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 http://www.wisevoter.org, 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: http://datavizblog.com. Here are 30 more: http://visualoop.com/13484/the-30-data-viz-blogs-you-cant-miss-in-one-place.” “Dear students, you may want to be interested in reading these articles and posts: http://www.thefunctionalart.com/2013/10/storytelling-journalism-visualization.html.”

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. http://eagereyes.org/blog/2013/seven-year-itch

Here is an article about using data visualization for social activism: http://blog.visual.ly/using-video-and-data-visualization-for-activism-and-social-change/.

Here is Nate Silver’s keynote talk at ONA2013, about data and journalism: http://ona13.journalists.org/sessions/friday-lunch-keynote/#.Umy7_JQ4XwH

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








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