Exclusive conversations about infographics and data-vizualization
We’re back with another interview here on Visual Loop, this time to talk with Mariana Santos, the young Portuguese journalist/designer, who already has a fantastic professional career, including a passage in The Guardian, where she helped develop interactive visualization, either through video or through infographics, and lived remarkable experiences for any journalist, like the coverage of the Wikileaks case and the protests in London, in 2011.
More recently, already has an International Knight Fellow, she started the project “Chicas Poderosas“, with the goal of helping the professional training of women in newsrooms in Latin America. With all this, no wonder she’s a frequent presence at workshops, conferences and seminars on visualization and data journalism.
Mariana shared with us some details about her career, about her training and about the future of infographics and visualization.
Visual Loop – Mariana, as you begin your college education, you first chose Sculpture, later moved on to Industrial Design, and only after that you started with Communication Design. How this ‘multidisciplinary path’ influences your work?
Mariana Santos (MS) – Influences me in all forms, because they provide me with more reference points that I can work with in my area, which is not only interactive design or animation. Everything has “little dots” to join one another, from the knowledge and experience that these other areas gave me.
VL – And are there any other courses you wish you’ve done?
MS – Yes, I wish I’ve been a veterinarian, but I ended up doing just a veterinary and grooming assistant course, that allowed me to help with some surgeries of animals. Got a feel of the ‘taste’ what is like to be a vet, I love animals.
And I’d also like to be a geneticist, and change, mixing genes to create new species. When I was little, I had the idea of mixing a male crocodile with a female froag, and see what would be the result. But then I discovered that with Photoshop that could Â be done, so I ended up in design.
VL – And the ‘dive’ in to data journalism, occurred during your experience at The Guardian, or was it something that you had been interested in before?
MS – Honestly, I worked with online and offline advertising campaigns, always in search of selling a product to the customer. So, when I joined The Guardian, it was really my first publishing experience, and I automatically fell in love with it.
I realized that was really what I ever wanted, and commercial work had nothing to do with me – I just had to communicate, try to get to the heart of the people (something that is already in my essence ), to sell something. But if I had real editorial content, without having a product to sell, that would definitely interest me more.
VL – Speaking of The Guardian, It must have been a fantastic experience working there, even more when experiencing moments like the Wikileaks coverage, or the riots in the streets of London, in 2011. What can you tell us about this experience?
MS – Well, in the case of Wikileaks’ coverage, I arrived at the Guardian after the negotiations about the data were completed, and I was basically helping the lead developer Allistair Dant, who needed a full-time designer to work with him.
He told me at the time “Mariana, you’ll be working with Wikileaks, it’s some secret data that was passed on to us, The New York Times and Die Zeit, and you’ll be involved in this for a month. You can not tell any details to anyone.”
This was my first experience inside a newsroom, so I thought it was like this with every project – I didn’t know what Wikileaks was, at the time I had just arrived from Sweden and wasn’t really caring much about the news. I remember talking on the phone with my mom and she warned me not say anything, because my phone could be tapped. It was kind of funny, but I realized I really couldn’t say anything to anyone about it.
The riots in the streets of London scared me a lot. At the time, I was living alone in London, and there was a time, in the middle of the day, the newspaper megaphones began to warn everyone to go home and lock themselves up, because the rioters were crazy, setting fire to everything. I usually went to work on bike, and at that point I wasn’t sure if I was going to cross paths with the vandals on my way home, or if my house was burning. So I had a little fear.
But then I locked myself at home, and we followed the news about the protests on Twitter. And that’s when we started to see that there were many lies being published, people taking advantage of their power of speech to tell lies, and we decided to do a study on the social level: How news were being reported on Twitter, and the power that people have with social media, but often fail to use properly.
This came only to confirm that the journalist will always have a key role, even online, because people, despite having the power to speak and more communication channels, don’t use them as well as they should.
Both experiences marked me deeply, and the teamwork behind each project fascinated me.
The journalist will always have a key role, even online, because people, despite having the power to speak and more communication channels, don’t use them as well as they should.
