Monthly Archives: February 2014

I took a Dataviz MOOC

One of the biggest challenges for government is how to take its assets (numbers, data, information) and share them with the public in a way that is usable and interesting. It appears that the journalism world is leading the way, with the old tables, charts, and graphs having evolved into modern infographics and data visualization. The two terms are not interchangeable, as explored by Robert Kosara, Jack Hagley, and Alex Williams, among others. According to Alberto Cairo, infographics present data/information, edited and organized to tell a story, while data visualizations let readers explore the data interactively and develop their own stories. More and more, today’s storytellers and information sharers need to include these methods in their approach. Where does one start?

Tableau Software open house

Tableau Software’s open house party at the Belmont, Austin, Texas

At the basic level, Microsoft Excel has certain capabilities. There are more to be found among the free tools and tutorials readily available to produce your own infographics (credit to Yifat Cohen for those links), from simple, to easily learned tools like Tableau software, to elaborate programs like D3 that are augmented by tutorials and customizable blocks on Github. Many of these tools are suitable for data visualization or “dataviz” as well. It’s just a matter of the individual making the commitment to learn and acquire, or getting a push in that direction, which is why I was delighted to get a note from ONA-Austin‘s Christian McDonald about a free course on the topic.Notification of MOOC opening

MOOCs are a recent development in ways to deliver college-level courses, and there is currently much discussion about their effectiveness. According to one study, only about half of those who register for a course ever view a lecture, and only about 4 percent complete the course. Regardless, MOOCs are proliferating, with Regent University the latest to announce a MOOC and an array of planned ones. The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, specializing in journalism, launched in October 2012 and has offered seven MOOCs that have reached more that 27,000 people from over 150 countries. According to their description, “While most massive online courses are college classes that have been recorded on video and adapted to be shared over the Internet, the Knight Center’s MOOCs have been specifically designed for the new format, emphasizing student interactions and collaborations. Through the courses’ online forums, instructors are constantly answering questions and making general comments about students’ work, while students are encouraged to discuss their assignments and help each other.” I read the Knight Center’s FAQ and determined to sign up.

The Knight Center’s first MOOC, “Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization” with instructor Alberto Cairo, was also the world’s first massive online course in journalism. Cairo is published and accomplished in the field. The course was so well received that the Knight Center offered a second edition, identical to the first, in January 2013. The course attracted more than 5,000 students in 133 countries and became the Knight Center’s largest class to date. The Knight Center launched a third edition of the course in October 2013.

Registration was simple, following the online instructions. Expectations of the student seemed clear: watch the instructor’s lectures on video, read the materials on the provided syllabus, describe or create data visualizations as course work, participate in discussion forums. There was a forum for news and announcements that we could subscribe to so we received these via email and an extensive list of non-mandatory recommended reading.

I filled out my student profile (similar to limited profiles plus avatar on social networks) and scanned the other students who had signed up. I saw a dozen or so other Austinites but many from other states and countries. A number were students but there were also mid career professionals. From what I saw, the interest in the course was from a broad cross section of people, certainly not limited to those with journalism backgrounds or interests. Unfortunately, the demands of the course were such that I never returned to the student scan and I spent only as much time in the forums as necessary to complete the assignments. Ultimately, this course attracted over 4000 students from 145 countries, and there was much more value from this corner of the MOOC than I could absorb. Some samples:

