[Reading #8] Discounting, data stories and long journalism

1. Discounting

So discounting is what retailers do – at Christmas, to seize the momentum of buying ahead of Christmas, and, in June, to get cash rather than debts on the books ahead of the end of financial year.

But it’s something we all do. Think about the choice between watching TV or doing exercise. We know going for a run is better for us. Thinking for next month, maybe even next week, you probably imagine tying your laces and doing it. But faced by the decision today, we tend to choose the TV. It’s easier. We know it’s better to do exercise, but the immediate satisfaction of sitting on the couch is more attractive.

Gareth Hutchens explains, in an SMH op-ed, that’s why we use credit cards – the hit from buying something with our credit card now trumps the cost of the interest we’ll pay down the track.

We “discount” future consumption in favour of present consumption. The question is by how much, and that depends on our “discount rate”.

To find the discount rate, economists ask: How should we compare the welfare of future generations to the welfare of the current generation?

There are two ways to answer it. We can base our calculations on market interest rates (the positive approach), or we can base them on ethical judgments about the relative values of people’s lives (the normative approach).

Seems simple, but this simple idea of discounting underpins everything we think about the future, from building infrastructure to dealing with climate change.

2. The climate debate is a failure of data visualisation – can we tell data stories better?

Anyone who’s sat through a climate science talk intuitively knows this. It’s serious. Talk to climate researchers offline and they’re compelling. Go to a talk and – with notable exceptions – it’ll be a glacial drift of excel graphs.

Illustrators and other artists used to be crucial parts of research laboratories, though in most labs they’ve long since been let go. Watching Ben Hosken (from Melbourne data visualisation powerhouse Flink Labs) talk last week at #media140 in Brisbane, I couldn’t help but see it as a renaissance of the artist’s role in research.

Flink Labs did this project for #apps4nsw using real time Sydney Buses travel data (it’s not real time now though – the RTA removed public access to the data within hours of the program finishing). I love the potential of these kinds of projects for real time city governance – the sort of projects MIT’s Media Lab and Stamen have specialised in.

The #media140 talk was fairly introductory, not much new. But what I found interesting was Hosken’s broad principles had little to do with the technical side of data crunching, writing algorithms and doing graphics. Here’s a series of my tweets from the session:

Expressing data’s story in a way that doesn’t obscure the truth… also need to tell a really good story.

Data viz is telling a story you can interact with and explore, not broadcast

Tell the story, don’t just show data

& any storytelling RT @allinthemind: “not about the average”.. biggest & smallest sometimes reveal most enriching data viz stories

It’s finding the story in the data – not just processing the data unvarnished. Though as Natasha Mitchell (Radio National’s All In The Mind) said, using outliers to tell the story is ripe for misrepresentation. Take care.

Stanford’s Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer wrote a great paper on telling stories through interactive visualisation. German visual analytics researcher Enrico Bertini (from Fell In Love With Data) blogged the key points in a guest post on Andrew Vande Moere’s Infosthetics blog:

1. The table with the design space can help you during the design phase to understand what components you can use in your solution. Choose a genre, a visual narrative tactic, and a narrative structure. You can also think creatively and see if there are useful combinations of these elements that have never appeared before. Alternatively, you can think out-of-the-box, and come up with new solution altogether.

2. Be careful with the level of interactivity and messaging you provide. This is probably a choice that you have to take early in your visualization project: do you want to give lots of freedom and risk that the message is not conveyed clearly or you prefer to guide the reader but remove the thrill of exploration?

3. The hybrid models are ready-cooked solutions that you can use right away. Again, these can both serve as a way to find a model that suits your message, or just as a starting point to create new hybrid models.

The most popular software being used by designers and others who aren’t code natives is Processing, but there’s a stack of others. Computer World reviews 22 free packages including Data Wrangler, Google Refine, R Project, Google Fusion Tables, Impure, Tableau Public, IBM’s Many Eyes, VIDI, ZOHO Reports, Choosel, Exhibit, Google Chart Tools, JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit, Protovis, Quantum GIS (QGIS), OpenHeatMap, OpenLayers, OpenStreetMap, TimeFlow, Gephi and NodeXL. Get visualising.

3. Long form journalism

A big trend’s just about always complemented by its almost opposite. So while Twitter’s firing, there’s a balanced explosion in long form writing. You can see it in the thriving New Yorker magazine. Yes, Twitter is limited to 140 characters, but it’s driven by the deeper content of features, books, documentaries, conferences, movies and a hundred other things.

Annabel Crabb wrote a typically great piece for ABC’s Drum on the topic.

And the truth is, even though reading long articles on screens can be fiendish, especially when you are – as so often social media users do – breaking off every 30 seconds to check Twitter or let your intimates know that you’re up to page six and you feel a bit like a burrito, the internet is also coughing up new ways to recover, locate and enjoy longer pieces.

She mentions Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky’s site longform.org and Instapaper – both fast friends with iPad owners. There’s also The Paris Review and, one of my favourites, Longreads.

