[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.

Do things #1

  1. Journalists waste a lot of time in multiple Freedom of Information requests for the same reports, or getting access to material that’s in the public interest. A couple of new sites aim to help. MuckRock files, tracks and shares FOI documents. DocumentCloud helps journalists, particularly investigative journalists, share their source documents. I reckon both would be just as useful for a much wider group of people, it’s not just journos dealing with FOI requests and source documents – they could be equally useful for community activists and urbanists, educators and researchers.
  2. I’ve been using GoogleDocs, Google’s cloud take on Office, for lots of collaborative projects, particularly when I was editing Cyclic Defrost magazine and putting together my FBi Radio program every week – but particularly for the magazine, one of the perennial issues was porting the formatted docs back to Earth. TechCrunch says Cloud Connect (just on signup at the moment) will fix it all.
  3. View stats on your bit.ly pages: add a ‘+’ to any bit.ly URL to see stats on it and others pointing to same e.g. http://bit.ly/ea8t3s+
  4. Draw all over the web with ShiftSpace, and use Curated.by to craft the Smithsonian of the web – which sounds grand, but really means filtering a stream of tweets at this stage.

Cyclic Defrost 23

It’s been a while in the making, but our 23rd issue is out.

That’s Grant Hunter‘s crazed marsupial/bunny cover for Cyclic Defrost #23.

Inside you can find Grant’s favourite record sleeves and an in-depth interview with the Novocastrian – by Shaun Prescott, who also turns in a killer feature on another steel city institution: Castings. Also interviews with Mata & Must, Chihei Hatakeyama, Pimmon, Peaking Lights, Jon Hassell, Swoop Swoop, and Tim Exile, and Tim Koch selects. The Cyclic website, which also features hundreds of record reviews, is set for a major revamp any day too.

I interviewed Paul Gough for a piece about his music (Pimmon) and radio (ABC, FBI, etc) making – the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum section ran a shorter version of the piece on June 13, but for some reason not online (download here). So writing it up for Cyclic gave me a chance work on it a bit more, use a few more of my sources, and run it online.


I’m off to Perth next week for the climate change conference Greenhouse 2009.

But think Perth and it’s the Meupe record label that comes to mind – they’ve released great records by Stina, Pimmon and Dave Miller among others. I interviewed Traianos Pakioufakis, the guy behind Meupe, when he guest designed the cover of Cyclic Defrost, in July, 2006 (read here).

Here’s a recent taster from the label. Wooshie – Both Sides from the Natural’s Is In It 7 inch single – Meupe described it as follows:

Debut release from the mysterious sound wizard Wooshie (aka Dylan Michel). An ethereal balance of light and darkness, subdued chaos and forlorn rhythm. Cosmic waves crashing against a dark southern shore, Middle-Eastern-Soviet contemplation followed by futuristic erhu bossanova. A truly beautiful 45 that seems to consider the nature of chance, duality and balance.

First thing I did on confirming my trip west side, was check what’s happening Meupe-wise in Perth. And they’ve got a night at Spectrum Project Space in Northbridge. If I can tear myself away from the talks and things.