  • I’m a graphic designer at UT Austin. I have the illustrator/design skills down, but I need help learning to organize data. Just wanted to introduce myself to the other Austinites. Enjoy the class! Kindly,  Kim
  • I’ll add my greetings from Austin TX as well.  I’m not a journalist or in design. I’m a researcher and I’m curious about how the presentation of data in scientific papers might be done in a better way to improve the public reception of scientific findings.  I’m looking for a better way to ‘tell the story.’ I look forward to the continued conversation. – Jody
  • Hi, my name is Vitalii, I am from Ukraine. Currently I study multimedia journalism at Emerson College, Boston as a Fulbright graduate student.  In Ukraine, I am Head of New Media at Internews Ukraine, non-government organization targeting journalism education.
  • Hi guys, Greetings from Beijing! My name is Leon, and I work for the China operation of Internews, a US NGO that focuses on media-related empowerment worldwide. Glad to join this course as I want to learn the basics of transforming data through visualization tools, which has become an inevitable trend in our work.
  • Hello everyone! I’m Vaibhav. I live in Seattle, WA, USA, and maintain close ties with my home country – India. I’m volunteering for, a voter education effort targeting the 2014 Indian General elections. I’m hoping that the process of learning data journalism will help me curate content to educate masses on electoral candidates.
  • Hola a tod@s Soy Pedro, comunicador de Lima -Perú.

I watched the first coursework-related video — a recorded presentation in front of slides by instructor Alberto Cairo, online here as exhibitionist#03 — and took notes. The key points and the minute mark on the video where they appeared:

  1. Information visualization does not depend on software, but on thinking and planning. 6:30
  2. Information graphics are not just art, but are a form of communication that should respect journalistic standards. 11:13
  3. An infographic is a tool for understanding that can reveal hidden truths. 16:07
  4. Infographics are about structure and storytelling. 25:00
  5. Infographics can empower citizens. 33:29
  6. There’s a whole world of opportunities to explore. 41:00
  7. Key Message: Information, research, planning, structure, and storytelling come first. Learning the software comes later. 53:00

MOOC icon

A similar process was followed for subsequent video lessons. Along the way Cairo would post useful hints and links like “Read the Graphics Style Book by The Dallas Morning News. It can help you decide on color palettes and type styles for your projects” and “Give some thought to the appropriate design for your story and data set. Here is one good tool to help and here is another.”  Cairo says it’s perfectly fine to use Excel or Adobe Illustrator but “Default values for Excel or Illustrator charts are unattractive. Make grid lines fewer, thinner, lighter. Vary colors or line styles by category in a way that creates a visual hierarchy, telling readers what is important and what is secondary, e.g. darkest line for most important category and declining by shade or thickness. Label each item rather than use a legend. Avoid 3D effects that distort the data. Avoid distractions like vertical text, background pictures, meaningless 3D effects. Spend some time tweaking the viz to make it clear. Avoid cramming the viz with colors, pictograms, busy-ness.”

Early assignments involved critiquing selected graphics. Later we were given assignments that required hands-on design and creation of graphics. We were encouraged to use one of the many available tools but were advised that a simple hand drawing or concept illustrated in Microsoft Paint would be acceptable if necessary. We uploaded our work to Dropbox or similar services and shared the link with our classmates. We then were responsible for commenting on the work of at least two classmates. For the most part, comments involved gentle critique along with encouragement. The instructor also commented on individuals’ work, although I don’t know what percent he was able to review.

Quizzes were a little more difficult than I had expected, and I had underestimated the amount of time that doing a good job on the coursework would take. Soon I had cut way back on the nonrequired readings and the interaction with classmates.

The videos continued to be interesting, and the asides were also useful. “Dear students, if you have never visited Michael’s blog, please do. There’s a lot of great information about visualization and graphics in it: Here are 30 more:” “Dear students, you may want to be interested in reading these articles and posts:”

Cairo eventually summed up his interactive design mantra thusly: Overview first, zoom and filter, then details on demand. Don’t oversimplify and don’t jump to conclusions too quickly.

He also commented on many of the students’ works and used some as examples. A sample of his selections and comments (links are as originally posted):

As the course wound down we began to receive encouragement from the course’s teaching assistant to continue with our efforts. I imagine they were watching analytics closely and tracking participation.  Each student can look up his or her participation record, including quiz scores and assignments completed or pending, at a link in the navigation section (note, however, that all of the links that are hosted on the Knight Center’s site become inactive a couple of weeks after the conclusion of the course.

