Thursday, 1 July 2010

Visualising data: are the statistics provided always the right ones to use?

It was Liverpool's first Social Media Cafe Liverpool #smcliv last night and I'd be amazed, given the way it went, if there wasn't another one taking place very shortly.
I was one of the speakers (report of the evening will be on my work blog later today) but this post is a bit different; I wanted to write some  thoughts out of my head about data, and journalism, and how - for me, at least - it's very easy to get lost in what makes a Really Awesome Visualisation, when what it should be about is information. Sometimes I need to remind myself, statistics are not the whole story.
When Neil Morrin, of Defnetmedia, asked me to talk at the SMC I was a little stumped for a topic as I know a lot of the social media/tech crowd in Liverpool and many of them have far more ideas about cool online stuff. They tend to build it themselves.
The idea of talking about visualisations - but with the visuals as an aid to exploring the angles of a story rather than the be-all and end-all - came about because I'd found making a couple of infographics helpful in dragging out some interesting facts behind some stats released by Knowsley council. The visuals were tools to help me see what the potential story was, not the reader - although obviously that was a spin-off. As it turned out, I think they helped me uncover a richer news story than the original data provided.

Knowsley had released findings of its March 2010 survey of Kirkby residents, who were asked for their input on the future of the town centre. The report is on the council website and I've also put it on Scribd to make it easier for sharing. Here's a pie chart from the report...

The council also put up residents' written responses, which was what I was interested; in their own words, locals were abound to be more prescriptive than they could be in a council 'tick the box' approach which gave them eight options.

First I put all the text into and refined it to give me the top 50 most repeated words. That gave me an idea of the emotion of the responses, and a hint that the comments held richer pickings than the rest of the report.
So I plotted a spreadsheet of what each resident raised (I kept the headers initially vague, and refined them as I went along and themes emerged) which was tedious and time-consuming in the extreme. But worth it; they differed to council responses in fairly significant areas - such  as being overwhelmingly in favour of keeping the Kirkby Suite and halting planned demolition, and wanting a football stadium linked to a superstore.
Neither of these issues are flagged by the council's tick-box approach - not because Knowsley didn't want to acknowledge them but because the suite demolition is planned, and the stadium scheme was rejected.
They are done and dusted in the world of local government - but not in the minds of those who responded to the survey. Policing - or the lack of - is another standout.

Here's my bar chart from Swivel (interactive on the site, but - at the time of writing - not on here?)

and a pie chart from the same site (interactive here if it's not here)

Then I hopped over to ManyEyes and made a word tree of the residents' responses...

I used Kirkby as the starting point but if you change the phrases it gives a marvellous insight into what people want. Try 'I would like to see', for example, and you get everything from the specific and wistful 'department store selling nice clothes' to the rather more damning 'you tell the truth'.

Finally, just because I like them, I made a bubble chart

And that was it really. So, how do my infographics and the council's pie chart differ (and does it matter?) Well, the council has order of importance thus:
Food superstore
New retail
New town square and improved public space
Improved transport links
Public services grouped together in one place
Social / evening facilities
New private sector office quarter
Improved market

From my research I found the most stated/desired things by Kirkby residents were:
Facilities (bars, restaurants, public toilets)
Keep Kirkby Suite
Environment (appearance, green spaces)
Transport links
Demolish Kirkby Suite
Other (childrens play area, OAP centre)

I think it makes interesting reading - sure, it's not MP expenses but I got satisfaction from digging the details out - and it was a good learning experience for me. Some of the answers don't differ wildly but aspects - for example, the strong feelings about the need to keep the Kirkby Suite and policing - give clear pointers about local feelings.
That could help really inform an editorial decision on how much space, time and effort to devote to a story - here, for example, I reckon a reporter with multimedia tools and time cleared in the diary to really spend time in Kirkby talking to people, could focus on the real needs of the area, and re-establish a bond between the paper and the area.

Statistics are amazing things and make wonderful visualisations. But they aren't the whole story. People are the whole story, and I believe these visualisations helped me find that.

UPDATE: This is my presentation from last night

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