I was a music writer for ages, though I seem to be having a break. Editing Cyclic Defrost magazine, we shifted short reviews to the web and focussed the magazine around long feature length profiles and essays. With in depth music writing all but gone from the papers – most dailies get syndicated copy, and the magazines get more and more concise – we wanted to give more context, looking at creative communities and the broader culture. And that’s something you can’t approach in the usual 15-30 minute, 500 word feature.

Doesn’t need to be in print, either. Dan Hill’s great blog City of Sound is a case in point. He’s leaving Australia with this piece on planning in his wake. There are a stack of other writers doing much more interesting critical writing on blogs than anywhere – Alison Croggon, Anwyn Crawford, Linda Carroli – mostly because there isn’t the space in print publications for that depth.

4. Other good stuff

Greplin is a personal search engine that allows you to search all your online data in one easy place.

Scribble notes while you surf the web with Markup.

Fascinating Cindy Frewen Wuellner series on future cities at her Urban Verse blog.

Kate Carruthers asks if innovation actually helps.

And N+1 magazine on elites.

20 questions

The editor at New Matilda emailed asking for max 140 character answers for a piece. Not sure it’s really crowdsourcing when you get contributors for contribs, but NM’s one of the original online magazines in a rapidly expanding field. Here’s what I sent in.

Where are the best fish and chips near you?

Fishface serves up fish+chips for a pricey $15 on Darlinghurst Road, but it’s totally worth it.

Will this be your first tweeted festive season?

I’m tweeting my way through the ham, pudding and prawns season for the third time on Friday. But it’s friends/fam/eating/drinking, not tweeting.

What’s the best Christmas present Twitter could give you?

An easy way of managing multiple accounts?

Followers: quantity or quality?

Talking followers at xmas seems oddly appropriate – I’m happy both ways, if someone decides to follow my tweets, they’re quality in my book.

What is your favourite season-appropriate song?

I love doing xmas specials on my radio shows and have songs well and truly stockpiled. @wayneandwax’s heavy remix-mas is a fave.

It’s Christmas Night. You turn on the TV. What movie should be broadcast?

Flying High, Spinal Tap, Weekend at Bernie’s? Short attention span, a little stupid and definitely no xmas theme.

What is your attitude to office Christmas parties?

Office party a la Mad Men, with loads of booze, good looking colleagues and maybe a small fork lift? Yes, keen on those.

In 140 characters or less, what is the future of journalism?

“The future’s already here, it’s just unevenly distributed” (from @williamgibson)

If the Walkleys had a best tweeter category, who would you nominate?

The best tweeters are disarmingly frank, insightful, entertaining; @vasilikaliman is all that and deliciously bitchy about the art world.

Who is your favourite tweep?

It’s not so much the specific tweeters, but the back and forth collective flow of ideas. It’s all about scenes/community, you know?

Read the final cut, Twitter For World Governor 2010: 20 Questions, and now The Twitterati Speaks: 20 Questions at New Matilda. BTW I’m @fortunegrey.

Don’t forget your shoes

It’s the silly season in Darlinghurst, but that’s no reason to just throw your shoes off in the street.

That stylish kicker was on Macleay Street, outside the Potts Point Fratelli Fresh. But it’s by no means the only pair in town. Cast off shoes are reaching epidemic proportions.

There’s another pair just around the corner on Llankelly Place. Just over to the left there, it’s a pair of suede heels.

A fancy night out gone wrong (or right?) – it could have been a Take It Home And See If It Works, but this has the feel of something much bigger.

A very Tiger Christmas

Tiger Woods was one of the most tightly branded (and bland) public personalities anywhere. So with the unfolding story of 10 or more regular ladies on the side, it’s not too hard to imagine him rocking up at Kings Cross bar Porky’s on his last trip.

Every year around this time, Porky’s gets dolled up in tinsel, Christmas trees and Santas, and truckloads of lights.

A sign above the bar’s Darlinghurst Road front door gets used for ad hoc messages, kind of like a heathen take on the St Barnabas on Broadway. In June, they used it to point NRL players elsewhere. This week, they’re claiming Tiger as a recent guest.

Getting festive

Christmas dollars make as much sense to Darlinghurst shops as anywhere else. But there’s a different vibe here. So when decorations go up, they’re generally on a different tip.

A dishevelled looking Santa Claus appeared hanging from the roof outside the Darlo Bar on Darlinghurst Road this week. There’s a moulded plastic Santa in the window at hip second hand shop Blue Spinach. And at the cafe named for its location at the corner of Forbes and Burton Streets, a very rock’n’roll Santa Claus is tearing across the outside wall, propelled by a giant shark.


It’s well into the Christmas drinks season in the neighbourhood, so the streets are permeated with a generally relaxed vibe. Which is great, unless you’re still hard at work, of course.

Keep an eye on your Christmas tree

Early this morning, at Fitzroy Gardens in Kings Cross, Council erected a festive Christmas tree, with stars, baubles and power to light up at night.

We admired it this afternoon.


Notice anyone suspicious in the photo above?

Hang on, there is someone lurking around near that hedge.

It’s the tree’s very own 24 hour security guard.

Do Sydney’s other Christmas decorations get the same attention?