Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

New Data Visualization Tool for Journalists Created by Knight Professor

Sept. 1, 2010, 8:55 a.m., Posted by Marika Lynch

Sarah Cohen, the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy, figured there had to be an easier way for journalists to organize their notes on chronological events.

'Time and place are two of the most important aspects in stories,' Cohen said. 'Most reporters I know are still keeping a 40-page chronology in Word for long running stories.'

So, with a grant from Duke, Cohen hired two research scientists, Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg, to design a visual tool to allow reporters to not just organize their notes more effectively, but to also see the results of their research over time.

In this image, the tool tracked President Obama's first 100 days in office, by his location.

Viegas' and Wattenberg were the brains behind the IBM Many Eyes project and now work for Google. The tool they came up with, an open source program that is free to download and use, makes it possible for journalists to look at the reams of data that went into those old 40-page text chronologies or multisheet spreadsheets in new and more useful ways.

'Say you're working on the BP story, you can say, 'I only want to see what happened in May having to do with birds,''' Cohen explained.

You can also look at how often President Barack Obama talked about the disaster in May, drill down into how when the president mentioned Gulf wildlife or any number of other functions. But the program doesn't just making searching data easier ' it's a visual tool that makes understanding data points over time easier.

'The way journalism is going, as there are fewer boots on the ground. It's important that they're spending their time efficiently,' Cohen explained.