Eloquent Reality: Understanding journalism as the union of science and design

Hello again. Let’s see, I left you on August 23rd, which, coincidentally lets us begin this post the same way as the last one, that is, with a TED talk…

Nice Ted talk on the power of visualizing data to discover hidden patterns from our everyday lives http://bit.ly/9EVsWx (not Hans Rosling)23 Aug via web

Having watched this talk again (and I recommend you go do that right now, too), it’s amazing how much its ideas have intersected my life. In fact, with the reference frame of this talk, the last 7 years of my life have really come full circle. You see, when I was in high school, I took a few graphic design courses. While I enjoyed technology and computers, my passion was design – website design, album art, Flash animations, newspaper layout design – I gobbled it all up.

In fact, I was so sure of my future in design that I had my art teacher try to convince my parents of its possibility as a stable career (something that took some persuasion) by showing them images from newspapers and magazines of design as a form of journalism – something at the heart of this TED talk. In fact, soon after that class, I jumped on board with a student-run newspaper as editor-in-chief and layout designer. Somehow, though, I looked at design and journalism as necessarily two different careers. And though I enjoyed editing the newspaper, I didn’t see journalism as my raison d’être. Instead, I was simply enthralled with the process of design – that iterative, creative pursuit, built on metaphors, which maps ideas and emotions to forms and functions.

I entered the school of design at Washington University with the intention to pursue a degree in Visual Communications – a discipline I felt epitomized my passion for design. Unfortunately, I soon learned that a design degree required not only drawing and painting skills (of which I had neither) but also the patience to memorize which paintings were from which year, which artist and which period (something I also lacked).

Fortunately, on a whim, I had also decided to take computer science alongside my art classes. After a semester-long project in comp. sci. spring of my freshman year, that ended with a twenty dollar bet to the class that no one could find a bug in my program (I kept my money), I realized that it wasn’t the esoteric artsy design process that excited me, but rather problem solving – that most basic process of the human brain that cannot be taught, but must rather be learned through experience. Yes, I enjoyed design, but, contrary to my previous perspective, it wasn’t the abstract process that I enjoyed, but rather the teleological approach of seeking a final product that provides a certain value to the human race.

As I “moved” schools to begin my computer science major (at Wash U, it’s just a dean’s signature away), I began to hunker down and get my Linux skillz a groovin’. Pretty soon, I realized that being a Computer Scientist is less about “designing things that provide value to the human race” and more about designing abstract models that show how to do the things we already know how to do, just more efficiently.

In an effort to recall the good old days of computer science when problem solving and late night coding parties were the modus operandi of the lab rats, I decided to do things a little differently junior year. Instead of a bunch of theoretical comp sci classes, I joined a research group, started writing a book, took a Learning Sciences course, and TA’ed the intro comp sci and web design classes. At the time, I didn’t have any idea how all these different pursuits would fit together, but as hindsight is 20-20, I can now say that I had finally set the stage for my return to the design dreams of my high school years.

You see, the research was in a program specifically designed to teach computer science through the creative design process…

Just got done working with the first week of campers for Looking Glass. Got some middle schoolers understanding arrays, loops, and threads!19 Jun 2009 via web

… a goal that worked surprisingly well.

The book, which started as a web design pamphlet aimed at helping a family friend I was tutoring, ended up as a handbook on understanding the production, structure and presentation of data on the web as three separate design processes. As the book evolved from web design to designing web data, I discovered the exciting worlds of Linked Data and the Semantic Web. These disciplines had a weird, but intriguing aspect to them: they had professors and PhD’s ensconced in research that was years away from being useful while at the same time, they had the web’s top players (Google and Facebook) putting them to use in their core businesses (Google’s “rich snippets” and Facebook’s “like” button).

Meanwhile, through my job as a teaching assistant, I was able to relearn the parts of computer science and web design I had already taken for granted. Being surrounded by novices, I rediscovered the novice mindset. That mindset that lacks muscle memory, that lacks the glue that connects all the pieces together, that stares at a foreign language andcan’ttellwhenonewordstartsandthenextbegins.

So how does all this fit together? How do we combine design, data, computer science, cognitive science and all the rest? To me, it’s all about returning to my high school design teacher (ok, if you got this far, I’ll tell you it was Geof Herman). It’s all about understanding the art of good journalism. Good journalism is not about reporting on opaque facts, events, and speeches. In the era of the web, it’s become clear that Twitter is a much better medium for relaying such things than any traditional media outlet. A journalist is not a reporter – in the sense that they are not just someone who reports on the things in front of their faces (I’m picturing those reporters who stand in front of a tidal wave and say things like “Yup, Johnny, the wind’s really bad out here”).

Instead, good journalism has to be about uncovering the hidden stories, the underlying patterns, the invisible injustices that permeate society. Good journalism is about simultaneously seeing the world holistically, as a system of systems, each with its own needs and desires, necessarily interweaving (think biodiversity vs. capitalism), while at the same time recognizing the humanity of the individual (think highways and the people whose land is taken to build them). So how do journalists find these stories? How do they discover the underlying patterns? Through data of course!

#Web founder, @TimBerners_Lee, says data analysis is the future of #journalism: http://bit.ly/byWTZs #LinkedData (via @RossSheil)22 Nov 2010 via web

If you look at a journalist as a reporter, this idea seems quite foreign. After all, a reporter’s job is to stand outside of the world and comment on what they see, not to actually get their hands dirty and involved in the definition of reality. Put another way, the (physical, political, computer…) scientists who develop theories about the world are not reporters, because they’re actually responsible for defining the world that reporters are supposed to stand objectively outside of. Journalists, on the other hand, are not objective. I repeat, journalists are not objective. In fact, nobody is objective, but at least the journalist is honest about his or her lack of objectivity. The scientist is a journalist (see bottom figure), because the scientist ascribes to a certain set of beliefs and helps the human race see the world in a new and enlightening way. The scientist focuses on constructing a logical, organized reality from the messy, complex world we all perceive. Whether that reality is made up of theories in physics, politics, or algorithms, the scientist takes the world we live in and organizes it into neat equations and axioms. Data analysis, then, can be seen as the job of the scientist (or information journalist). The scientist analyzes, interprets, and organizes data of the world to come up with new understandings and new realities.

Of course, good journalism is not just about finding and understanding the world that’s hidden from your everyday Sam or Samir; it’s also about crafting compelling narratives to open the public’s eyes to these stories. Take this Water Plant diagram; while it took a scientist to track the location of the houses and the underground pipes, it took a designer to draw the compelling distinction between the race of the inhabitants with access to water and without access (click the image to see the diagram in context). In order to effect good journalism, then, it takes the design process – “that iterative, creative pursuit, built on metaphors, which maps ideas and emotions to forms and functions” – to educate and affect the affect of the public. Good journalism takes place not only in newspapers and magazines; good journalism takes place anywhere people tell stories to open a community’s eyes to hidden injustices or complex systems. In the end, good journalism is just good design – it’s a process, not an outcome. But, perhaps, the most powerful process we’ve invented, yet.

Scientists take us from the idea that intelligent design is necessary to the equations that allow for an empirical universe. Then designers write the book that can actually communicate these ideas to the public. This whole process is journalism.

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