I'm very excited to have Alberto Cairo with us today. Alberto is the Knight Chair in Visual Journalism at the School of Communication at the University of Miami. He also teaches courses on infographics and data visualization and what sparked you going in that direction? - So the Visual Trumpery talk could be subtitled how charts lie or how data visualization lies or even better how we lie to ourselves using charts.
And it basically comes from an interest that I have had for a long time, particularly after I wrote my second book The Truthful Art I started getting interested not only in how to design better data visualizations, but how people and when I say people I mean non-specialists interpret or misinterpret the data visualizations that we create. And we have tons of sources pointing out that we all misinterpret visualizations on a regular basis sometimes because we don't treat them with enough attention, sometimes because we project what we want to believe onto the data visualizations that we see just because we love our own beliefs and ideological biases confirmed, but the information that we receive sometimes because visualizations are not well designed and so on and so forth.
So I decided that it could be a great idea to put together a talk pointing out or listing systematically the many ways in which we can be mislead by different kinds of graphics. But you know I was looking for a title and the original title of the talk was going to be A Graphicacy, which is visual literacy or graphical literacy but then I realized afterwards that graphicacy may sound a little too academic or a little bit too boring and someone on my tutor stream right after the 2016 presidential election tweeted the meaning of the english word trumpery and a trumpery is something that deceives or something that lies, particularly something that lies visually, it's like a visual display that lies for some reason.
So I thought that this was the perfect title for the talk because it would make the talk highly controversial, it will attract bigger audiences who would be by the way misled by the title of the talk because the talk is highly political, but it is not partisan so I teach how graphics lie and the examples that I use come from sources from all over the ideological spectrum. So it's basically a talk about how charts lie, just in summary. - I went to the talk in Boston, it was really a great talk, and I love that you're trying to be controversial, you knew it would stoke a little bit of controversy and yet it was very fair and even handed, it was clearly examples from all sides of various debates.
So the second book, The Truthful Art led to the talk and now you're also doing a book that's on a similar subject. Tell us a little bit more about the book and how it differs maybe from the talk. - Yes I finished writing actually the first draft of this new book a couple of days ago. So now I need to get into all the editing process et cetera and it will take a few months to get it out, it will be published probably around 2019. Basically it's going to be my first book for the general public.
Both my previous books, The Functional Art and The Truthful Art I wrote them mainly for journalists, graphic designers, scientists, statisticians, et cetera, but the new book is for the general public.
and learn lessons about how to do a better job at what they're doing. And the thing to remember, I always use the phrase you have to have a zen beginner's mind when you do this work because you have to remember what it's like to not know everything. I'm actually reading a book right now, now I can't remember the name of it, The Heath Brothers, and one of the phrases in there they refer to is the curse of knowledge. - The curse of knowledge, absolutely. - So you have to release that and in order to remember how not to be misleading even by mistake it is to just have an appreciation of your audience and understand what they don't know. And the fact that everyone looks at a chart as you sort of alluded to earlier and think it speaks truth, think that it is complete and it never is. - Yeah rather than scrutinize the chart, we tend to look at charts and take them at face value. And we need to apply the same critical thinking that we apply to text or to spoken words we also need to apply to charts. - Yeah. So you were a journalist as you said and I do find this world, the world of data visualization, data communications, it's really an interesting blend between journalism, design, and technology. And it's a very rare and interesting mix of skills and I guess I would ask you, given the state of the world today and how we all question everything which is a good thing, but of course the integrity of some of the institutions are a bit in doubt right now, what role does data visualization and journalistic thinking play in making the world a better place? - So the book that I'm writing right now, it may have either the title or subtitle how charts lie, that would be the first part, but the second one is how they make us smarter. So when a chart is badly designed or without it interpreted correctly, it makes us dumber right, it makes us dumber. But if the chart is well designed and we interpret it correctly, that chart makes us smarter. So that's a very important principle that we need to keep in mind because a chart, and when I say chart I refer to any kind of data visualizations, a chart let us see beyond what we can normally see. Let us see behind the complexity of the data or beyond the complexity of the data. So it extends our perception and our cognition. So that's a very important principle to remember. As to principles of journalism that can be applied to chart making or to visualization design, well there are many. One of them would be for instance the use of a narrative for example, of narrative structures whenever we are going to present information to a particular audience. So learning for example how to chunk information and how to sequence the information in a way that the information makes sense rather than to present everything at once, presenting things little by little, and how to chain one step to the next step or connect them. - Wait a second. - So they make sense. - Alberto are you saying, and I know you would never use this word cause I know you're not a fan, you're talking about data storytelling. (laughter) Least that's what my definition of storytelling. No that's great, I agree. It's sequence, flow, chunking, absolutely. Keep going sorry. - So yeah you were about to ask about my dislike for the word storytelling right. That's sort of an internet or Twitter controversy that I got involved in a while ago saying that I dislike that word, I don't like the word storytelling that much. Or better said, I like it when it is applied explicitly to, explicitly to what a story is. And a story is something that I use a very narrow definition of a story and a story is a kind of narrative that has some sort of so to speak redeeming arc or something like that. When you pose a problem or you pose, you begin a narrative and there is some sort of conflict, there's some characters involved perhaps that need to solve that conflict and then you provide a resolution to that conflict so the story will be well rounded. But sometimes you can apply that structure to presentations and if you can great, go ahead, but I don't do that. But in the world of journalism, and I believe that this is something that is extending to other realms, we are using story or storytelling in a much looser way. We are calling for example interactive data visualizations stories or some graphics that are not really stories we are call them stories. And I say that perhaps we need to use words or language a little bit more accurately or precisely and talk about for example insight. So this graphic provides insight, it doesn't provide stories. Or narrative for example, narrative structures are not always stories because there may be not a resolution at the end, you may keep things open ended or you may present two or three or four different kinds of explanations to the phenomena that you are talking about and I wouldn't have called that a story. - No that's fair. And I appreciate it, I wasn't expecting us to go into that territory, but it's fun. And you know it's actually, it sort of brings us right back to the theme right because truth telling, being careful and accurate with our words, careful and accurate with our data and our visuals, it all aligns pretty nicely. So you know unfortunately we are actually running out of time and I guess I just wanted to thank you very much for joining me here today. It was a good talk and I wish we had a lot more time to talk about it, but I guess I would just ask you in conclusion to remind us when the book is coming out and if you have any last words of advice and any sort of future telling about the state of data literacy and data visualization in the world in the next one, three, five years? - Sure. So I don't know yet when the book is going to come out, sometime during 2019. The editing process and the publishing process is a little bit of a mystery to me. So right now as I said before I finished writing the first draft, now I need to go through copy editing and proofreading and verification et cetera, and I don't know how many months that will take but sometime during 2019, probably in the first half, but I don't know yet. Anyway so and where visualization is going I have no idea, but I see some promising trends that I would like to help push forward. And one of them, and by the way this connects to the talk and also to the book, is that I believe that visualization has the potential to become a language or a means of discovery and expression that anybody can take advantage of or from. So I do believe that it can become a universal language and I think that it's powerful language, it's something again that can help us see beyond what we can normally see. And it should not be just the realm of groups of specialists scientists, statisticians, graphic designers, journalists. I believe that any citizen can take advantage of charts to discover features of the places where that person lives or about his or her own life, or to basically conduct a better and more informed life. - That's great. Alberto thank you very much, really appreciate you joining me, and I know our audience will appreciate your insights. So thank you again. - Thank you, thank you so much again for having me.