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 In Data Visualization Tools, Experts, Viz

As some of you may know, last week I was lucky enough to escape the cold snap that engulfed Toronto as I attended not one, but two conferences in sunny Florida. (Some of you may also know that I spent much of my week not in the sun, but holed up in my hotel room suffering with the flu, but that’s another story.) I was fortunate enough to catch Lena Groeger’s presentations at both the Tapestry conference and NICAR — and they were the highlight of my week.

Lena is a wonder. She works as a journalist, designer, and developer and travels the world to share her wealth of knowledge about design and data stories. If ever there was a thought leader regarding the impact of design decisions on the real world, it’s Lena Groeger.

The Bias Hiding in Your Design

“Small choices by creators matter in subtle but powerful ways.”

  • Lena Groeger in her Tapestry presentation

At the Tapestry event, Lena presented an insightful and useful talk aimed at explaining how the cultural worldview of creators and developers is almost always embedded in data stories — whether we realize it or not.

Her talk included a number of powerful examples of racial, gender, or economic bias embedded in design. One that struck me most was Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America. From the site:

Over the last thirty years especially, scholars have characterized (the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation’s) property assessment and risk management practices, as well as those of the Federal Housing Administration, Veterans Administration, and US. Housing Authority, as some of the most important factors in preserving racial segregation, intergenerational poverty, and the continued wealth gap between white Americans and most other groups in the U.S.  Many of these agencies operated under the influence of powerful real estate lobbies or wrote their policies steeped in what were, at the time, widespread assumptions about the profitability of racial segregation and the residential incompatibility of certain racial and ethnic groups.

Colour-coded “credit worthiness” and risk maps created at the behest of the HOLC sliced cities and neighbourhoods into desirable and undesirable areas, based on a number of factors — including school rankings — that perpetuated the cycle of restricting affluent neighbourhoods to whites, while pushing blacks and Latinos into lower-income districts.

The bias in those maps persists. In 2006, the National Fair Housing Alliance conducted a study using mystery shoppers and found that steering white homebuyers away from neighbourhoods with “bad” schools (where students were primarily black or Latino) while encouraging minority shoppers to buy in the same areas was still alarmingly common. (Steering was reported in 87% of the group’s interactions with realtors, despite being against the law.)

Lena’s eye-opening talk provided us all with a reminder of how careful we must be when telling stories with data.

New Tools for Data Stories

At NICAR, Lena spoke on using GIFs in data storytelling. One of the biggest struggles data journalists and nonprofits using data today face is creating visualizations that will not only educate the audience, but engage them — grab their attention and hold it.

Adding the element of animation to a carefully crafted data visualization not only makes your story more enticing to viewers, but it can actually help them better understand the information you’re sharing. Lena showed us a wonderful collection of GIFs used for data visualization and storytelling, which you can see on her website lenagroeger.com.

Want to use GIFs to tell your data story? Lena’s also published step-by-step tutorials so you can create your own data visualization GIFs using a number of techniques:

  • Multi-photo animations like this one by the Wall Street Journal on the movement of Ukrainian rebel forces
  • Video animations like this Guardian piece on the spread of measles in communities with varying vaccination levels
  • Command line GIFs like ProPublica’s Lost Cause, which maps out support for every losing presidential candidate since 1828

Here at Datassist, we always love to hear about new data viz strategies and tools — and we’re excited to pass Lena’s ideas on you: our partners, friends, peers, and clients.

Stayed Tuned for More NICAR Updates

Although getting to see two Lena Groeger presentations in one week was already pretty awesome, I have many more exciting things to share about my experience at NICAR. Stay tuned for updates on bulletproofing data and the importance of data biographies, among other things.

If you’d like to learn more about bias in data analysis or the latest in data visualization, the team at Datassist is here to help. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter or get in touch with us directly for answers to your questions.

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The ecological fallacy occurs when you try to tell data stories in the wrong direction.We’d all like bulletproof data, but unfortunately, we can’t have it.