We were reminded of expectations and advised how to get proof we passed:

Requirements for Certificate:
For those that meet all of the course requirements and pay a $30.00 (US dollars) administrative fee, a certificate of completion in PDF format will be available for download through the course platform. No formal university course credit of any kind is associated with the certificate. The certificate is awarded by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas to attest to the participation in the online course.   
For those that want to receive a certificate of completion for the course, you must meet the following requirements:
1)      Complete the quiz with an 80% score minimum by the weekly deadline (ideally).
2)      Submit two required graphic re-designs from week 3 (Cost of a colonoscopy) and week 4 (Who’s buying what?). These were submitted under the submission forums in week 4 and week 5 respectively.
3)      Participate at least twice in the forum discussions by the weekly deadlines (ideally). Every week, except for week 3 has a required discussion (week 1 and 2: critiquing/re-designing a graphic, week 4 reviewing TWO submissions by your peers)
4)      Complete the online certificate form and submit.

Email from Course Assistant

Encouraging email from course assistant. Click to enlarge.

I wanted to complete the work and get the certificate. I had certainly gotten $30 worth of information out of the course. Deadlines were graciously extended as many of us scrambled to get our coursework completed and posted, and to provide the required comments on other postings. The forums began to reflect a “we’re in this together, you can do it” spirit as well.

The period between signalling that I had completed the assignments and receiving the results of their review seemed to take forever (very reminiscent of college). Finally, the anxiously awaited email arrived.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013
2:48 PM: Congratulations! You have been awarded a certificate of completion for the Knight Center Massive Open Online Course “Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization.”To receive your certificate, you will need to pay a processing fee of $30.00 USD. You will need a credit card to complete payment.

The relief was surprising, but even though I had completed all the assignments and passed the quizzes I was not certain that I had met the requirements to the course’s satisfaction until I got the email.

To summarize my MOOC experience: This particular class was well organized and interesting. The coursework was progressively more and more difficult and demanding. The browser-based software was useful but some parts, such as the forums and interaction with classmates, was confusing and became casualties of the time crunch. The time required to do a good job was more than I had thought when entering the course, but it was worth the time and effort to have a College level quality course for little or no cost.

Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas banner


Eagereyes is one of the most popular websites about visualization.

Here is an article about using data visualization for social activism:

Here is Nate Silver’s keynote talk at ONA2013, about data and journalism:

This is a series of very brief posts about the rules of graphic design:

Better Engagement using Twitter


“You’re not listening to me.” “There’s nothing I can do to have my voice heard.” Elected officials frequently hear such complaints from constituents, and many voters who remain silent also harbor such sentiments. Their frustration or cynicism toward government leads them never to share their concerns with decision makers. But what if there were an easy way for citizens to share opinions with decision makers at optimal moments, when their views might really count? New forms of social media – especially Twitter – may offer just such opportunities.

Barriers between Government and the Public
Legislatures seek public input in a variety of ways – most visibly by holding a public hearing in which members of the public are invited to testify, usually in person, to a panel of legislators considering a particular topic or piece of legislation. At hearings, legislators may ask questions or may choose not to. The public usually can submit written testimony or exhibits, which may be distributed to all the panelists or held by the committee staff until needed.

Yet even when well attended, public hearings can erect barriers. A hearing must be held at a particular time and place, which may or may not be convenient or accessible for concerned members of the public. If a hearing is recorded, the oral testimony may be available later to legislators and the public; but the written testimony or exhibits may not be widely or easily available. The physical and logistical setup for the hearing, combined with possible conflicting events or demands for the legislators’ time and attention, may prevent legislators from asking questions, following up, or even hearing the initial testimony in full.

