Data: What exactly am I looking at here?

In the era of Big Data, it is easy to find yourself with tables and rosters of data. Quite often we can see things manifest themselves in the world, but we are not sure how to extract the data from what we see to prove them. In other cases, we cannot fully grasp the truth or underlying concepts without sorting through data to simplify the facts. In either event, the goal is to transition from the feeling of being overwhelmed by what we don’t know to a place where we can accurately and interestingly communicate the concepts we know need conveying.

big data

Data all-stars get well-deserved credit in times when widely known phenomena – like presidential elections – are interpreted in the news. Notoriously, Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight accurately predicted 50 out of 50 election results in November 2012, but, as this poignant article points out, we read data, in almost every article, that has been cleaned to be presented in an interpretable way.

Many people don’t realize it because data scientists and interpreters have done such a good job of transforming it from raw to readable. Quite simply, the foundation of democracy is imbedded in this phenomenon: people can only truly vote for their values when they have all of the facts presented to them in a readily-accessible way, and those charged with transmitting data to the masses have the onus of conveying information as accurately and truthfully as possible. The dangers of poorly represented and interpreted data are embedded within every news article.

In describing the new platform for FiveThirtyEight, which will bring qualitative assessment to quantitative analyses in areas of politics, science, life, economics and sports, the journalists describe “the point is that data journalism isn’t just about using numbers as opposed to words. To be clear, our approach at FiveThirtyEight will be quantitative — there will be plenty of numbers at this site. But using numbers is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce good works of journalism.”

They go on to assert that in making the “news a little nerdier” they will not adhere to the adage of being the first to release a story, but instead provide the check and balance that what is reported is truthful and accurate (to the best they are able). That is to say, it takes time to process data, but the end result is well worth the wait.

The relevance to Web Map Academy readers comes in knowing their their greatest challenge, shared by all map makers and especially those of the interactive kind: “figuring out how to make data journalism vivid and accessible to a broad audience without sacrificing rigor and accuracy.”

How not to lie with maps and data

There are of course real dangers that lie within this transformation of quantities to comprehension, and there are information specialists who   present data they unwittingly interpreted incorrectly, or intentionally skewed. The same goes for how data is presented, just like Mark Monmonier describes: simple graphical errors can send a wrong message.

This brings us to the work of Edward Tufte, who teaches that the presentation of our work is just as important as the verification that our work is accurate. If we cannot convey what we have found, then our work is for naught.

From your training in map making, you likely found the four steps presented in the article to be very similar to the four basic tasks of a cartographer (University of Brittish Columbia lecture, BAAMA ppt, Encyclopedia of GIS, Wiki).

FiveThirtyEight: Collection, Organization, Explanation, Generalization

Cartographic Principles: Simplification, Classification, Generalization, Symbolization

At Web Map Academy, one of our main goals is to help ensure that you attain a goal of accurately representing your concepts as well as possible, and our services can help you every step of the way.

Finding Data

Can’t find the data you need? We’re well versed in collecting data from diverse sources that will add the missing piece to your project. This service is free for members.

Cleaning & Preparing Data

Found a huge dataset but can’t get the parts you need? We know all the right tools for fixing data or pulling out the necessary information. Contact us and tell us about your project.

Summarizing & Understanding Data

We’ll help you make sense of any geographic, demographic, or related dataset. We offer a free level of this service for members.

Making Maps

Web maps, printed maps, maps in a hurry. Contact us and tell us about your project.

Study Notes

Need to brush up on geography basics like projection systems or GIS functions? Our study notes give you the tips you need to succeed in tests and the workplace.

Margaret Spyker

Trackbacks & Pings

  • Data Integrity | Web Map Academy :

    […] we covered in the recent post about data (Data: What Exactly am I Looking at Here?) inspired by an article written by Nate Silver, there is no mistaking the parallels between […]

    3 years ago

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