Newsroom sketch

Photo Credit: scriptingnews via Compfight cc

Last week I was lucky enough to meet with three folks who work in the newsroom of a daily newspaper.  That’s a big deal to me, because if my work isn’t useful to people who work in a newsroom, a mission-driven nonprofit, or doesn’t work for folks who want to change the world (or even just their little piece of it), I’m wasting my time.

I asked them: “What should my next step-by-step tutorial be?  What would be really useful for a beat reporter who doesn’t think of themselves as a techie to pick up?”  Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago that shooting video was considered a specialty task that print reporters didn’t do — and now everyone just points their iPhone at it and calls it a day.  (Okay, some do a great deal more than that!  But you get my point).

The folks who were kind enough to spend some time with me gave me the following hints:

  1. The Absurdly Illustrated Guide To Your First Tableau Public ChartsnGraphsTableau Public is a downloadable app that lets users transform datasets into classic data visualizations — bar charts, pie charts, scatterplot, time series, and more.  The end results are embeddable in a web page the way that a YouTube video is, and a few are interactive.   
  2. The Absurdly Illustrated Guide To Your First Survey with Crosstabs — There are lots of survey tools out there, but only a few of them do “crosstabs” — that’s the ability to compare one survey answer against another one.  For instance, a survey that asked folks what their favorite flavor ice cream was but also asked their gender and had crosstabs could tell you that 47% of women liked black raspberry ice cream, but only 12% of men.  My job would be to pick the best and most web/mobile friendly tool out there and produce a tutorial on how to use it and serve it up on the web and mobile devices.
  3. The Absurdly Illustrated Guide To Your First ArcGIS Online Map.  ArcGIS is a “geographical information system” or GIS.  GIS predates web-based mapping systems like Google Maps by a couple of decades.  They used to be very, very expensive software used by specialists, and to some extent they still are.  But to get with the times, ArcGIS now has an online service too.  I’ve never used it, but hey, before I wrote my TileMill tutorial I never used that either!  Writing tutorials is a spectacularly effective form of learning — if I understand it well enough to explain it to a total beginner, I probably understand it pretty well.

One thing I’ve been thinking about lately that really made an impression on me is how important it will be for me to focus on “zero install” tools.  Many folks have computers and servers that their corporate IT department doesn’t allow them to install anything on for security reasons.  So my TileMill tutorial, which requires you to download an app, won’t work for folks in that situation.  But a tutorial on the data visualization platform ManyEyes would — you don’t have to download or install anything, you just work with the application from your web browser.

That’s super-useful information for me as I go forward and write more data visualization tutorials.

So, two things:

  1. If you’re reading this and you guys are the folks who were kind enough to meet with me, you know who you are 🙂  I didn’t use your names here because I forgot to ask if I could, and not asking would be really rude! But if you’d like the credit for giving me so many smart ideas please let me know 🙂 
  2. What about more tutorials?  If you’re reading this, wherever and whoever you are, and you have a burning desire to learn a specific data visualization or mapping tool or technique, please let me know.  I’m a noob like you (if you’re a noob), so I can’t guarantee I’ll do every one, but I do want to know!
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3 thoughts on “Notes from a newsroom

  1. Ben says:

    an intro to making graphics with D3 tutorial would be great!
    thank you for all that you do!

    1. lisawilliams says:

      Ben! I agree, I want to do a D3 tutorial too. I’ve tried to scale Mount D3 — twice! — without success. But hey, people don’t usually get to the top of Everest on their first try either. Right now I’m trying to pick up some more Javascript, which I don’t really know well enough. I think my previous problems with D3 come from a lack of a solid foundation in Javascript. But I’m going to keep working at it, and with luck I’ll be able to put out a D3 tutorial when I’ve got enough. Not sure what “enough” is but I’ll know when I get there, right?

  2. Dawn says:

    Thank you for these tutorials, I am excited to try them & share with activist friends!

    FYI, there is a great website where it creates online environments for almost any coding language so you can code along with different tutorials and create your own code. For free. Check out (i.e. a great place to learn JavaScript, Node.js, HTML, etc.).

    Also, free JavaScript lessons at and for a while at

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