A Visualization to the Editor

By: William Aubrey
June 2015

Any evolution is similar to the metaphor of passing through the eye of a needle. There are essential elements that pass through and other elements that are shed. Newspapers and Libraries are in the process of evolving and there are at least two common threads that tie their futures together: Real Estate and Data.

As a 20+ year practitioner in the art & science of managing data, I’ve seen a full sweep from basic Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets rendered in MS-DOS to the latest techniques capable of creating beautiful visualizations of hundreds of millions of data points. Regardless of the tool or the application, the life of data follows an arc from its creation, through transformation and into meaning. Professionals can debate esoteric technical merits of each step or tool, but often these arguments become too complex and end up excluding many from the conversation. When viewed as a broad arc, the life of data is not only within the grasp of all audiences, but has the capability to enhance our critical thinking skills and ourselves in the process.

Everything is information. From the color of the sunrise, the movements in an interpretive dance, musical notes in sheet music or played aloud; anything that is labeled, categorized, or otherwise named or measured is information. There is a class of information that is highly suitable to becoming “data”. From my practice, this is anything that can be enumerated in a list (of rows) whose properties can be separated into labels (columns). This is a very simple definition, but it’s worth keeping it simple if it helps to overcome technical intimidation that keeps many people from appreciating the insight to be gained by understanding this arc.

As a casual observer, the arc can be understood in three stages in the same language as the professional: Extract, Transform and Load (ETL). This is a common data processing term though more often used in a narrow context applying to moving data from one database to another. With only minor artistic license, this same breakdown can be used to discuss how data applies to all of us.

Extract is the creation of data; where did it come from? Who gathered it and how? Even a quick search for “How to cite data” will show that many have already given considerable thought to constructing a bibliographic reference for “data”. Several components in this reference are shared by many: author, title, year of publication, publisher, edition or version, and access information (a URL or other persistent identifier). Understanding the implications of this stage can offer insight into the quality of the data source.

Transform is literally the transformation; no information becomes data without being transformed. Whether the transformation takes place from transferring handwritten entries to a spreadsheet or through programmatic calculations, most information will require a little clean up or alteration before it is suitable for its intended application as a data source. Information becomes data when it is in columns and rows and controls are applied to maintain its integrity.

Load; though more of a stretch from its technical meaning, by load I mean that a store of columns and rows has to be made into something meaningful so that the audience can absorb the insight to be gained. Here, data visualization allows the audience to “load” this knowledge quickly and intuitively.

This is where Real Estate matters. We’ve laid out a simple definition for data and described the arc of its life from creation to knowledge; but this is only one article. Newspapers and Libraries, as the stewards of democracy, have the capacity to evolve and transform by leveraging their real estate to bring “data” out of the ephemeral technical clouds and down to earth for all audiences to appreciate.

Along with the education mission, libraries have the real estate to bring people together to educate and inform about the entire “ETL” process. Librarians are especially suited to becoming stewards for the dataset bibliographies at the Extract stage. In terms of Transform, we are at a place in the internet era where high quality, free tools are available to manage data at every step. Reference librarians may soon expand their expertise to be able to recommend which of these tools are applicable for any patron’s needs. Ideally, libraries would then become the physical space where people come together to learn not only from books, but from data as well. These become the “maker spaces” for knowledge, applying free tools to extract data from public sources and transform it into something meaningful.

At the “Load” stage, newspapers are at a unique advantage because they have huge tracts of page “real estate” to show beautiful visualizations in a format much larger and more enduring compared to what is available on our phones and computer screens. With a readership becoming more data-aware and more space dedicated to full page visualizations, newspapers have an opportunity to draw readers back to their websites by linking to interactive visualizations. This connection opens up possibilities for a new revolution in paper. The alliteration of the words “data” and “day”, alone, in a weekly “Mega Data Monday”, “Thirsty Data Thursday”, or “Free Data Friday” would encourage me to pick up a weekly paper to be enthralled by gorgeous layouts; something informative, inspirational or beautiful that I’d hang on a wall or at least the fridge until the following week.

Newspapers and Libraries are both beloved institutions. They’ll both pass through the eye of the needle into the future in one form or another. Embracing data and leveraging their real estate may be two of the elements that pass through and take us with them.

Further Reading

Redman, Thomas C. “4 Business Models for the Data Age.” May 20, 2015. (https://hbr.org/2015/05/4-business-models-for-the-data-age?es_p=481325)

Essif, Amien. “Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google.” May 23, 2015. (http://www.alternet.org/books/why-libraries-matter-more-ever-age-google)

Lever, Rob. “Newspapers struggle to find path in digital age” May 31, 2015. (http://m.france24.com/en/20150531-newspapers-struggle-find-path-digital-age)

Mooney, Hailey. “How to Cite Data” June 2, 2015. (http://libguides.lib.msu.edu/citedata)


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