VL – And now, a new project, also linked to data journalism! Can you tell us the story behind the Chicas Poderosas project, and what kind of initiatives the project develops?
MS – Chicas Poderosas is, basically, my dream come true, and it’s growing fast. I’m going crazy with the impact it’s haing. I thought I would some training sessions for a couple of people, since my philosophy is to think globally but act locally.
Started in Chile, doing an event for just over 100 people, with the community of developers, then in Costa Rica for about 80 people, where we have had journalists, designers, celebrities from radio and television, all working together for three days. And now the launch of Chicas Poderosas in BogotĂˇ, with more than 400 people.
Two volunteers helped me a lot, Lia Valero and Daniel SuĂˇrez, so that, within a month, with virtually no money, we managed to assemble an event that usually takes a year to be organized. We had some sponsors who were contacted throughout the process, like the Editorial Board of Colombia, the Universidad Javeriana, who has given us the space Centro Atico for the Hackaton, and the Ministry of Technology, who helped us a lot with translations, as well as with the flights of the speakers.
The idea started when I realized that people in Latin America, in general, look down on themselves and feel that what the others do is always better. And it doesn’t need to be like that! I wanted to bring really good people in the fields of journalism and interactive journalism, people with whom I’ve worked or who I have confidence in their work, to share their stories, something like “telling how the heroes became heroes.” It shows how you get there, and how everyone can get there, provided that you put the effort in to it. It’s basically showing how you can create rich interactive experiences, the development process, so that participants understand and begin to develop them, instead of thinking that only other people can do it.
I want to “flip the switch” of those people, make the trust switch that is “OFF” turn to “ON”. That they believe they can, and try, instead of standing still. ItÂ´s usually a three-day conference, with people specialized in their field, showing the entire lifecycle of content creation, interactive journalism, from the moment they will apply for a job – how to present yourself for an interview, how to build your portfolio, what kind of knowledge you should have, etc..
I usually bring a project manager from London – Ben Stewart, he was my project manager – to show the importance of project management, which in Latin America is still barely spoken. And also approach data journalism, news apps development, and my part, which is the visualization of stories. We had in Bogota the director of the Knights lab, Miranda Mulligan, the director of infographics at La NĂˇcion of Costa Rica, Manuel Canales, Mateo Caruana, who was at the Financial Times in London and is now with me in La NĂˇcion, and some Mozilla Fellows talking about other topics.
Basically, we speak a little bit of every aspect, explaining what is teamwork and what it takes to get where these professionals are, always with a ‘hands-on’ approach – in other words, after each lecture, our audience will make projects, experiences, will try to fail as much as possible, as quickly as possible, with the support of experts.
The idea started when I realized that people in Latin America, in general, look down on themselves and feel that what the others do is always better. And it doesn’t need to be like that! I wanted to bring really good people in the fields of journalism and interactive journalism, people with whom I’ve worked or who I have confidence in their work, to share their stories, something like “telling how the heroes became heroes.”
VL – With all that international experience, as well as the participation in some of the major events related to visualization and data journalism, what’s your reading of this current scenario of “traditional vs digital journalism”?
MS – I think ‘traditional’ journalism , especially the older journalists, have a really hard time “flipping the switch”, they tend to reject the online because they still think print journalism is the only good one. What I’m trying to do, while ‘digital native’- although I’m still from the time before digital – is to show how different online productions is. The philosophy that you must have is similar to a startup: working with development and project management, as a team.
In the ‘traditional’, they are used to that thing of the famous journalist who signs the text, puts up a picture, and it’s ready, the story is doneâ€‹â€‹. Online, nowadays, we have so many tools and content producers, Â that we have to reinvent ourselves and try to be original, so that the audience chooses us as a source of information and knowledge. We can not limit ourselves to writing texts, there are other ways of telling stories. Interactive data exploration, visualization with motion graphics, graphic novels, maps, timelines, are all ways that generate more engagement with the audience. It’s a bit what I’m trying to pass to traditional journalists, how to create content for online.
