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Outsider CAR: Quick Thoughts on Malofiej 21 Day 1

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Stephanie Posavec makes maps by tracing Google Earth with Illustrator. (Image tweeted by @malofiej)

This is the first of two posts about the 21st Malofiej World Infographic Summit. Read the second here.

Today was the first day of the Malofiej World Infographic Summit in Pamplona, Spain. It’s a very small (the whole attendee list fits on two double sided sheets of paper) two day one-track conference. The Malofiej awards are highly geared towards news graphics (mostly print, but more so on the web), so naturally I thought the conference talks would be, too. But there was a broad spectrum of speakers. The big guys were there (Wilson Andrews of the Washington Post and Graham Roberts of The New York Times), and art directors from magazines in Brazil and Russia, but also a few, for lack of a better term, data artists.

Two talks, in particular, stuck out to me as examples of what I can only describe as “outsider CAR.” Only after I tweeted this, did I realize the coinage.

But, here’s what I mean. Nicholas Felton — creator of the infamous Feltron Reports — discussed both his methodology and production strategies for the report in general, but specifically focussing on the 2012 report. What struck me about his presentation was that he was using the vocabulary of Computer Assisted Reporting, but was using data collection, analysis and presentation methods he had come up with himself. Obviously, the Feltron Report isn’t a work of journalism. But it’s close. It actually could be, if he took the data one step further and found and presented stories in it. But everything from “sampling” (filling out surveys in a custom iPhone app that pings him randomly) to the final product (often using stuff like multi-slice pie charts, force directed diagrams, and “ego-centric” cartography wherein maps remove all points of places he hadn’t been) are things that would never be allowed in a news environment. Felton said that 2012 was the first year he started “sketching in code” using Processing. In previous years, he would start out in Illustrator to create, say, a pie chart, and then circle back and fill in the data later. I’ll be curious to see whether next year, he veers more towards journalistic methods, say, bringing the data into R and looking for trends and correlations that could then be “reported” on. Or, maybe doing a third party edition to get a dispassionate report, rather than relying on “sampling” that is probably swayed by his own view of what will turn up in the product.

Another talk, by Stefanie Posavec, a freelance “data-related designer” (her term) focused on a bunch of work, most notably her gorgeous diffs of Darwin’s Origin of Species editions. Late in the talk, discussed a new project she’s working on for the V&A Museum, and in particular, a map she made of triangles between country capitals. She made the map by tracing Google Earth and bringing it into illustrator. While, obviously this also isn’t journalism, I think it’s another example of “outsider CAR.” In a news environment, she would be invariably steered towards GIS software, but instead she came to her own cartographic methodology. When an audience member asked why she didn’t learn to code, she joked about her own laziness but also said it’s kind of like the difference between a hand-knitted and machine-knitted sweater. As a purveyor of bespoke artisanal data, I object a bit to that, but I wonder what the piece would have looked like if she had, say generated the triangulated map in PostGIS. It would have been easier, but it would have probably come out a lot differently. People have quite different conceptions of laziness!

I’m interested to see what tomorrow’s talks bring. It’s an interesting conference, and I think those of us who are often directed towards the right way to do visualizations, cartography, data collection, analysis and cleaning in our newsrooms and at conferences like NICAR, can learn from outsiders who are hand crafting data according to their own rules.

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