The Innovation of Twitter
The first message using the social media platform known as Twitter was sent on March 21, 2006, and widespread attention came when more than 60,000 tweets were sent each day during the technical conference where it formally debuted in 2007. Twitter allows anyone who registers with the site to send messages of up to 140 characters at a time. There is no charge for registration, and a person who only wishes to read the posts of others does not need to register. People can access Twitter in real time – as the tweets are sent – or later in an archival or historical fashion.

Scholars Strategy Network logoToday, Twitter has 218 million active users sharing 500 million tweets per day – messages that briefly convey thoughts, opinions, pictures, and links to further information. Twitter has gained acceptance among the general public as a method of communicating quickly and easily. Legislators also are known to use Twitter to express opinions and share information with the public. Some legislators and legislative offices also receive information via Twitter and avail themselves of statistical and analytical information regarding the reach of any particular tweet.

A Texas Committee Uses Twitter to Enhance Legislative Hearings
Government is considered transparent when the public can see how decisions are being made. Beyond simple transparency, government can become interactive when the public has ways of participating in decision-making as it occurs. Twitter can be deployed for both purposes, as exemplified by innovations tried from 2010 to 2013 by the Texas Senate Committee on Business and Commerce, at the behest of it chair, Senator John Carona. Some tweeting conveyed information in a transparent way:

  • In Texas, state open meetings laws generally require legislative committees, as deliberative bodies, to post public notice of the time and place of meetings. The Business and Commerce committee would post this notice and then immediately issue a tweet with a link to the official posting. As more information became available, further tweets were sent.
  • When a hearing was called to order, committee staff would announce that with a tweet, and as each witness was called, another tweet would be issued, marked with the time. This created a “time stamp” for the order of witnesses. Anyone who wanted to view the recorded hearing could use the series of tweets to identify when the subject or witness of interest came up and could be located on the full tape. If testimony had been submitted prior to the hearing, a link could be included in the tweet. According to, 14,689 people saw at least one tweet related to a January 10, 2012 hearing, with a total exposure of 28,911 impressions.
  • Twitter allows a user to filter or group tweets through the use of a word or group of characters preceded by the pound sign (“#”), referred to as a hashtag. To facilitate this usage (while aligning with the generally accepted hashtags for tweets about the Texas Legislature), the committee included #TxLegeBC in its tweets.

Beyond such efforts to notify the public, Twitter can also be used to communicate information from the public to willing legislators or their staffs. Experimentally, several Business and Commerce hearings in 2012 featured a computer monitor facing the members of the committee with a relevant Twitter feed. A website called Twitterfall was used to constantly refresh the feed and format the display. Committee members could read the tweets and, if they so desired, recognize or react to them in real time. In essence, this method provides an instant feedback loop, allowing the public to comment on witness testimony or committee activity as it unfolds.

Early Results and Future Possibilities
In this Texas experiment, tweeting postings and witness appearances proved very popular with the public. The instant feedback loop was less effective, due to ambivalence on the part of the legislators and limited publicity to let citizens know that their real-time comments could be posted in this way. But similar experiments can be tried again, with more effort put into making the public aware of opportunities to participate by Twitter as hearings proceed.

All uses of this new medium of course require publicly outlined policies to ensure compliance with laws regarding open records and retention of records. In addition, policymakers should consider whether using Internet-enabled social media could have the unintended effect of disenfranchising citizens without ready access to the Internet, unless active steps are taken to bridge the digital divide. With proper use, however, Twitter shows real promise for improving citizen understanding of and engagement with government.

This article was originally published as a brief by the Scholars Strategy Network in February 2014.

Twitter Tip for Gov’t Employees

Clock and Twitter icon

I’m a government employee, using tax-paid equipment during the work hours. Our agency has an official Twitter account but I use my personal Twitter account at work to follow events that are important for my job. Outside of work hours, I may tweet about political issues or opinions that would not be appropriate (or legal) if done at work. I recently decided to change my Twitter profile picture (avatar) to express support for a particular candidate, but this political expression would be inappropriate in a public workplace. Fortunately, I found a workable solution.

