When to trust data visualisation (and when not to)

If you ask whether people prefer to see images rather than text to process an information, I’m pretty sure the answer would be a resounding yes. Why?

Because humans are visual creatures.

Research from 3M corporation has found that we process images 60,000 times faster than text. This might explain why we find visual data is more appealing and attractive:

simply because we can understand it quicker.

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This might also explain the increasing number of data journalism we see everywhere we go, whether it’s on TV, social media, and even newspapers. The emergence of data journalism certainly, has not been ignored by journalists or even amateur bloggers.

A staggering number of people and businesses are racing and competing against each other to make the best and most creative infographics that are appealing to the audience.

However, often, at the expense of credibility and accuracy.

As discussed in the previous blog post, there are some problems associated with infographics and data journalism. Fisher’s ‘map of the world’s most and least racially tolerant countries‘ can perhaps serve as a perfect example of how data journalism are often flawed and misleading, yet, it is blindly accepted and believed by millions of people in a heartbeat.

The fact that colours and designs have more impact on people’s perception of messages, rather than the actual credibility of the data source, says a lot about the issue of interpreting infographics.

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So how can this issue be solved?

First of all, it is important for anyone that create infographics or data visualisation to disclose where the sources associated with their data and graphic are coming from, and more importantly, how their data/work should or should not be treated as scientific fact.

And secondly, by raising public awareness about the issue of accuracy in data visualisation, to prevent the spread of fake news or misinformation.

But how do people identify inaccurate/faulty data?

John Burns Murdoch came up with this list you have to check before believing in any data visualisation. It is not anything revolutionary, it is just the kind of thing that people can do mentally and automatically in their mind when seeing a data. If the data failed to check all the lists provided, then it is probably best to not trust the data.

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The emptiness of Data Journalism

Data Journalism is a new trend of storytelling. Here, traditional journalistic methods are combined with data analysis, programming, and visualization techniques to create readable and interesting news stories. Some rock stars of this new trend include The Upshot of The new York Times, DataPoint of The Sydney Morning Heralds, The Guardian and The Vox.

However, not every journalist knows how to utilize the potentials of Data Journalism.

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This is my favorite illustration! Thanks, Barry Blitt!

Every day when browsing through news on the internet, have you ever felt that, somehow, they are all the same? If journalists simply think of data journalism as a process of shuffling mountain of data and putting together a readable summary, then it’s easy to understand why we have to read hundreds of identical news every day. It’s all aggregation!

Many fans of data journalism believe that the data will show us all. And their mission is trying to answer every question using data, not anecdote. However, sometimes what the data tells us is biased rather than objective. In his article, Michael Kinsley argues that the nature of life is complicated and motives can be subtle.

If all data point to the conclusion that the earth is square, then will you say so in your article? The story of Nate Silver may make you rethink of this.

Nate Silver is one of the most famous data journalists in the US. He is also the founder of FiveThirtyEight website, which he describes as a regime of data journalism. Silver has been criticizing the value of traditional newspaper and television. And he honors only investigative journalism and data journalism. Given his data analysis, Nate Silver was down on Trump’s prospects throughout the US election. He even gave Hillary Clinton a 71.4 percent chance of beating Trump. That’s why many old-school journalists can’t wait to laugh at him after Trump’s victory.

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Talking about Silver’s failure, Timess media columnist, Jim Rutenberg concludes that “a good place to start would be to get a good night’s sleep, and then talk to some voters.”

And I totally agree with him.

Up with the facts! Down with the cult of facts!

Quantitative data should be an aid to journalistic practices, but it shouldn’t be a replacement for traditional journalistic methods. Such measurements are appropriate to some particular subjects. However, the assumption that it is appropriate to all subjects is not at all adequate. There is no numerical answer to the question of who deserve to receive food relief from the government, or whether gay marriage is acceptable. Interviews, opinion columns and all kinds of journalistic commentary need to be given equal honor to vary the voices and pave way for a free society.

Confirmation bias in data-journalism

Data journalism can simply be explained as the use of data as a tool to tell or explain a news story. It can be in a form of infographics, statistics, charts, graphs, etc.

So who are these data journalists and how to be one?

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The good news is that you don’t necessarily need to be part of a large corporate media, a developer or even a coder to be a data journalist. Although of course, working under large corporations like The Times has its own benefits in terms of having more budget and resources and having people with actual reporting experience and skill.

Even so, technically, anyone can be a data journalist. All you need is a web access and you’re settled.

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With websites like OECD Statistics, World Health Organization and UNData giving free public access to everyone, anyone can do it.

