Alberto Cairo and Hannah Fairfield on Data Visualization at ISOJ

There is no better time to be a journalist working with infographics and data visualization, according to The New York Times graphic editor, Hannah Fairfield. Fairfield was a panelist for Data Visualization: Creating a new language to communicate big data at the International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ) in Austin, Texas, on April 20, 2013.

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Alberto Cairo, of the University of Miami, speaks during day two of the 14th International Symposium on Online Journalism on Apr. 20, 2014. (Lea Thompson/ For The Knight Center)

Alberto Cairo was the chair lecturer for data visualization. Cairo teaches infographics and visualization at  the University of Miami’s School of Communication. He told the audience that everyone is talking about visualization on data and added that infographics are basically a synthesized version of information. You get a data set and you basically summarize it on a page to tell a story.

“We have a new boy in town called data visualizations. An interactive presentation of data [that] is able to look for their own stories in other areas and other regions,” Cairo said. “There is a huge overlap of the two areas.” Cairo believes that journalists are not skilled enough to present quality data visualizations. He believes it is a sign that schools need to teach more in journalism.

“Why doesn’t the quality of the graphics match the quality of the presentation,” questioned Cairo. “We need to teach the skills of data visualization and graphics.”

At the University of Miami, the School of Communication is revamping the way they teach journalism to their students. They are trying to teach data visualization and graphics as part of the core journalistic skills learned. According to Cairo, these skills can be learned by anybody and that it is important for the future of journalism.

Fairfield worked on the Pulitzer Prize winning piece “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek”, written by John Branch. She was one of the head infographics constructors.

2013 ISOJ: Hannah Fairfield speaks during the “Data visualization: Creating a New Language to Communicate Big Data” panel, from Knight Center on Vimeo.

As she spoke about Immersive Storytelling, she stated that they wanted the graphics in Snow Fall to carry the story.

“We wanted to let you know what it feels like to be on that mountain,” Fairfield said. “We wanted to set the scene of a map. There is a lot of data behind that.”

The information graphic would provide the assistance to help the readers keep track of the skiers in the story. They used an elevation model to show effects such as where the skiers were on the mountain and where the avalanche fell. The visuals guided the readers and helped them see the avalanche as a multimedia narrative.

Data visualizations and multimedia narratives will become more popular in the next couple of years. After they released Snow Fall, The Washington Post released a multimedia story about cycling and what it was like to be a cyclist. According to Fairfield, ideas spread like wild fire and the world is a playground for journalists.