J/i Teach-A-Thon 2015: A Visualization Initiation

By | April 26, 2015

Journalism students with little exposure to data, spreadsheets or graphic design are often intimidated by the idea of information “visualization.”

There are myriad ways to adapt text and numbers into interactive pictures. To ease my “Introduction to Online Journalism” students into the practice of visualization, we embark on a three-part initiation.

During the 2015 Journalism/Interactive Conference Teach-a-Thon at the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO, I demonstrated to a national audience of journalism educators my most effective methods for introducing students to data visualization concepts. My Teach-a-Thon presentation script, as prepared, is below the Prezi.

The first part of students’ initiation is MUSICAL.

We use a free program called TAGXEDO to convert students’ favorite songs into PICTURES that tell a STORY.

Word cloud software has been around for a while now, but I still like to use in the classroom it because it gives me a vehicle to talk to students about “the psychology of color,” about typography, about shapes, AND HOW each DESIGN ELEMENT is capable of VISUALLY evoking a “FEELING” and delivering an AT-A-GLANCE message.

WHICH — in this case- we’ve transformed a piece of music into a PICTURE using the lyrics.

My students complete their first level of initiation by writing a blog post that explains facts about their song.
Their word cloud serves at the visual center of their post.
And at the bottom of the story they embed a YouTube video of song, too.

Next second visualization exercise is storytelling with locations.

The class collaboratively creates a spreadsheet of places such as students hometowns.

Massage the data.

Upload the spreadsheet to Google’s My Maps, and voila!

We have a visual representation of a spreadsheet of locations.

At a glance – the interactive map reveals some trends – that majority of my students this semester are from the northeast – and clearly show the few outliers.

Students also learn how to MANUALLY plot locations on a Google Map and customize a story in the popup windows with text, images, videos and/or hyperlinks.

The third and last visualization initiation is creating an interactive chart.

I like to use a free online visualization tool called Infogram.

The interface is clean and intuitive and the finished graphics are embeddable.

I direct each member of my class to pick a publicly available data set about the student body at UConn.

UConn’s office of institutional research posts this information on its website. Since my students are part of this data set, most immediately engage with the assignment.

Students have to transfer or upload the data from a spreadsheet to Inforgram and create a simple bar chart or line graph to reveal trends.

Some examples:

-Incoming freshman SAT scores

-Growth in UConn biology majors

-Changes in the diversity of the student body.

Students must embed their chart in a blog post and interview primary sources for a short story explaining the reasons behind the trend displayed in their graphic.

So it’s not just making a cool clickable picture. We’re journalists. Adding context to the information is key, too.

Any questions?

The presentation was live streamed by the Reynolds Journalism Institute, and then posted on YouTube. You can watch it here.

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