Now although everyone can do it, it is important to note that not everyone can do it well.

However, its major advantage could also be its major disadvantage. The fact that anyone can be a data-journalist could also pose as a potential threat for the society.

It is important to highlight that there is a false sense of impartiality with data journalism.  For example, have you ever purposely put in a lot of those complicated statistical, numerical data in your presentation just to make it looks more professional and credible? I know I have.

Now I’m not saying it’s wrong, we do it because many people (I’m guilty for this too) will actually fall for that trick.

They might assume that by reading all these numbers and seeing all these graphs, it must be true. Yes, the information presented might be true, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not biased. As mentioned by Sarah Cohen from The New York Times, just because it’s data doesn’t mean it’s not subjective.

Like any other types of journalism, there is always a possibility of author’s bias. So instead of critically analysing the facts, consider their good and bad aspects, conclude it based on their pros and cons, and present it in a way that is unbiased, many authors engage in a confirmation bias. This happens where authors tend to search, interpret and collect the data in a way that confirms their prior beliefs.

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In short, it exists when the author wants what they believe to be true, which might lead to tainted or misleading results.

An example can be seen from one of Buzzfeed article, where they claimed that Democrats watch more porn than Republicans.

Guess where the source was from? Yup, PornHub.

So although it is a data-backed journalism, it is still an opinion journalism. So as we wade into the ocean of data journalism nowadays, let’s not forget that it is also important to be aware of what we can and cannot trust.

Network Effect: When too much is not always a good thing

Have you ever send your mates a refer-a-friend link just to get that $5 voucher?

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That serves as a good example of how the network can affect us in a good way. Wait.. what do you mean?

To put it briefly, networks enable users, businesses and organisations to come together, form relationships through online interactions which will eventually benefit each other. In most cases, when more people use it, the product/service provided becomes more valuable to its users.

So why does this matter?

Not only network effects benefit the society in terms of information dissemination, it also helps user like me to be able to voice my opinions better, feel empowered, but most importantly.. get that extra $5 voucher (who doesn’t like free stuff??)

Being an avid online shopper, I realize this concept from early on, when I started using eBay, to be exact. eBay allows users to participate in auctions, and because of network effects, these auctions are becoming more competitive than ever.

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When auctions become more competitive, the prices of the items will increase, which will benefit the sellers. Seeing this, more people will be attracted to sell their items on eBay, as auctions allow sellers to drive up their prices. However, as more sellers join the platform, prices will be pushed down again as supply increases, and more people will join eBay again as it offers a wider range of options.

Basically, as more and more people join the platform, more people will find the site to be more useful.

However, of course, it’s not all roses and rainbows. There are some real drawbacks with network effects once it reaches beyond the critical mass point.

In the case of eBay, as more sellers join the platform, selling different things, the number of frauds happening also increases. The platform is not as safe as it used to be, there are more fraudulent actions, more people selling counterfeit items and more people deliberately give misleading descriptions of the items they sell.

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Not only there are safety issues regarding the network effects in an online marketplace, juggling too many users often lead to poor customer support.

This is the result of a congested network, in which each additional user decreases the value of other users.

So perhaps, for businesses, network effects does not always mean a good thing, so instead of focusing solely on the “growth” of the network, it is just as important to focus on the “safety” and “engagement”.

Digital anonymity: The good, the bad and the ugly

The rise of digital media has drastically transformed the way news are delivered, as well as the way audience responds and receives the news. It allows more ‘on-demand’, immediate news and encourages a more responsive marketplace.

Now that digital media allows a two-way communication with its audience, the audience has gained more power than they ever had with traditional media.

In other words, nowadays, the ball is truly in the court of the audience.

However, as it is a virtual space, there will always be the issue of anonymity.

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Now anonymity does not always mean a bad thing, in fact, it can be a good thing for some people, including me. For me personally, I feel that I’m more comfortable publishing my works (writing & photography) anonymously, mainly because I don’t feel like handling all the criticisms and judginess I might receive from the people around me.

The executive director of the Tor Project, Andrew Lewman said, “The ability to be anonymous is increasingly important because it gives people control, it lets them be creative, it lets them figure out their identity and explore what they want to do, or to research topics that aren’t necessarily ‘them’ and may not want to be tied to their real name for perpetuity.”

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Another example can be drawn from the famous social news forum, Reddit, where in one of its subreddit, AskReddit, a lot of people uses their ‘throwaway’ account to share some of their very personal experience and give out their advice to help others. Now such things won’t happen if people were forced to use their real identity, as they might feel reluctant to share their experiences that are too personal.

