infographics are akin to what you would find at news organizations with big data design teams, like the Guardian or the New York Times—with graphs that can be explored by the user in various ways, offering multiple perspectives on one topic. The difference here is that Stefaner told the entire story using visuals, rather than simply using them to illustrate a news article.
The most recent projects to come out of the initiative are a pair of stories from datasketch.es, a collaboration between data designers Nadieh Bremer and Shirley Wu. Bremer and Wu explore the words most often translated into English using Search, and the most-searched-for travel destinations, respectively. But they didn’t just translate the data into graphics—they found angles on those broad themes that allow viewers to see the data through a new lens.
For example, Wu didn’t just look for the cities that people most often plug into Search. She wanted to find the common thing that searchers from one country were looking for in another, and what that says about both countries. She found that in addition to predictable search patterns–for destinations that are hot in the winter and cool in the summer, for instance–people’s searches were tied to cultural events. For instance, there was an uptick in searches about traveling to see China’s Terracotta Army from the U.K. after a major museum exhibit on the topic went up at the British Museum. The same pattern occurred in the U.S. after an exhibit on the soldiers opened at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C.
Similarly, Bremer took a unique angle in her visualization by looking at Search data that included all the single word translations of nouns and adjectives into English from the 10 most popular languages on Google. She then asked: What do these more-searched-for words say about the culture of the users who are Googling them? One insight she came away with is that the top words from the top 10 countries have a positive vibe: beautiful, love, great, and happy are among them.
So what does working with artists reveal that working with journalists might not? One major thing seems to be a difference in perspective; though the artists in these projects are analyzing the data, their viewpoints are less analytical than a reporter’s might be. They look at the same set of data in a unique way, and reinforce that with their visuals.
“I love the way that people like Nadieh and Shirley work to humanize data, to make it accessible and fun,” says Rogers. “Data journalism is not about showing how smart you are as a visual journalist but about making data easier to understand. That is really powerful.”