I think ‘traditional’ journalism , especially the older journalists, have a hard time “flipping the switch”, they tend to reject the online because they still think print journalism is the only good one.
VL – Mariana, and regarding Portugal and Brazil, how do you see the situation in these two countries?
MS – In Portugal, I love O PĂşblico, it’s the newspaper I’ve been following the most, and I would love to be able to make bridges between Portugal and Brazil, which is much more developed at a visual level, much more than the rest of Latin America. Brazilians are “beasts” of visualization, and I think we should definitely create a bridge.
I’m currently trying to create that bridge between the Guardian and Latin America in general, because this is like a ‘mini-Europe’. But contrary to what happens in Europe, where we always know what is happening in other countries, in Latin America everything is a bit more regional, every newspaper focuses more on the news of the country itself – with, of course, some exceptions.
This makes the newspapers of each country not competing directly with each other, and I loved that the Guardian came here and become the point of connection between all, in terms of content – for me, the Guardian is the top of the world, in the way they tell the stories.
And also to see if I can take out some of the fear that the Guardian has, I’ve been for the last two and a half years trying to convince the CEO of the newspaper to ‘grab’ Latin America, because everywhere I go people just love The Guardian. You don’t even hear them speaking about The New York Times! The Guardian has an approach and a philosophy of expressing with which Latin Americans identify themselves more, and that ‘love’ is something that can’t be bought or conquered so easily, and should be used.
I will try again soon, going to London to see if the CEO hears me out this time, but I think the language is still the biggest obstacle. As they only speak English, I think they feel a little bit with their ‘feet and hands tied’, diminished for not speaking Spanish. I’d like to be that bridge, since I speak both languagesâ€‹â€‹, and I can put them in touch with the Latin-American journalistic community, so that it is not just a translation, but an appropriation of material. That way, people in Latin America would also know what is going on in Europe and the rest of the world.
Basically, my biggest goal is to remove these countries, that are still labeled as ‘third world’, and pass them to the ‘first world’, at least at the level of journalistic technology and how they tell stories. It’s my training, so that’s what I can help. With Chicas Poderosas I’m not covering the entire population, but I’m triggering a small part, which will spread to their network of relationships, and so on.
The goal is to empower as many people as possible to be equal to, or stronger than, the “gringos”. A good example is the project that I started in La Tercera, Chile, two months ago, the special interactive on the forty anniversary of the military coup in that country. Essentially, there was a general idea that they couldn’t do anything that we were proposing to do, and then you get to an end result much better than previous any idea or initial reference. It is simply the work I’m most proud of.
It’s an example of how people just need to believe and know the process. If they don’t know the process, they will reject it because they don’t understand how it’s done. But as we show it, dividing the work into stages, they ultimately identify themselves with it, and fully embrace it.
The Guardian has an approach and a philosophy of expressing with which Latin Americans identify themselves more, and that ‘love’ is something that can’t be bought or conquered so easily, and should be used.
VL – What recommendation would you leave for the young people of these countries who are interested in moving towards a career in Communication Design?
MS – Most of all, I advise you to have the maximum experiences, don’t stay in a job just because it’s comfortable and pays in the end of the month. If you feel yourself unsatisfied, if you think you’re not getting the proper recognition for your work, or that your learning curve is not ascending, it’s probably a good time to change.
The Guardian was a very comfortable situation, almost like a ‘dream job’, but after three years I got the sense that the learning curve was stagnating and had this opportunity to make a Fellowship in Latin America. Of course it’s another type of learning, new focuses, but I’m learning a lot and feeling once again facing a challenge.
It’s something very personal, of course, I like challenges, living in different countries, to adapt to a new culture and meet new people. A lot of people don’t like it, but this has allowed me to learn a lot about life, about myself.
Do a good course in Communication Design, they have good institutions to do it, in Latin America, including Brazil, and always get a good team to work with, because it is the best way to learn.
VL – Thank you, Mariana!
MS – Thanks, Tiago!
We thank Mariana for answering our questions. You can connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn, know more about her work in her portfolio, and of course follow all the Chicas Poderosas’ events in the website: chicaspoderosas.org.