Visualizing the story

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Shazna Nessa oversees the creation of multimedia graphics at the Associated Press. As the AP's director-multimedia graphics, she steers the development of new storytelling techniques that strive to help consumers better understand the news and aid journalists in discovering stories hidden in raw data. Nessa spoke to Digital Directions about the evolving role of infographics in the newsroom.

Digital Directions: What impact can data visualizations have on the storytelling process?

Shazna Nessa: There are all kinds of things we are doing where the interactive graphic can be the story itself, and then text stories are being generated from it. We did something a year or so ago, a stress index map, which took different indicators and created an algorithm. We worked with an economics expert and created an index that gave a value to the economic stress in an area. It was useful for the end user, and it became a valuable reporting tool.

Also there are these WikiLeaks[-type] dumps that are challenging newsrooms right now. When we get massive dumps of data, we either have to read through them or index everything and search for terms. That is quite limiting, because you've got to know what you're searching for.

[An AP project] is a finalist in the Knight News Challenge. This tool would take technology already used in intelligence or in academia and customize it to journalism needs. When there is another dump or we get a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request approved, we can put it through this software and it creates a visualization of keywords or terms. It shows patterns.

DD: What else are you exploring?

Nessa: Another variable that keeps us on our toes: All of the different platforms. We had to pick somewhere to start, so we picked the iPad. We were able to build it in HTML instead of Flash and were sensitive to the navigation, since we wanted it to work on a computer and also wanted it to work on an iPad, where people are interacting with the touch screen.

We also use a service called Gigapan. It allows us to take high-resolution images and allows the user to zoom in to great detail. Some of our photographers in Japan took photos, and we put them in Gigapan. You can look at a house, a lone figure in the rubble. You can see the scope of the destruction.

DD: Where do you look for new ideas?

Nessa: I watch what is happening outside of news. I learn a lot from gaming and from Silicon Valley startups.

Data visualization in journalism is in a nascent period. We learn, especially with a big story, with the events in Japan [for example], where we're pushed to try something new. Newsrooms have to adapt, and it's OK to be in beta mode. If you create something the first time and the navigation is buggy, you do another version. Maybe you never get it right [on that story], but you carry that to the next.

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