Visualizing Data

It’s been over a year since the New York Times ran it’s five-part ‘Invisible Child’ story, yet the piece remains the most memorable and stirring piece of long form multimedia journalism that I’ve come across. At its core, the 28,000-word story is an exhaustive profile of Dasani, a homeless 12-year-old caring for her 7 siblings and drug-addled parents in the single room of a shelter in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The five-part series, reported by Andrea Elliott, seeks to uncover “the human effects of the Great Recession,” and relies primarily on eloquently constructed anecdotes of Dasani’s life—a special relationship with a teacher, the dying screams of a neglected infant across the hall.

The success of this piece, though, rests on the data visualization tools that serve to contextualize Dasani’s gut wrenching struggles within the broader issue of rising income inequality. The first of these data tools is an annotated time plot, tracking different policies and their impact on children living in New York City shelters. It’s a straightforward infographic requiring minimal digital literacy that could have easily appeared in a print edition of the piece.

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The next set of graphics we encounter is slightly more hands-on and portrays the massive divide in rent prices surrounding the neighborhood shelter. The graphic is again straightforward, but it succeeds in giving the reader both a set of data and an image of Dasani’s neighborhood.

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UntitledThe above visualizations are useful to understanding the micro-level story of Dasani’s family, but offer little in the way of broad information. This shortcoming is remedied through an interactive video comparing Brooklyn’s prosperous areas (median income greater than 100,000) against its most impoverished (median income less than 10,000).

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This video does a great job of providing a visual to the text’s analysis of Brooklyn’s rapid transformation. It’s not necessarily complex, but it’s certainly the type of interactive only possible in a web piece, with a great deal of research likely made available by the Internet’s vast collection of data. It’s a well-researched and sleek graphic with a good deal of evidence, but the information is layered minimally so that the average reader need only watch the video once to understand its content.

Overall, the ‘Invisible Children’ piece thrives for its ability to compliment a highly specific narrative with a broad discussion of wealth inequality, gentrification, and government missteps. The capacity of journalists to tell these macro-level stories will only increase—thanks to new web platforms and an ever-growing accumulation of data—and the tools of data visualization will prove indispensible in pursuing this goal successfully.

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