How I’ve Put Free, Simple Data Viz Tools To Use In My Reporting

One highlight of my Online News Association 2013 Conference experience: sharing the stage with some talented journos to deliver a lightning talk about what we can learn from the StateImpact project. The whole speech was a blur, but I guess I gushed about Google Fusion tools a little bit — there’s Twevidence:

.@kystokes “I can’t code, but I can do (#Google) Fusion Tables. I love this stuff.” #ona13centerstage #ONA13 @vanessagene — David Smydra (@smydrad) October 19, 2013

@smydrad Nice! Would love to see stories you’ve used it for, @kystokes? — Vanessa Schneider (@vanessagene) October 19, 2013

Happy to oblige, Google Geo Media Program Manager Vanessa Schneider. (She, along with Amanda Hickman, gave an #ona13 talk on Google’s data visualization tools. I’m sorry to say I missed it live, but thankfully, there’s audio of the session here.)

Guys, Google Fusion Tables are amazing. They take some getting used to. There are growing pains. There are certainly quirks to feel around. But thankfully, there are tons of great resources on using them — like this primer from StateImpact Oklahoma‘s Joe Wertz.

Clearly, the system has its limitations. You can’t pull off heat maps or data apps like this or this with Google Fusion Tables without some heavier lifting. Displaying two layers of data is a possible, but a challenge. But don’t get caught up in that. With relative ease, Fusion does make a bunch of ambitious, time-consuming, unruly projects in Microsoft Excel seem doable — even on deadline. Here are three favorite examples:

  • Election 2012 Stories. These maps of contributions to the political campaigns of the Republican and Democratic candidates for the state’s top elected education office required more work in Excel than on Fusion tables — the data needed lots of cleaning. But I love these so much more for the stories they drove — about the GOP incumbent’s rising national star (“rising” at the time, anyway) and the grassroots effort that drove the Democratic challenger’s improbable upset.
  • Layering Points & Polygons. To tell the story of which charter schools “compete” for enrollment with traditional public schools, we really need to layer two different datasets — polygons of traditional district boundaries and points representing the addresses of the charter schools. That’s not functionality endemic to Fusion Tables. But I got unreasonably excited to find a free tool that displayed two separate layers of data at once. It not only visualized the data, but led to one of the story’s central points: only one in ten school districts in Indiana has a charter school within its boundaries (but those districts account for one-third of the state’s total student population).
  • ‘The 165 Story.’ In the midst of a controversy over how Indiana’s high-stakes academic performance ratings for schools were calculated — a controversy that focused largely on one charter school — I put together a map that visualized an analysis of the numbers showing the impact of the changes were much broader than the media was discussing. Instead of a handful of schools, we showed that 165 schools saw their “A-F grades” improve because of the change. The map isn’t all that different from the election projects in substance, but once again, they became interactive centerpieces of the broader stories I hoped to tell.
  • Test Score Resources. The crack development team that built the StateImpact platform was prescient enough to include plugins for sortable tables driven by Google, but we’ve done a couple of visualizations of test score data by district — and we’ve found they have a long shelf-life. (Here’s another and another for good measure.)

As I allude to above, much of the real lifting here comes in acquiring the data and cleaning it up in Excel before uploading it to Google Fusion Tables. If you have questions about that, leave me a comment. While you’re at it, leave critiques for the pieces, because honestly, I still feel like I’m building this airplane as I fly it.

I’d be remiss to wrap up this post without a shout-out to former StateImpacters Matt Stiles, Jessica Pupovac and Elise Hu, who all preached the Google Fusion Tables evangel during their time with the project. They taught me what I know.

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One thought on “How I’ve Put Free, Simple Data Viz Tools To Use In My Reporting

  1. Georgia says:

    I have read so many articles about the blogger lovers but this post
    is actually a nice article, keep it up.

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