The Thin Line of Visual Storytelling Based on Data

The Netherlands imports soy from all over the world, while beer is one of the most famous products the country exports. The Dutch produce energy from British rubbish and… and, at this point, you are already bored, aren’t you?

This is the traditional way of explaining a country, its history, economy and major issues: pages and pages of words, figures and statistics.  What if the same information is conveyed in a different way?

Something like this:

That is what data journalist Frédérik Ruys and his colleagues do with “Netherlands from Above,” an award-winning series of documentaries in which big data sets, and their visualization, play an essential role.

In this animation, for example, Ruys and his colleagues tell the story of how the organs for transplants travel across the country and, sometimes, abroad. Given the short lifespan of an organ outside the body, the organs need to reach hospitals as quickly as possible.

“We followed eight cars transporting organs for transplant during a weekend. The drivers had loggers, which allowed us to follow them and tell this story in a different way,” said Ruys during the session “From Data Exploration to Animation.”

These animations are powerful and effective: They allow journalists to tell complex stories in a simple and engaging way. But what are the possible pitfalls?

“As a journalist, you want to visualize the truth, but you want also to make the information clear, and it’s a thin line how to manipulate data until the story is clear but still respecting the structure of the data,” Ruys said during an interview before his talk. “We have quite a responsible job in looking for the right story. Sometimes we are so focused in searching for a particular phenomenon that we might ignore everything else we see. The solution is stepping out of the story to see other stories data are giving you.”

Getting the story right is as important as visualizing it correctly and honestly. “There is always the risk to make something beautiful and forget the data and the news. Moreover, visualization looks nice, and it is easy to convince people even if your information is not right. You can impress people with false information,” Ruys said.