Lessons from John Snow for the novice data journalist

A modern, color take on Snow's original.

An interactive take on Snow’s original map with color by andreit on umapper.

Dr. John Snow put cholera on the map. Well, to be more precise, he mapped the cholera outbreak of the 1854 in London’s Soho, stacking up the deaths against a contaminated water pump and saving an untold number of lives.

Snow’s bicentennial birthday happens this month, on March 15. They’ll be raising a glass to him at the Soho pub bearing his name as well as holding a free symposium in his birthplace of York.

His map is the stuff of textbooks, from design guru Edward Tufte – who even made a pilgrimage to the water pump – and was set before us in the MOOC Infographics and Data Visualization course and KDMC’s two-day seminar on data as a paragon of good information design.

In both classes, the clean, simple map elicited a whoosh of “ahh!” from the students – you look and immediately get it. (The back story of Snow’s map makes it even more powerful – the good doc was laboring against local authorities who still believed the miasma theory.)

A detail of a 1940s malaria map of Italy. LSHTM Library & Archives

A detail of a 1940s malaria map of Italy. LSHTM Library & Archives.

His legacy lives on in health maps everywhere. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) is hosting an art exhibit in Snow’s honor – you can check out some of the items, including the above gem of malaria outbreaks in fascist troops in Italy, here.

One of the big takeaways for me, as a novice, is how working with data is often a group effort. (Journalism, though it does require getting people to talk to you, is largely a solitary pursuit. Scribbling away in a garret or blogging with your laptop at a cafe doesn’t take a village.)

In his excellent The Ghost Map  (public library), Steven Johnson recounts how Snow was helped out by local curate Reverend Henry Whitehead, one of the few people who kept knocking on doors and talking to people during the outbreak. Whitehead’s knowledge of those particular dark, odorous London streets proved invaluable, even though he first believed Snow was wrong.

It can be tempting to hover over your spreadsheets and tinker with your scripts, much like you might worry over the structure of an article, but involving the community makes a difference.

Mayor busts out infographic to summarize San Francisco’s state of the city

Infographic of the state of San FranciscoSan Francisco Ed Lee busted out an infographic to summarize his three-hour “State of the City” address for the nerds assembled at the TechCrunch Crunchies. Lee always reminds me of that affable uncle about to tell you a pun at some ghastly family function, so I don’t think he did it entirely seriously – see the Super Bowl wins at the center. It’s an interesting idea, though, releasing a snapshot of a long presentation that most locals didn’t see in a digestible format.

President Obama’s 2013 inauguration speech as a word cloud

Obama 2013 inauguration word cloud

Yeah, I know. Word clouds don’t tell the whole story, or even an accurate story. But I had a fun few minutes playing with Word it Out and President Obama’s inauguration speech.

The program lets you add up to 728 words and then cherry pick what words to include, weight them by count and choose how to order them. It automagically discards articles and punctuation, too, and lets you edit either list of included and excluded words.

I used about 350 and as incomplete as it is, you still get a flavor of the speech – from the words “gay” “fight” “diversity” at the far left edge to “principles” “values” “enduring peace” top center and “faction and “fascism” in the far right bottom corner.

You can check out the full transcript of his 2013 inauguration – which included mentions of Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall – here.

And for an amazing take on frequently used words in US presidential inauguration speeches, check out Santiago Ortiz’s stunning work.

Mapping the term ‘fiscal cliff’ with the New York Times API

8262373294_99fd141ed2_bAs time goes by, it looks like we’re all going to fall off the fiscal cliff.

When thinking about ideas to test out the New York Times API, which lets you dig into everything from campaign finance to geographic tags in the old gray lady’s formidable database, I wanted to keep it simple. (The learning curve was already steep for me, to be honest.)

The chart is my first pass at using the NYT API, based in part on Jer Thorp’s chapter about it in “Beautiful Visualization,” which you can find at Amazon  or a public library.

The result is a simple cliff graphic that mimics the momentum the term gained along with the budget crisis. Wikipedia dates the term “fiscal cliff” to 2011, but Federal reserve chairman Ben Bernanke gave it heft in February 2012 with testimony before the House Committee on Financial Services, the first mention is here: nyti.ms/Tcd7Lq