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Alberto Cairo and The Truthful Art

With a new book hitting the bookstores in a few days, we talked with Alberto about journalism, infographic design and more!

February 25, 2016

(photo: Alberto Cairo)

If you see bullshit, say “bullshit!” The sentence is quite familiar for the data journalism and infographics communities, since it’s often reminded to us by Alberto Cairo, either on Twitter or on his blog, when coming across misleading graphics from newsrooms and content publishers in general.

With a new book coming out, Cairo – who, for full disclosure, is a member of our editorial board, – stresses out how important and relentless must be the search for accuracy not only for visualizations, but for the any communication process, journalistic or not. As Jeff Jarvis pointed out, ” The Truthful Art: Data, Charts, and Maps for Communication” “is both a manifesto and a manual for how to use data to accurately, clearly, engagingly, imaginatively, beautifully, and reliably inform the public.” You can get a taste of it with the first 40 pages of the book available from Google Drive or from Dropbox.

Like we did at the time of the launch of “The Functional Art”, we asked Alberto a few questions about the new book, data literacy and the role of journalism in the world.

Visualoop (VL) – Alberto, why did you choose the “The Truthful Art” to follow “The Functional Art”? In a sense, shouldn’t be the other way around, with “truth” coming before “function”?

Alberto Cairo (AC) – It really should, and it is actually something that I explain in ‘The Truthful Art’, where I outline five features that I believe define most great data visualizations and infographics: they are often truthful, functional, beautiful, insightful and, as a consequence, enlightening. In the new book I indeed explain that striving to be truthful is paramount. It comes before anything else.

Why did ‘The Functional Art’ come before ‘The Truthful Art’? Because of my needs. I wrote ’The Functional Art’ years ago as an aid for my infographics courses at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Miami, and other places. At the time, my most urgent need was a book that outlined some elementary principles about how to present information in the form of charts, maps, diagrams, explanatory illustrations, data narratives, etc.

Right after ‘The Functional Art’ was published, though, I began thinking about how important it is for us journalists and designers to get a good grasp of thinking methods, and how far most of us are from achieving that goal, based on the many mistakes that we see in the media every day —and that, by the way, I’ve made myself. Every single one of them.

In a sense, as I explain in the epilogue of ‘The Trufhul Art’, I wrote my books like if my audience was myself less than a decade ago, when I new too little about all these matters. Now I realize how sorely I needed that knowledge. My guess is that I will continue writing books in this fashion: the more you learn, after all, the more you realize how much you still need to learn, and writing a book about a topic is one of the best ways to strengthen your understanding of it. Teaching is another one.

VL – “The Functional Art” was very successful, congratulations! It looks like you are aiming for the same audience – journalists, designers and anyone with an interest in data visualization – with the new book. Have you somehow noticed a growth of this audience, as a whole, in these past few years?

AC – Something funny happened with ‘The Functional Art’. It is true that I wrote it with journalists and designers (I am both!) in mind. But later I discovered that many of its readers were scientists, statisticians, business analytics folks, etc. Yes, I have noticed an increasing interest in learning how to communicate effectively with graphics. I guess that journalism —in the broadest sense of the word, meaning honest communication about matters are of interest to a community— is a skill set that can be applied to many realms.

VL – Information manipulation by the media, propaganda disguised with nice visuals, and our society’s collective mindset to perceive those bad examples as something truthful, either due to the medium’s credibility of to the aesthetic quality of the visualization by itself. Why do we still take so much bullshit as truth?

AC – There are many reasons. First of all, we humans evolved to survive in our environments, not to deeply understand those environments through logic and reasoning. We’re kludgy meat machines, not Vulcanians. We see incomplete information but we jump to conclusions anyway perhaps because, in our evolutionary past, making snap decisions was crucial for our survival. We are prone to first form opinions and then look for evidence to confirm them, rather than first gathering all evidence we can, analyzing it, and then forming those opinions —if we can have any opinion at all (in many cases, the wisest decision, as hard as it is, is to hold judgment). It happens to you, to me, to everyone, no matter how hard we battle those very ingrained instincts. But battle them we should.

The methods of science don’t come naturally to us. That’s why it took so many centuries to invent them, and that’s why it is so important to teach healthy skepticism to everyone at a very young age. We are not doing a great job, I believe.

