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From NHS Spend to Britain's Perfect Pooch: Just What Is Data Journalism?

Advertising Agency
London, UK
Journalist David McCandless talks data visualisation

Those stats reports on your desk. You know, the door stoppers that get pushed aside in favour of just about anything else on your to-do list. Well, what if they read like a beautiful reportage, or an issue of National Geographic? 

For journalist David McCandless data is an opportunity to design, to find patterns, to tell a story. He took the stage and explained all at our latest breakfast club…

What is data journalism?

It’s explaining numbers in a way that people can relate to. It’s taking data (spreadsheets, tables etc.), digging through it like soil, and from it growing information, which people can use to build their knowledge base. Good data journalism aids the process of converting raw data, to actual meaningful knowledge.

What’s wrong with reading raw data?

Nothing, it’s how I start every visualisation. But there’s a cognitive process between reading figures, and understanding their significance, which isn’t instantaneous, whereas a well-designed image is easy to absorb.

Playing with data: popularity of dog breeds in the UK, by David McCandless

When do visualisations work particularly well?

When you’re working with big, abstract figures – it lets you identify links between numbers. For instance, if you’re analysing government budgets, and you say ‘x billion pounds was spent by the NHS’, it may not mean much. But if we say, ‘the NHS costs the average tax payer £4 a day’, that’s a concept we can all relate to.

We can then begin to add more stats to contextualise this. We can say, ‘government-funded arts cost us each 29p per day’, and natural comparisons begin to emerge, from which a visualisation of national spending grows. Incidentally we each pay £1.56 for Scotland. It earns us £1.43 per day. Solid investment.

Have you created any infographics with surprising outcomes?

I pulled together a study on the top 500 internet passwords, out of curiosity. It transpired that 90% of people use the same password for everything, and 70% of all personal passwords were included in my diagram. They fell into some key groups: access related passwords like ‘let me in’, favourite sport or team, rebellious phrases like ‘bite me’ and ‘trust no one’, nerdy passwords related to Lord of The Rings or Harry Potter etc. Around 5% of people actually use the word ‘password’, and 10% use consecutive numbers. When you map it all out in visual form, they become scarily predictable.

Any clear conclusion?

You should probably go home and change your password.

Results aren’t always surprising: most recurrent relationship ‘tips’ in today’s media…

So how do you go about making a great visual if you’re not a designer?

Florence Nightingale wasn’t a designer, and yet she pulled together pretty compelling coxcomb diagrams on the Crimean War… I just started using Illustrator one day and found out it’s not that hard. I had an innate sense of colour, spacing, typography. Maybe that comes with working in media, but I think it’s increasingly true for all of us, from being consumers in a digital landscape. With an overload of material on the web, information and design are now interlinked.

Think how many times you’ve been to a bad-looking website, and therefore don’t trust the copy on there. We’re all becoming more discerning about how we interpret both image and language-based messaging, which makes us more able to play around with it for ourselves.