Visualization And Reporting Goals: Truth, Function, Beauty, Insight, Enlightenment And Morality | Stats + Short Stories Episode 42 / by Stats Stories

42 cairo.jpg

Alberto Cairo @albertocairo is the Knight Chair in Visual Journalism at the University of Miami. He's also director of the visualization program at UM's Center for Computational Science. He's the author of The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization and The Truthful Art: Data, Charts, and Maps for Communication . He also writes regularly about visualization in his personal blog . He has been director of visualization at news publications in Spain (El Mundo) and Brazil (Globo magazines,) and he's currently a consultant for companies such as Google and Microsoft. Cairo also organizes two annual conferences, the Digital Humanities + Data Journalism Symposium , and VizUM.

+ Full Transcript

(Background music plays)

John Bailer: I'd like to welcome you to today's stats and short stories episode. Stats and short stories is a partnership between Miami University and the American Statistical Association. Today's guest is Professor Alberto Cairo from the University of Miami in Florida. He is the Knight Chair in visual journalism in the School of Communication and the director of the visualization program at the Center for computational science there. I'm John Bailer, I'm chair of the department of statistics at Miami University and I'm joined by my colleague Richard Campbell, chair of the department of media journalism and film. We are delighted to be speaking with Alberto on our short episode today. Alberto, welcome.

Alberto Cairo: Thank you for having me.

John Bailer: Alberto, I wanted to start with a challenge. Let's talk about data visualization some more on an audio podcast. And you write in your book The Truthful Art, that an outstanding visual presentation will have five qualities: it is truthful, functional, beautiful, insightful and enlightening. It sounds like there's the possibility for at least five books there as I read that. Which of these qualities is most important and why?

Alberto Cairo: Well they come in order for a reason.


John Bailer: I thought so.

Alberto Cairo: So it needs to be truthful first, right? So a good visualization needs to be based on good data which, for journalists, when I say that it sounds it sounds stupid of course we are going to use just good data but as a statistician you know how hard it is to find good data and to manage that data properly, making sure that it doesn't have errors, you know, reading the meta data and the description of the methodology through which the data was generated, making sure that the measures that you're about to visualize are actually measuring what you think they are measuring. So truthful comes first, right? Being truthful. Functional in the sense of it comes second because a graphic needs to be clear right, a data visualization needs to be clear and deliver the information correctly. Beautiful in the sense of elegant and well designed in terms of the use of typography, color, composition, which is something that scientists and statisticians tend to dismiss a little bit and forget a little bit, unfortunately and then insightful and enlightening in the sense that a good visualization needs to matter, right? It needs to reveal something that is meaningful something that increases your understanding about a particular issue and as a result of that, the enlightening part is that it makes you a better person because it makes you a more informed reader. I would add a sixth element in there,

Richard Campbell: Six books!

Alberto Cairo: Yeah. Another book in the future that I may title the moral art.

John Bailer: Moral art!

Alberto Cairo: Because a graphic also needs to be ethical, something about something that has been worrying me in the past couple of years and particularly in the last year is the amount of misleading visualizations that I am that I am seeing, right? Bad graphics or graphics that are designed to deceive in purpose, so that's another component.

Richard Campbell: So that sort of feeds into my question. How do you today both in your class and in public deal with the sort of anti-science anti-data every opinion is equally valid the sort of fake news charges that that are made off against journalism how do you how do statisticians and journalists counter that? I particularly worry about journalists because we're supposed to be detached right so the journalists are really struggling when they're when they're sort of singled out for producing fake news which usually isn't fake news.

Alberto Cairo: Of course.

Richard Campbell: I think they get in a bind here on how to talk about this in a way that. They haven't had to before.

Alberto Cairo: It is difficult to say. And well, it's actually easier for me to talk about these matters right now because I am not a working journalist anymore I am a professor so. And I and I have a big social media platform and I use it at will so I feel free to say whatever the hell I want so it's very easy for me to say that we journalists need to be a little bit more forthcoming and straightforward and push back against all those things and basically defend what we do. If working journalists cannot do that because they are trying to be as fair and balanced and cool headed as they can because they need to do that when they are working in news rooms, it is what is being demanded by their editors, perhaps it needs to be academics who need to be a little bit more you know calling out bullshit whenever we see bullshit and defending you know the craft of journalism, defending the work of journalists and basically talking about that you know or not all news are fake that's obviously true and then it contributes in all of us perhaps to in the long term, helping raise public awareness about you know certain techniques, or certain vaccines like mental or cognitive vaccines that we can that we can all apply to ourselves to strengthen our own bullshit detectors, right? So teaching people critical thinking, statistical thinking, teaching people media literacy obviously as well and both formally and informally and all of us contributing to an environment in which whenever we see a story that mishandles data or visualization in my case calling it out in a rational manner and debunking it, right? And verifying it or debunking it if it is a bad story so there's not a good answer to that question I think that it is a challenge that is going to be the challenge of our age but you know I am an optimist and I think that we can win this battle if, you know, all the well intentioned people out there join you know this fight.

John Bailer: You know I think that you outlined somewhat of a code of professional ethics for visualization and for using for reporting on data. It's been our pleasure to have Alberto Cairo join us on stats and short stories. Stats and stories is a partnership between Miami Diversity's department of statistics and media journalism and film and the American Statistical Association. Stay tuned and keep following us on Twitter or Apple podcast. If you'd like to share your thoughts on our program send your e-mail to stats and stories at and be sure to listen for future episodes where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics.