Doing Data Journalism: Reading Wk11

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Quite possibly the best part about this panel discussion was finding out how data journalists in major news organizations still use basic journalism concepts when doing a data driven story.
Mo Tamman made an important point about not using data as an illustration or something to buttress the story. This is unfortunately a mindset that still exists out there as news organizations are slow to realize the potential of stories residing in the data itself. Old school reporters will often come back after anecdotally supporting their hypothesis only to find the data refuting or not fully supporting their claims. In this case, the text wins over data, exposing the publication to resourceful people dying to prove them wrong.
Another important concept is the hypothesis coming before the story or the data. Much like any journalism story, there has to be a central question you want to answer before you can progress.  In this way the data and the story emerge together rather than one coming before the other.
The panel showed that the imagined separation between the journalists and the data geeks is much less than imagined and increasingly disappearing. However,  you still get the feeling that there’s a long way to go when it comes to embracing data journalism as a legitimate storytelling medium, much like audio or video. It’s not just an embellishment anymore.
Courtesy a study by, we study how long a link ‘stays alive’, or how long it keeps  getting shared an accessed after it has first appeared. As we expect, there is an exponential decrease in how much the link is viewed after its initial spike. uses the concept of “half-life” to compare the duration of each link. The half-life of the link is the the amount of time at which this link will receive half of the clicks it will ever receive after it’s reached its peak.
Interestingly news items have a shorter half life than interest stories that aren’t timely (such as the baby otter link). This is probably an accurate reflection of our media consumption, where the 24-hour news cycle churns out so much news that any particular news item dies in the public consciousness pretty quickly.
The study also shows that Facebook gives links a longer lifespan than Twitter, definitely reflecting the design of each interface. Most of what everyone says on Twitter goes down the drain or the ‘firehose’ but on Facebook, there’s a greater chance of visibility, important things to note for online content creators looking to give their work the maximum amount of online exposure.

America’s Funniest Muslim Women

How female Muslim comedians in America are using humor to combat negative stereotypes and challenge perceptions about their faith.

by Omar Bilal Akhtar.

Negin Farsad held the microphone with both her hands, clutching it close to her chest. She wore a black sleeveless dress, bright red lipstick and large round silver earrings, her short, black hair parted to the side. It’s a look that stood out amongst the often drab and colorless wardrobe of New York City comics. It also gave the 33-year-old comedian a coquettish, little-girl vibe. Her colorful presence was in stark contrast to the rust brick wall that served as the backdrop to the stage at Standup New York, an Upper West Side comedy club.

Negin Farsad

Against this background, Farsad looked tiny, her high-pitched voice adding to her diminutive stature. With a slight quiver, she began her set, telling the audience she was now going to discuss her “areas.”

“I recently had to get an STD test because …I was a raging slut for a period of my life…that ended last week.” said Farsad. Her punchlines rolled out deliberately after every pause, each revelation raunchier than the last.

As the crowd responded with a mixture of gasps and guffaws, Farsad continued, “The good news is that my vagina is closed and disease free, until marriage! Or you know…until someone takes me out to dinner at a restaurant with a Zagat rating of at least eight out of 30.”

That kind of raunchy humor might be standard fare in the New York comedy scene. But the person performing it doesn’t fit the mold at all. Negin Farsad is an Iranian-American woman who identifies herself as a Muslim. She is, in her words, “totally screwed.” Continue reading

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Target Corp. posts strong year-end earnings, despite holiday dip.

Retail giant Target posted a less than stellar earnings report for the fourth quarter of 2011, but finished with a solid performance for the year overall.

In an earnings report released on February 23, Target Corporation reported fourth quarter net earnings of $981 million and full year net earnings of $2929 million. Compared to the same time last year, net earnings for the quarter were down 5.2 percent while the figure for the year in total stayed almost the same, going up 0.3 percent.

In terms of adjusted earnings per share, this translated to $1.45 a share for the quarter and $4.41 a share for the full year, representing increases of 8.3 percent and 14.3 percent respectively.

Despite the holiday season dip, Target exceeded many industry expectations, with its adjusted earnings per share of $1.45 well above the analyst’s projected estimate of $1.39. Target outperformed competitor Wal-Mart whose earnings performance trailed industry estimates as their aggressively low pricing hurt profit margins in the fourth quarter.

Chairman, president and chief executive officer of Target Corporation Gregg Steinhafel characterized the year as a successful one, in the face of considerable difficulty. “Target generated strong financial performance in 2011, overcoming sluggish economic growth, restrained consumer spending and an intensely promotional holiday season,” said Steinhafel in a press release. “For the full year, our U.S. businesses generated 14.3 percent growth in adjusted earnings per share, and we experienced our strongest growth in comparable-store sales since 2007.”

However, Steinhafel acknowledged the dip in performance into the weeks leading up to the holiday season. In a conference call with investors, he said the comparable store sales increased 2.2 percent which was below their expectations entering the quarter. “This shortfall was concentrated in the peak of the holiday season, as promotional activity throughout retail was exceptionally intense, and we chose to maintain an appropriate balance between driving sales and profitability,” said Steinhafel.

Executive vice president of merchandising Kathee Tesija also focused on the affect of high competition in promotional activity during the holiday season. “Research indicates that across retail, two out of three holiday season purchases in gift giving categories were on some sort of promotion, and these promotional discounts were significant, ranging from 25 percent in some categories to more than 50 percent in others,” said Tesija.

Target’s sales growth during the year was helped by a strong showing in grocery and credit card sales. As part of their “P-Fresh” initiative, the company remodeled nearly 400 stores in 2011 to add food and groceries, a main driver of traffic to the stores. Customer rewards initiatives such as the “5 percent Rewards” and the “REDCard Free Shipping” programs also helped to increase sales throughout the year.

The total earnings were also impacted by the companies expected expenses related to their expansion into Canada. Start-up and depreciation costs due to the expansion totaled $40 million for the quarter and $122 million for the year before interest and depreciation. Target expects to open its first Canadian stores in early 2013.

-Omar Bilal Akhtar

Ohio Unemployment Rate Drops

The state of Ohio, one of the Rust Belt’s hardest hit economies during the recession, is now recovering faster than some other states.

It has done especially well compared to states that were not affected as much by the recession. Last year, the U.S. Labor Department said Ohio businesses added almost 69,000 jobs between May 2010 and May 2011, making it seventh on the list of total adjusted job growth, behind North Dakota, Texas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Utah.

The state ended the year in December with an unemployment rate of 8.1 percent, down from 8.5 in November. Ohio’s unemployment rate remained lower than the national figure of 8.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the

state’s unemployment numbers generally mirrored the national average, 2011 was the first year since 2003 that Ohio’s unemployment rate had dropped below that of the national rate.

In a speech in Columbus last week, Ohio governor John Kasich attributed the job growth to the return of manufacturing jobs to the state, in particular the auto industry. Earlier this month, Honda Motor Co. announced its plans to set up a manufacturing plant for its Acura NSX model in Ohio. In addition, the discovery of natural gas deposits near Youngstown are also expected to create substantial industry jobs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 18,300 manufacturing jobs were added last year.

“Manufacturing has made a comeback,” said Robert J. Gitter, Professor of Economics at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.

“A lot of goods made in Ohio are durable, built to last more than three or four years, such as cars. When the recession hit, people were more likely to hold on to those goods than buy new ones. With people feeling a little more secure with their money, purchases will go up and so will the manufacturing jobs.”

In addition to manufacturing, Gitter said other Ohio industries were adding jobs. “We do have an Information Technology presence and the healthcare sector is also adding jobs. If you look at nearby major cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh that have traditionally been known for their manufacturing industries, you’ll see that healthcare has led the way

Gitter said he did not think local government efforts have had much impact on the

economy. “[Governor Kasich] gets too much blame and too much credit. You can do a little bit in terms of tax breaks and legislation, but these measures are overwhelmed by national conditions.”

However, Gitter remained cautious about the unemployment rate. He said part of the drop in the figure could be attributed to the thousands of people who had dropped out of the workforce, essentially giving up looking for a job. Well that’s actually an important point that should have been higher in the story.

In a press release, the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services said the number of workers unemployed in Ohio in December was 469,000, down from 496,000 in November.

It remains to be seen whether the increase in jobs will also mean an increase in average income. In 2010, Ohio’s median annual household income was $45,090, well below the national figure of 50,046 according to the American Community Survey. This figure was the lowest recorded for Ohio since the census began collecting data in 1984. 2010 also marked the worst year for the poverty level of Ohio, reaching 15.3 percent, worse than the nation’s at 15.1 percent.

-Omar Bilal Akhtar

Data Reading: Week 10

The reading for this week focuses on Interactive Design, a concept we’ll have to keep in mind while designing how our web pages interact with users.

The reading talks about the different kinds of interactions, between humans, humans and machines and how they al overlap to varying degrees in interactive design.  It also stresses heavily on the process of coming up with a design, discussing prototypes, testing initial ideas and learning to adapt.

Several principles are also discussed including “conservation of complexity” which places the burden of dealing with complexity on the designer/engineer rather than the user and the “poka-yoke” principal which minimizes user error by creating a set of conditions that have to be met before the product can be used.

The factors contributing to a good design are also listed, including trustworthiness, appropriateness for the culture of the user,  intuitiveness and a pleasurable experience.

There is also a discussion on how the physical attributes of a design contribute to its ‘persona’ and relatability.  Many of the most iconic designs and forms we have come to accept came through years and years of generational testing and acceptance.

Data Visualization Critique Wk 10

This week I decided to go for something a little lighter than the usual data sets

Its a website that is basically one big infographic that walks you through the entire plot of a film, the cerebral thriller “Inception”.

Having seen the movie and thinking I understood it then, there was a lot of things made much clearer with the infographic and I think it’s a great example of using a visualization to better explain something rather than text.

Writing out the plot for Inception is relatively easy if the movie makes sense to you, but explaining it to someone who doesn’t get it could be quite the challenge. That’s where this visualization works. It introduces all the major characters and their roles as colored disks so we can keep track of their movements throughout the film.

It also cleverly has subtle artwork in the background that viewers will remember from the movie. This artwork designates what level or what dream sequence you are currently in. If that isn’t immediately apparent, the levels are helpfully labelled at the top.

By scrolling down, you not only advance the plot of the movie, you also go “deeper” into the dream levels, progressing through, Dream, Dream within a Dream, Dream within a Dream within a Dream and then finally, limbo. (once again, makes sense if you’ve seen the movie at least once!)

There are also simple animations to denote who is sleeping, who has been killed and who is waking up from their dream.

One of the biggest issues with the design of this visualization is that it is not immediately apparent that you have to keep scrolling down for it to work. I initially spent time looking for a play button, thinking the whole thing would be an animation, which it kinda is, but it only works through scrolling. My first impulse was to click on the ‘how did it work arrow” but that was an indication to scroll down.

With the continuous scrolling, the animation begins to look rough and jagged and not smooth as we would expect.  This may not be such a bad thing as it allows us to control the pace at which we advance through the plot but it can get tiresome having to keep scrolling for tiny bits of movement on the screen.

On the whole however, the visualization does achieve its objective in explaining the plot of a fairly confusing film. While the technique here has been used for something frivolous, its a good example of how we could tell a narrative story through a visualization rather than text, especially if it was overly complicated and if the characters all had several links to each other. This might be the future of narrative stories, especially involving technical descriptions or processes where the author doesn’t want to waste space using words.

Data Journalism Critique: Wk 9

In this interactive graph, we see a comparison of countries and how they perform when it comes to low-carbon competitiveness. Initially this is a confusing concept. When we see anything to do with carbon on a map, we’re usually expecting to see a comparison of carbon emissions, but over here we’re seeing something that runs in the exact opposite direction. This graph (or rather series of mini graphs) represents the ‘score’ of each country when it comes to being ready for a low-carbon environment. This overall score is made up of three variables, early preparedness, sectoral composition and future prosperity although the immediate link between all these factors and the score is not easily established.

If we click on each country, we get to zoom in on their score graph and see how it has improved over the years. It is also helpful to have a little note at the top that gives us some background to why the country is performing as it did.

In the individual score graph, while the blue line representing the overall score is quite visible, the lines representing the other factors are too thin and the colors to close to each other, making them virtually indistinguishable.

As a snapshot of countries doing the most for low-carbon environments, this graph works well with it’s elegant representation, but despite the other information buried in it, it doesn’t do a very good job of explaining anything else.

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