VL – So, in a nutshell, what questions should we all critically ask when analyzing data?

AC – First, what the assumptions are behind the data: How phenomena and variables were defined, measured, how the data was put together, and how it was transformed before being delivered to you. Then, asking yourself if the variables you’re seeing are the only ones you should consider to understand your story; confounding correlation and causation, for instance is still pervasive, no matter how much we tell ourselves that one doesn’t imply the other.

Moreover, accept that you can’t and shouldn’t work alone. Understanding a data set well implies a deep knowledge of the domain those data belong to, and you will often lack that knowledge. You’ll need to talk to experts. It’s always wise to ask, and ask as many people as possible.

VL – The challenges of finding reliable, accurate data about any given topic is even more complicated in poorly governed nations, countries suffering from corruption and serious lack of proper infrastructure, health and education systems. In many of these cases, you also don’t have press freedom, and in the worst scenarios, not even some sort of independent journalism. And without good journalism, it’s hard to talk about improving data literacy, or finding “truth”, don’t you think?

AC – It is. That’s why publications such as ‘La Nación’ in Argentina, and many others in many other countries deserve our praise. They don’t rely on publicly available data alone. They generate their own data.

VL – Journalistic endeavors in developed countries also face problems, specially with the transition from traditional business models to the “new” online landscape. There are a handful of good successful examples, but overall the situation for news outlets is far from being optimistic, in the short-term. For visual journalists, if not in newsrooms, where else can they exercise the “Truthful Art”?

AC – Nowadays I see hope in the many online news ventures that are doing good work, and improving every day: FiveThirtyEight, Vox.com, ProPublica, Texas Tribune, etc. Maybe they will never make up for the demise of large newspapers, but they are certainly trying really hard to disseminate good information, to do proper journalism. We need more like them.

Visualization designers and infographics journalists can also find plenty of work in non-profit organizations, foundations, think tanks, and NGOs. Places like the Pew Research Center are doing extraordinary journalism, even if they may not call it that. Journalism, for me, is not what journalists do. I don’t see journalism as a profession, but as a way to face the world. To quote Jeff Jarvis, anybody who gathers, organizes, and delivers reliable information that matters to a community commits an act of journalism.

VL- Since our last interview, you have also taken on new challenges in your academic career at the University of Miami. Can you tell us a bit about the work you, your colleagues and students have been developing in the past three years?

AC – Last year I became the Knight Chair in Visual Journalism at the University of Miami, and also the director of the Visualization branch of our Center for Computational Science. I have a personal budget now, so I’ve been able to begin to tackle projects, such as several conferences (VizUM, our visualization conference, and also a Digital Humanities+Data Journalism Symposium on Sept. 29-30 and Oct. 1 this year), and a research project that I am calling ‘Nerd Journalism: News Graphics and the Rise of the Journalist-Engineer’. I am going to interview dozens of news graphics designers about the transformation their work has experienced in the past decade.

Besides that, at the School of Communication of the University of Miami we launched a new specialization in data visualization and infographics at our MFA in Interactive Media , and it is already attracting some very talented students. We are growing rapidly.

VL – To close, Alberto, are you finally going to take a break?

AC – I don’t know. Half of me wishes to do so, but I know myself. My other half gets easily bored if it remains idle. Besides the ‘Nerd Journalism’ project, which will become a book in 2017, I need to write the third book in my visualization series, titled ‘The Insightful Art: Data Stories and Infographics’ (2019 or 2020). I also have a couple of ideas for other books not related to graphics, but to critical thinking. I also want to sharpen my coding skills. I learned some R last year, and I really, really love it. I also toyed with Tableau, PowerBI, and Quadrigram.com, which are all fantastic tools. I will keep working on all that. I also want to finally learn d3.js well!

VL – Thank you, Alberto!

 

We really appreciate the time Alberto dedicated to answer our questions. The Truthful Art: Data, Charts, and Maps for Communication is available for pre-order, and don’t miss Alberto’s updates on Twitter (@albertocairo) and on his website.

Written by Tiago Veloso

Tiago Veloso is the founder and editor of Visualoop and Visualoop Brasil . He is Portuguese, currently based in Bonito, Brazil.

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