Magazine article Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

Visualize Data

Magazine article Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

Visualize Data

Article excerpt

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from Uplink. The full story and additional visuals are available to Uplink subscribers.

The Web now offers numerous free tools that give non-programmers the ability to create data-driven applications. Among those with the most promise, especially for journalists, is Google Fusion Tables.

Fusion Tables essentially is a free database manager in the cloud, allowing anyone to upload large data sets, merge them with other tables and create visualizations. It's much more, though. The service has a detailed application programming interface (API), and basically can serve as a free back end to serve data and mapping applications. The service also is customizable while simple, with extra capabilities for more experienced users.

Of course, the Web already has many free tools available to journalists, including Many Eyes and Tableau Public, both of which offer free ways to visualize records in creative ways. But Fusion Tables has specific advantages for journalism.

First, it's a Google product that recently was upgraded from "labs" status, so the user interface is fast and intuitive - and reporters and editors can be comfortable that the service will scale to meet high traffic volumes. It also uses visualization tools - the ubiquitous Google Maps API, for example - that are not only powerful but also familiar to readers and viewers.

Second, Fusion Tables offers privacy settings and customization that other free data visualization sites do not. Users can keep their tables private, if they choose, or only allow specific people to see them. They can also choose to make only portions of their data available by creating views - or narrow slices - of their larger databases.

In a practical sense, a reporter might first upload a spreadsheet and tinker privately until an application is ready to share with colleagues or editors, who can then make changes or add comments (individual data cells can be flagged for questions). Once the application is approved, it can be made completely public.

Third, the volume of data already available in the service makes it valuable. There are thousands of public tables - everything from Brazilian monthly tax collections to worldwide coffee production. In addition, it has numerous KML (Keyhole Markup Language) files, which can be used easily to plot points or overlay polygons (like counties, legislative districts or voting precincts) and merge the geography in Google Earth and other mapping programs.

The Texas Tribune has used the service for several applications, including our GovTracker, a Google Maps mashup we use to visualize locations of events attended by gubernatorial candidates this past fall.

To start, we created a data table with the fields we wanted to display and use for visuals within the app, including each event's description, location, address, etc. …

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