NYT’s new Visualization Lab: They bring the data, you mix the charts

As announced on their excellent Open blog, the Times rolled out a neat tool yesterday:

The New York Times Visualization Lab… allows readers to create compelling interactive charts, graphs, maps and other types of graphical presentations from data made available by Times editors. NYTimes.com readers can comment on the visualizations, share them with others in the form of widgets and images, and create topic hubs where people can collect visualizations and discuss specific subjects.

It’s based on the technology developed by the folks at Many Eyes (about which I’ve blogged before). In this implementation you can’t upload your own data. Instead, the data you’re able visualize is provided by the Times editors.

Still learning a bit

The interface is pretty cludgy, and the initial data sets don’t quite work with the canned visualizations (NYT folks: if you’re watching, see below for my bug report), but they should be able to work that stuff out.

England and Wales

My other complaint is that the data is more like what I’d look for in an atlas than I’d expect from a newspaper. Party Affiliation By Religious Tradition, National League HR per AB Leaders 2006-2008, and Sarah Palin’s Speech at the RNC are fun as a start, but don’t realize the potential of this system.

I sure hope data sets discovered while researching New York Times stories get uploaded to the lab. They’ve got to have some FOIAed federal data on their desktops. That kind of stuff is begging for citizen journalism.

Or, do it yourself

If you love this, you’ll want to take a swing at making your own charts over at the full-featured Many Eyes site. I’ve been playing with the Illinois State Board of Education’s schools report card data:

(The Times did make one huge improvement… their embedded charts have a *way* better color scheme.)

Nathan at FlowingData weighted in on the Lab last night:

I said the API was a good step forward. The Visualization Lab is more than a step. … I’m looking forward to seeing how well Times readers take to this new way of interacting.

Agreed. I’m really excited about this. It ain’t perfect, but it’s an exciting development for online news, especially if they start uploading lots of source materials and make it a bit easier to use. The big question is: Will people use it?

Dearest journalists, stop being jerks: Why not publish the data too?

My comrade in arms Ryan Mark sez:

The Sun-Times published the names, salaries and positions of 145,000 Illinois, Cook County, and Chicago employees on their website this weekend. The names and salaries are online in the form of a simple searchable database.

But the data is buried. There’s no way to get to a spreadsheet of this information. On paper there are physical limitations to publishing your data, but online, you’re unlimited. Why not just post the file? Ryan is spot-on:

I want a link to download a csv file. I want to plug it into Many Eyes. I want to run my own reports on it.

If I had to pick the one craziest thing about journalism, it’s this. We closely guard our sources, even from our colleagues at the same organization. We make FOIAs and file them away. And now that we’re online, we don’t link to our source materials, we don’t publish our data, and we’d never, ever link to another news source for background. WTF!?

Centre Georges Pompidou, by Thomas Claveirole
Centre Georges Pompidou, by Thomas Claveirole

We demand transparency and act with opacity

Forgive the n00b if I’m wrong, but from what I gather this attitude is the result of years of fierce competition between (and within) news organizations — we’re trying to scoop the cross town gazette.

Well, quit it!

Journalism needs an attitude adjustment. The house is burning! The ship is sinking! The, um, battlestar is circling the event horizon! Pick your metaphor — the deal is, we’re all in this together. Start playing nice, for chrissakes.

We’re here to help our readers better self-govern, and we’re failing them, because we’re being competitive assholes. And maybe — just maybe — if we give them a proper web experience, they’ll go to us instead of Google and we’ll make a buck too.

Scribd is important

Documents!

Remember documents? Way back, before broadband, before user-generated content, before video chat, we used computers to… well… play solitaire. But between games, we wrote documents. It was so, um… productive!

Well, documents are sexy again. Scribd is hot. It’s “YouTube for documents.” It’s got an API. Boing Boing likes it.

Its not just hot though, it’s also terribly useful. Upload most any type of document, and they’ll put it on the web. You can tag it, categorize it, and send out the links. You can embed the document in your web page like a YouTube video and they’ll deal with the all the technical mumbo jumbo.

But why is it important? Well, I’m pretty keen on the idea that you can post your skateboarding zine. Why would you still print a zine when you’ve got the web? It’s cool! Paper’s great! Not convinced? Well, you can post all your old zines too. The ones you made with a xerox copier. That’s awesome. Know what’s better?

They’ll scan them for you. For free.

But, wait! There’s more.

It’s especially useful to have a single place to look for a type of information. If I want a video of an ice skating dog, I’m not going to ask Yahoo, I’m going to ask YouTube. (Or maybe I’ll ask Google, ‘cuz they’re really clever and know where to look.) So, get this:

People are uploading their Freedom of Information Act results.

Before Scribd, if I had FOIAed documents I wanted to share with people, I needed to email them. Or put them on my web page, and email a link. And then try to make the page findable by search engines, so that people looking for information might find it. Now I can just upload them to Scribd, and they become instantly findable. (Especially when Google gets even cleverer and starts crawling, or buys, Scribd.)

We all must start doing this now. The next time you make a FOIA request, scan and upload the results. Upload your zine. Mail them your manuscript. Maybe you could… upload your newspaper?