However, there are always two sides in every coin..

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The ability to hide under a cloak of anonymity allows many people to abuse the digital platform. The things we were too afraid to do in real-life might feel just fine if we were to do it on the internet, anonymously.

It’s like the audience are concealed by this mask of anonymity, they feel the sense of invincibility and indestructibility, simply because no one can confront or accuse them in real-life. The combination of these senses urged people into ‘breaking rules’ — which in some cases can lead to cyberbullying.

To put it briefly, anonymity would be harmless if people simply wanted to share their ideas, artworks or creations without being known to the public. But that’s not always the case in the age of digital media.

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It can get really ugly when anonymity is abused for cyberbullying, which in worst case scenario, might even be responsible for other people’s depression and suicide.

The case of Ask.fm suicide clearly explained how anonymity can actually be responsible for someone’s death.

Crowdfunding – Could it be a “lifeboat” for Investigative Journalism in Vietnam?

This week, we discuss how technology changes news business models in terms of funding. This inspires me to think of crowdfunding as a solution to funding investigative journalism in Vietnam.

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I’ve been a journalist for 4 years in Vietnam. And do you know what makes me mad? It is when we find out the government is doing something wrong. (And this happens all the time).  We meet our boss and say our newspaper needs to investigate those issues. Their mind goes blank and they shout “No”.

In Vietnam, journalists have to face with heavy-handed censorship. And because every press agencies are state owned, journalism cannot say anything against the government. Investigative journalists in my country are struggling to find both funding and distribution channels. Could we break this impasse?

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David Appel, a freelance reporter, succeeded in raising fund for his investigative weblog. His project, then, reveals that sugar companies tried to lobby the Congress to stop funding WHO because WHO”s activities pose a threat to these companies” interest.

In 2007, one of the biggest news stories in the US — the Bush administration’s firing of a group of U.S. attorneys — was covered by the reporters of the blog Talking Points Memo.

Crowdfunding has been the answer for investigative journalism around the world. In his article,  Paul Bradshaw has pointed out three models for online funding investigative works, including foundation support, viewer donation, and licensing/advertising. Usually, the reality is a combination of all three.

However, attracting readers and financial support is never an easy task. Since 2000, various non-for-profit media groups has sprouted across the world. Crowdfunding nowadays is like a fierce of starving carnivores. Only whom with the best strategy and tactics could be the survivors.

Since 2011, Knight Foundation has annually released the report “Getting Local: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability” analyzing many nonprofit investigative news sites. The report finds that the most successful models are those having a long-term strategic plan, annual budgetary goals and a corresponding development plan with specific metrics.

However, no successful stories can be a normative model. With consideration to Vietnam’s socio-political nature, there are two major concerns. First, the notion of philanthropic support for nonprofits is still strange in Vietnam. Second, freedom of speech is still a controversial issue.  These are big obstacles needed to overcome first!

The blurry line between bloggers and journalists

In the age of digital media, it is evident that social media has profoundly disrupted the news media, from one-day print cycle to 24/7 news cycle.

According to a new study from Pew Research, two-thirds of Americans claimed to get their news from social media, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter or other online news sites.

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Now with the rise of independent bloggers sharing from breaking news to celebrity gossips, there is only a thin line between bloggers and journalists.

Traditionalists may regard the term journalist is reserved to those who work in a traditional news outlet, and consider bloggers to be unreliable, and often flawed sources of real news.

As mentioned by Tim Knight in his watchdog column,  Watching the Watchdog, he believed that citizen bloggers are not journalists, he added that journalists are trained, experienced and reputable people who wrote news with great accuracy supported by analytics and data, unlike bloggers.

However, the reality is not that simple. There have been numerous bloggers who investigated and conducted research tirelessly that made it to news media, and reputable journalists that reported inaccurate, fabricated news as fact (read Jayson Blair on The New York Times).

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Although there are no such requirements or standards to be bloggers as compared to becoming journalists, there should not be a debate of whether one is better than the other. As both of them generally do the same thing (reporting news), in a slightly different way.

Bloggers tend to offer their own opinions and write in a more casual way, while journalists tend to involve experts opinions and hard facts.

In a way, all journalists can be bloggers simply by creating a blog, but not all bloggers can be journalists. But that does not necessarily mean bloggers couldn’t engage in an act of journalism.

And for people like me, I couldn’t care less if the articles I read were written by journalist/blogger, as long as it’s not fabricated..