[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.

[Reading #7] Changing cities

1. Our cities are getting bigger

It’s clichéd to talk about more people living in cities than not, but it’s a milestone.  The way our cities work is changing too. We used to measure them every handful of years in a census, but increasingly we can keep much closer tabs through real time studies of the flow of people and information. So how does that change things?

(experiments with light by UK photographer/artist Helen Stevenson)

A new Institute For The Future study on the Future of Cities, Information and Inclusion tackles the subject. In this Fast Company piece, writer and urban planner Anthony Townsend’s analysis is measured:

None of these developments are unambiguously good.

Using sensors to track people and change are bound to inspire new ideas and new ways of being communities. It’s easy to be hyperbolic. But it also has the potential to drastically reduce civil liberties – think how networks of closed circuit cameras are increasingly being used, add in the vast change in public information from social networks like Foursquare, and the data troves available through the gov2.0 process.

The IFTF report touches on cloud computing, public interfaces, smart personal devices, broadband connectivity and open data infrastructures. It’s simply presented and asks lots of questions (a good sign) about the tensions. Who wins from smart cities? Who controls the data? Is crowdsourcing just offloading the responsibilities of the government onto the governed? And how do you approach the proliferating digital, economic and knowledge gaps? Lots of good examples. Short, too.

There’s a lot of Jane Jacobs in the thinking – really useful given the usual focus on future smart cities as a kind of wonderful utopia – about inclusion, and that’s something that’s teased out in this review of a series of presentations from the group.

2. Creative class saves cities?

Richard Florida’s concept that creative capital is crucial to a city’s economic success has been taken up with gusto, here he is in the ‘Flight of the Creative Class’:

Concentrations of creative talented people are particularly important for innovation…Ideas flow more freely, are honed more sharply, and can be put into practice more quickly when large numbers of innovators, implementers and financial backers are in constant contact with one another, both in and out of the office.

Bilbao’s success following the construction of Frank Gehry’s beautiful Guggenheim is usually the cited case study, but Thomas Sevcik (MD of Arthesia) knocked it over in a talk at this year’s Art Basel Miami:

Sevcik showed one graph charting the annual arrival of passengers streaming through the Bilbao airport — the “gotcha” part is that the big spike occurred not when the Guggenheim opened, but a few years later, when Europe’s budget airlines, such as Ryan Air and Air Berlin, started flying to Bilbao. Moreover, Spain was already investing in new cultural and business developments that may have contributed to the rise of Bilbao anyway. And what may work in Bilbao may not necessarily present a universal model for civic success.

He took aim at the creative industries, too, as actually being innovation-averse.

Due to chronic under-funding, “once [creative industries] find a formula [of] how they can sell a product – a special type of website or special strategy – they tend then to sell the same thing over and over.” Comparing the culture sector to others such as biotech or the financial industry, Sevcik claimed that the latter is more creative and innovative than the culture industries.

It’s a good reminder. Watch your assumptions. Just because artistically creative people are good at being creative in their discipline doesn’t mean they’re any more creative elsewhere.

3. Great ideas can start prosaic and small

Here’s one. It’s Der Gründungszuschuss, which according to Daily Kos, roughly translates as ‘start up grant’. And that’s basically it, start up grants for the urban poor.

It is a program for the unemployed that gives a monthly amount of seed capital for those on unemployment. The grant is means-tested and is paid on top of unemployment, health and other benefits. For example, a married couple with children can get a grant up to just under $32,000! A single person who is unemployed and has no children can get up to just over $25,000. The benefits are paid out over a period of nine months. After that, there is an extension of benefits called the “building phase” that pays an additional $400 per month for six months.

Some will fail, obviously. But the grants are supported by business classes, business planning mentoring, and ongoing seminars and training. How great.

4. And while we’re on cities

There’s a lot of talk about China’s astronomic urban growth. But sure there may be 20 new cities built there every year, but does anyone live in them?

5. Want more?

Read Write Web’s Best Internet of Things. New York Times’ Year In Ideas, and a 10 year special from NYT on the Best Ideas of a Decade.

How about The Guardian’s new data visualisation channel. Mitchell Whitelaw’s brilliant TEDxCanberra talk on showing everything instead of search. Touchable holograms. And, uhh, a brilliant example of the kind of research you could only really do by crowdsourcing.