The website If This Then That allows you to create formulas, called recipes, that cause an action to trigger when an event you specify happens. The event can be time of day, temperature, Craigslist posting, or action by another. With your permission, an action or event can cause specified changes to your Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Dropbox, Tumblr, and many other services. PC Magazine went through the recipes and found 101 favorites, while Mashable identified 14 hilarious ones such as “Notify me when my wife posts to Instagram.”

In July 2012, IFTTT user mblocksma shared two recipes that are exactly what I needed. The “After Work Avatar” recipe allows me to pick days of the week and time of day (in 15 minute increments) to change my Twitter avatar. I upload the picture I want to use to a site like Picasa or other site, or I can use an image someone else has uploaded somewhere. Optionally, I can set the recipe to tweet at the same time and notify me each time the recipe is triggered. The “Working Avatar” recipe is really the same recipe with a different time — the start of the work day — to return the avatar to a work-suitable one.

Once you have altered and saved the recipes, your dashboard allows you to turn each one on and off, test run the recipe, share your new version, or view its log. Other recipes perform the same function for Facebook and other sites, and IFTTT is rich in the variety of recipes available.

When election season is over I will probably disable these recipes, but I feel better using them in this way for now.

SXSW Spotlights Our Panel

SXSW: What kinds of people will want to attend this session?

See me speak at South by Southwest Interactive

Polunsky: Modern political activists, and those who want to learn how to express a viewpoint, will be sharing the room with social media and web designers creating the next generation of advocacy tools.

SXSW: What do you hope to gain from speaking at the SXSW Interactive Festival?

Polunsky: Our panel will help bring the Government and the Populace closer together by helping people understand what works to change policy, what is a waste of time, and what will land you in jail.


World Radio Day 2014

World Radio Day bannerAs the medium that reaches the widest audience worldwide, radio promotes access to information, freedom of expression, and empowerment. February 13 is designated World Radio Day by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as it is the anniversary of the first UN broadcast from Lake Success, New York. The focus in 2014 is on celebrating women in radio and gender equality.

Mark Boyden, Steven Polunsky, and Reshma Kirpalani at KOOP Radio

Mark Boyden, Steven Polunsky, and Reshma Kirpalani at KOOP Radio Studios in Austin, Texas

To commemorate World Radio Day 2014, at the request of KOOP Radio Community Council co-chair Pedro Gatos I drafted some public service announcements, linked KOOP to the international effort, and appeared on Mark Boyden’s Reflections of Community Outreach show, bringing with me Reshma Kirpalani and Joe Fisher. Reshma talked about her experiences as a reporter around the world, and Joe discussed his role as an “Elmer” (mentor) to young radio students. Here is the audio from that program.

Ten Ways to Activate the Open House

Town Hall meeting

One traditional method of getting information to people is through an open house or town hall meeting, where the public is invited to a location to view posters, hear a presentation, or witness a discussion. To add an interactive aspect, some meetings allow the public to ask questions, meet with officials, and talk about policies or projects. Here are some ways to use technology to improve interaction as well as some suggested low-tech approaches.

1. For starters, have a handout that attendees can take with them. Anticipate questions people are likely to ask, and give meaningful answers. For those likely questions that aren’t on point or involve broader policy, include the appropriate contact information.

color graphic in black and white is unreadable

Image Source: Infragistics (image altered from color to grayscale)

2. Take the same handout and make it available on the Internet in screen-readable (html) and print-ready (pdf) formats, with a permalink so people can forward, tweet, link, or otherwise share the information. If the handout has graphs, ensure the graphs are readable and informative if printed out at home in black and white.  In other words, use symbols instead of color for different points, lines, or pie slices. If you must use color, use both color and symbols like dashed lines. Avoid web hosting sites like Facebook that require the individual to register or have an account before accessing the information (although they are good if being used in addition to free sites). Some agencies may want a person’s name and email address before releasing the information over the Internet; if that is the decision, clearly state the privacy policy regarding how that information will be used.

