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Data Blogs

Seeing Reality Through Graphs and Maps

July 10, 2012 | by CRAIG J. WILLY

© Sergii Dashkevych/veer

While people rely less and less on traditional media data blogs serve as a new guide through the information jungle. Craig J. Willy presents some of the most influential data blogs today.

The Sustainable Governance Indicators attempt to provide an overall account of a stunning array of variables, including in the areas of government, democracy, environment, economics... While these very broad topics are critically important to people’s daily lives, it can be difficult to convey their meaning to individuals. Problems, say, of public finances or climate can appear abstract until they (unfortunately) fully materialise in the form of a crisis.

Data blogs represent a new way of reaching and understanding information. For example, while a traditional media might simply report a series of crimes, data blog post might provide a chart documenting the rise and/or fall of crime rates in an area. The information revealed can sometimes sharply contradict the impressions conveyed by individual news stories. The following presents three of the most influential and informative data blogs today.

The Guardian: Embracing the Data

The Guardian has been one of the most enthusiastic advocates of data journalism in the Internet age. Its “Datablog” is supposed to exemplify the second half of the London newspaper’s motto that “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”

Its frequent postings naturally cover British issues a great deal (whether it’s public spending, obesity, education...) but the blog’s real strength is the quantity and quality of original presentations of the data, often in the form of very striking infographics. Among the more prominent of these have been the “carbon atlas” of global emissions by country and the breaking down of the biggest contributors and beneficiaries of the European Union budget. The visualizations are often available in PDF form and the original data itself can also be accessed.

For those doing research, the Guardian also has a “data store” of archives of previous data sets and several pieces explaining the importance of data journalism.

Wonkblog: If You Can’t Get Enough

Liberal U.S. blogger and commentator Ezra Klein directs the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog”. For those not in the know, a “wonk” is a policy expert. The blog claims to provide “Economic and domestic policy, and lots of it,” and it certainly lives up to its claim.

While they provide few if any original data visualisations, the authors are extremely prolific, publishing numerous posts every day with news and op-ed roundups, interviews with key politicians and opinion-makers, and aggregation of graphs and maps from various sources.

Much of this is US-focused. The analyses of the American government are often original in presentation: You’ll find graphs on the use of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate (a method of blocking legislation unless there is a supermajority), tables on onsequences of the economic brinksmanship in the Congress, and arguments on why the U.S. healthcare system is twice as costly as that of other developed countries.

However, the blog also manages to provide significant coverage of issues from other regions (notably seemingly endless, and mostly depressing, analysis of the eurozone). The blog aggregates and presents data from sources around the world such as the OECD on the extent of austerity in different countries , the WWF on the depletion of fish stocks, or even the number of deliveries by Santa Claus around Christmas time (broken down by time zone).

Wonkblog’s frequent, often lengthy and dense postings can be off-putting for novices. However, its coverage and detail makes it a must-read for anyone who wants to keep up with the latest expertise on global issues.

Graphic Detail: Keeping it Simple

The Economist initially had a “Daily Chart” providing a graphic illustrating data, typically from a third source. This has grown into the “Graphic Detail” blog which publishes more often, but the stream of content remains manageable.

While the venerable liberal magazine is often considered a difficult read, “Graphic Detail” postings are typically simple and succinct. They deal in typically international/cosmopolitan topics such as the expansion of the developing world’s cities, the years of economic growth lost to the financial crisis, or the Internet’s contribution to the economy.

The presentation is usually that of a simple bar chart or graph. However, on select topics the magazine sometimes invests in more interactive and detailed presentations such as this flash map covering innumerable aspects of the European economy in different countries (including debt, GDP, unemployment and trade balance) or this one showing the overlap between Facebook connections and former colonial empires.

The blog also features The Economist’s famously dry sense of humour. It recently republished a videographic in which the magazine rearranges the nations of Europe to suit it better, accompanied by mandatory deadpan commentary in an upper-crust British accent...

To Sum Up...

These are just some of the data blogs that are out there. There are many more catering for specific niches whether media, environment, economics or other areas. They are one example of where it is no exaggeration to talk of an Information Revolution that is radically transforming our perception of the world.

Where once individuals were largely dependent on often impressionistic or sensationalist news articles and television stories for information, today they are able to put these in context with data that, intelligently presented, can be made understandable for a lay audience. We can optimistic that our citizenries will be more informed as a result.

This has been an introduction to only some of the most prominent blogs in the vast, new and ever-evolving world of data blogging. Here are some others:

  • Les Crises is a blog by French actuary Olivier Berruyer analysing various aspects of the debt, financial and climate crises. Even those with poor-to-no French will find something useful as it relies heavily on self-explanatory graphs and cartoons.

  • The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is the granddaddy of international statistics collectors. Its Factblog highlights some its data on economics, education, environment and virtually everything else under the sun. It also provides some helpful guides to policy statistics in general.

  • Calculated Risk is a leading analytical data blog on economics with a US focus.

  • Fistful of Euros is a collaborative Europe-focused blog. In addition to general interest posts (politics, Eurovision...), it provides in-depth economic analysis, notably by Catalan blogger Edward Hugh.

  • The irreverent “Chart Porn” provides data visualisation from all walks of life, including governmental and policy data, but also sports and popular culture. Its humour section is definitely worth a chuckle.

    Craig J. Willy can be reached via Twitter @craigjwilly.