How to choose the best data visualization tool for you

This article originally appeared in Try This! — Tools for Journalism, our newsletter about digital tools. Want bite-sized news, tutorials and ideas about the best digital tools for journalism in your inbox every Monday? Sign up here.

As the kiddies dress up as ghosts and ghouls for Halloween (or, more likely, Fortnite and Spider-Man), my mind has already turned to end-of-year festivities.

Last year, I rounded up the tools you liked most in 2017 for a New Year’s blowout. This year, I’m curating my own personal faves. I’ll share my top 10 tools for journalism, one-by-one, in each newsletter between now and the end of the year, with my top three in the final edition.

These tools will only appear in the email edition of this newsletter. Sign up to get Try This! — Tools for Journalism (and my top 10 tools) in your inbox every Monday. If you’re unable or unwilling to sign up for some reason (maybe you’re sick of my constant scolding about your digital security and, let’s face, it, I ain’t gonna stop), don’t worry. I’ll post the complete list to the website at the end of the year.

VISUALIZE IT: The good news is that there are a lot of stellar tools that anyone, even data novices, can use to visualize data. That’s also the bad news. How do you pick one? Data viz expert Lisa Charlotte Rost built bubble charts using nine of the best tools — Infogram, Flourish, Data Illustrator, Plotly, Google Sheets, Datawrapper, Tableau Public, RAW and Adobe Illustrator — and displayed the results on her site along with commentary about the creation process. If you’re in the market for a new visualization tool, this has to be the best place to start.

 


Do you cover Chicago? Apply for our day-long workshop at Columbia College on Nov. 30 about best practices in data visualization.


 

CRUNCHING NUMBERS: If you’re looking for data on out-of-state influence during the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, look no further. The Center for Public Integrity published data detailing how individuals, corporations, PACs and unions have pushed more than $173 million to candidates in states other than the ones they’re based in. CPI recommends exploring the data with a few key questions in mind, such as whether one party’s candidates are pulling in more out-of-state money than others, or if a candidate or party seems to be more reliant on out-of-state donors.

FIX THIS: The internet was once like a medieval map. The average web surfer understood there be dragons beyond the borders of typical internet use, but those dragons largely stayed put. That map is long gone, replaced with one where the fringes intermingle and influence the rest of us. BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick has reporting on what he calls “that dark evolution of internet culture” for the past 10 years. Broderick recalls how that “darkness” moved from obscure sites to the average person’s pocket — by taking advantage of American tech companies like Facebook, Google and YouTube.

BAD NEWS: Are you an Android user? Do you have Call Blocker or Crossword Solver or any of these apps on your phone? You may have helped to perpetuate a massive advertising fraud scheme that snatched hundreds of millions of dollars from advertisers’ pockets (money that could have gone to news organizations). The scammers bought up old or underused apps from legitimate developers, captured the behavior of existing users and then mimicked that behavior with bots to make advertisers think that actual humans were viewing their ads. The worst part is that more than a dozen of the 125 affected apps targeted kids.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Journalists seem to be particularly cynical about data security. I’ve heard “If someone wants my information, they’re going to get it” dozens of times. But that’s not the case. There are plenty of tools to keep yourself safe online (I’ve touched on a few here). One of the best is SecureDrop, an open-source system that news organizations can install to accept documents from anonymous sources. Whether you use SecureDrop and love it, have tried and dropped it or have never used it, the team is looking for some help to make it a more useful tool. Consider helping them out.

ON MY RADAR: One reason journalists are so bad at protecting themselves online is that it’s freaking complicated, especially when it comes to the more effective tools. How can you expect average journalists to set up firewalls or understand 256-bit encryption when our heads are already filled with obscure AP Style rules? One company I’ve been talking to has found a solution. Honeybox promises that effective internet security will soon be as easy as plugging a tiny box into a router (or connecting to one with your phone) and then setting up a few security features. We’ll find out when Honeybox launches sometime early next year.

The following is another tool from a friend of the newsletter, Burkhard Luber, a lecturer in international politics and international crisis areas based in Germany. Got an item you’d like to submit? Email me.

GMAIL TRICKS: A site called CloudHQ features an impressively long list of Chrome extensions for Gmail. One of my favorites is Gmail Snippets, which lets you build phrases you often use when writing emails. Just type it once, store it in Gmail Snippets and use it again when needed. Each snippet has a keyboard shortcut word. Simply type the shortcut into your email message "compose" window, and it will be replaced by the contents of your snippet. Rename email gets rid of annoying fixed subject lines. It’s useful when a conversation changes topics and you no longer know what it is about, or when you are desperately guessing what the only word “Terrific” really means in an old subject line. With “Rename email” you can change all subject lines to be as specific as you like, thus making storing and searching of old emails more convenient.  

Try This! is supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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