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Thursday, August 4, 2011
Digital Media Toolbox

Charts, etc: Not just for the graphics department

By Jennifer Peebles

There once was a time when reporters dealt with words and someone else dealt with the numbers and pictures. But not anymore. There are plenty of free, easy tools now to get any journalist, regardless of their word-centricity, started on data visualization all by themselves.

That means you can do your own quick and easy data visualizations to go with your own online stories or blog posts. If your newsroom is a small shop like mine, you don’t have your own dedicated graphics department to turn out a professional-looking pie chart or fever chart. And if you’re at a larger newsroom with its own graphics department, your (probably overworked) graphics staff may not be in a position to crank out a fever chart every time you want to do a quickie blog post about the new revenue projection numbers from the city finance department.

But this isn’t just about generating pictures to dress up your blog posts. As a reporter, doing your own simple data visualizations using free tools — especially early on in the reporting process — allows you to spot interesting trends that you might not always see easily just by reviewing a spreadsheet full of numbers.

For basic charts, fever lines, stock-price-type charts and old-fashioned pie charts, go to Google Docs. You’ll only need a free Google or Gmail account. Go into the Google Docs spreadsheet and type in or import your data. Then, go to the icon in the toolbar that looks like a miniature bar chart showing, say, federal spending on Medicaid. Hit that button, and it’ll walk you through the steps of creating a chart with a custom title. You can then save that chart as a .jpg or .png image file and place it in your Web story or blog post like you would any other image you use in your content management system.

To compare the size of different things — relative size — try making what I call a “bubble chart” using IBM’s free Many Eyes site. These look like a glass jar full of marbles, with little marbles of various sizes and big “shooter” marbles mixed in. Like Google Docs, Many Eyes allows you to save your graphic as an image file and then upload it to your CMS.

Simple points on a map: Use Google Maps’ My Maps function. You get a report that an F-4 tornado has just destroyed Hogbristle, Okla., and you need to quickly get a map up online. Go to Google Maps, search for Hogbristle, Okla., hit the “link” button in the upper-right corner to grab the embed code, and plop that code into your Web story.

Multiple points on a map: A few months ago, the school system here in Houston was considering closing some “small” schools — schools with the fewest students, said to be less-than-economical to operate — to save money. A colleague of mine mapped the location of all 60-plus schools that were in play for closure using another free site called GeoCommons, which allows you to upload a data file of many map points and customize the information window text for each point. You’ll first need to add a column to your data file that includes the latitude and longitude for each point (each school, in this case), and if you have a relatively small number of points, you can do that for free using sites like BatchGeo. GeoCommons is free, and its maps are easy to embed.

You can also map multiple points using Google Fusion Tables, which has the added benefit of built-in geocoding. A non-profit online news site in North Carolina used Fusion Tables to produce a super-cool map of damage by a recent tornado in the Raleigh area. Again, free and embeddable.

Comparing geographic areas: Need to show the difference in per-capita incomes in each county in your metropolitan area or state? I’ve always called these “heat maps,” though the formal name is choropleth map. GeoCommons and Google Fusion Tables will both do this, and both allow uploads of GIS “shapefiles” of city, county and other government boundaries that you can often download directly from the U.S. Census Bureau’s site. Just upload your map boundaries, upload your data, and tell it what color scheme to use to shade the regions.

Jennifer Peebles is a deputy editor at Texas Watchdog, a non-profit online news site based in Houston, and is chairwoman of the SPJ Digital Media Committee. Contact her at jennifer@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @jpeebles or @texaswatchdog.

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