3. For greater outreach, encourage tweeting by attendees. Establish an event #hashtag and post it at the door. Consider having a monitor that displays event tweets (instant feedback loop). Have a staffer available to respond to the tweets — there may be easily answered questions or immediately actionable suggestions. Use tweet retention services like Tweetarchivist or print out the stream after the event to preserve them as part of the record.

person touching an interactive digital monitor

Image Source: Digital Touch Systems

4. If the open house or town hall topic has a geographical aspect, don’t just provide printouts and PDFs. Instead of or in addition to static displays, make the experience interactive using a touch screen with Google Earth. Take the relevant map and overlay it on Google Earth, saving to .kml or .kmz (a zipped .kml file). Using Google Earth or a similar product in a live hearing makes it more interesting and flexible for the consumer.

5. Invite people to interact with the maps by marking or pointing out useful items: unidentified properties, unmarked sensitive receptors or cemeteries, even their homes (keeping in mind privacy and sensitivity issues). Use this action to trigger environmental impact or other necessary conversations. Later, if participants have digitally “thumbtacked” their own home, see at a glance where meeting participants came from in proximity to the hearing location or project and use that information to identify gaps and areas needing more outreach.

6. Put the Google Earth file on the Internet. This action makes the file more user friendly online as opposed to the effort involved with zooming in, shrinking, scrolling, and manipulating PDF files. Do it before the event so attendees can interact on their own electronic devices in case there is a line.

Image Source: Texas SenateGoogle Earth used in a hearing

7. Broadcast/livestream the event. In addition to having access to the printed information, the public can now hear the answers to questions they probably have but haven’t articulated. Investment required is minimal — a laptop, a small camera if the laptop doesn’t have one, a microphone, Internet or telephone data service. In areas without accessible Internet, phone data service is usually available and adequate. In this scenario, the camera is stationary and pointed at the podium or speakers. Free web services like Ustream will provide the platform where the public can access the video/audio stream. Another free option is Google Plus Hangouts, which can also be syndicated live to Facebook as an additional outlet.

8. In the scenario described so far, the live stream is static and two-dimensional because the camera is stationary. Take the camera mobile to add the third dimension. A Logitech or similar camera designed as an external computer accessory (webcam) can be connected by cable to a mobile laptop or can have more roaming freedom by using a Bluetooth or wifi link. Many smartphones also can be used with apps like to capture and livestream audio and video. Google Glass out of the box is capable of livestreaming when teamed with a smartphone with wifi or cell data service and using Google Plus Hangouts.

Montgomery County Community College On the Air
Image Source: Montgomery County Community College

9. Whether or not you broadcast the meeting, you should (separate from the broadcast effort) record it for purposes of posterity, retention, and documentation. Take into consideration storage capacity, any need for closed captioning to comply with accessibility laws, and how the public will access the archives. If you don’t already have a web repository for videos, it’s easy to create a YouTube channel. If you are recording the event, don’t surprise the public with that fact. Give notice with a sign at the door and make the camera person obvious. One way to do this is to brand the activity with “YourAgency On the Air” logos on the door sign, the camera, and the camera holder’s clothing.

School fence with Drug Free Gun Free sign
Image Source: Huffington Post

10. About the hearing location: there is a logic to holding hearings in schools but there are drawbacks. There will probably be additional cost to the taxpayer, either through the school district or the sponsoring agency, especially if the event is held during the summer or at times school is not in session. A debate is currently happening about security implications of using schools for non-school purposes. how such events might affect security at the school. Certain people are prohibited from entering schools and therefore will not have access to the information, which probably has minimal relation to the chosen location. Some states prohibit holders of concealed weapon licenses from carrying otherwise legal weapons onto school property; this provision could cause some interested consumers to avoid the open house.