How we absorb and consume information has changed thanks to digital media.
Data visualization and interactivity take data and turn it into something easy to see or understand, said Will Houp, The Virginian-Pilot’s expert on the subject. “It’s a lot of fun.”
This kind of visual representation is not new to newspapers — there have always been charts and graphs — but the interactive elements are an innovation that could only happen through the two-way magic of the Internet. There, data visualizations often are not static; you, the reader, help them take shape through your own curiosity.
“It helps break down the walls for readers,” said Houp, 26. “It’s choose your own adventure.”
Not everyone is a verbal learner. Data visualizations speak to that audience and is one way newspapers like The Pilot are trying to help readers absorb news and information more efficiently.
“It’s so much easier to digest a chart than a 700-word story,” said Houp, who honed his craft in graduate school at one of the country’s premier journalism schools, Northwestern University. “It brings clarity a lot quicker than words or a story can.”
Houp has created data visualizations for an incredible array of topics, from breaking down the implications of the recent coin flip election in House District 12, to something more simple, but just as juicy, such as a map of all the strawberry patches in Hampton Roads.
One of the projects Houp is most proud of tracked the reasons Virginia educators lose their teaching licenses. It received a first place honor for data journalism in 2016 from the Virginia Press Association.
“It’s a database of sexual misconduct by Virginia teachers,” said Houp. “Our analysis found that more than 60 percent of the canceled or revoked education licenses we reviewed involved inappropriate sexual behavior or communication. This story was a great example of journalism keeping people accountable while using data visualization not only for the analysis, but also to illustrate the situation.”
While reading data visualizations should be easy, creating them takes a kind of genius. You have to have the analytical ability to understand large, complicated sets of numbers, but also possess the almost otherworldly ability to see moving shapes that don’t yet exist.
One of the more complicated — and potentially important — projects Houp has worked on tracked the relationship between Gulf Stream current and flood levels.
“It’s taking two different kinds of info, different units,” said Houp. “The flood level is inches and feet, while the Gulf Current is measuring water flowing every second. You have to choose the most important thing, and show it.”
There is an element of objectivity to data visualizations that can feel flatly refreshing in this era of “fake news.”
“Just by default, since you’re (basing an infographic) on data, you’re transparent,” said Houp.
“You show where you got the info. It helps break down the walls for readers who might be skeptical.”
Cynical about what’s in the paper? Dive through the data visualization, straight to the raw numbers.
“The reader gets an opportunity to see deeper levels of the data,” said Houp.
Reports of newspapers’ demise have been overstated. The Pilot’s newsroom still bustles with brilliance from dozens of hard-working journalists like Houp.
“The first thing you notice about Will is his magnetic personality,” said David Wheeler, a professor of journalism at the University of Tampa, who taught Houp when he was an undergrad at Asbury University. “People are drawn to him. And when they are drawn to him, what does he do? He tells stories. Important stories.”
Houp recently led the internal development at The Pilot’s interactive newsbot, Ginny (from Virginia … get it?). You can meet her by visiting The Virginian-Pilot’s Facebook page and clicking to send a message.
Last week, the Ginny project earned a national industry honor for The Pilot: It was awarded first place for best new digital initiative by the Local Media Association. This was one of three honors earned by the Pilot in the LMA’s Digital Innovation Awards: online editor and director of digital strategy Erica Smith was named the group’s digital news innovator of the year, while the Pilot’s podcast series “The Shot” won second place for best digital news project.
Not one to bask in that praise for long, Houp has big ideas for where data visualizations at The Pilot could go next.
“I think the ultimate data visualization for this area is showing flooding in real time,” said Houp.
That’s something inconceivable in the age of print, and the kind of thinking that is driving The Pilot headlong toward the vanguard of digital publishing.
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