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Beacon blog: Distilling the data

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 4, 2010 - As we shake out the bugs from our transition to an upgraded CMS (Content Management System: This is the database that holds all our stories and the software code that displays them for you to read), my attention has turned to a couple big projects we have coming up, and to the problem of distillation. This post is partly inspired by a post by our editor, Margaret Freivogel last month, about an ocean of information .

In each project, part of our efforts will be to take a pile of data -- often stuff that's publicly accessible to anyone who wants to take the time to track it down -- and distill it into the parts that matter.

In many cases, this will be through removing part of or editing the data: When we compile a list of candidates for races in the upcoming election, including a full life history of each person would overwhelm your attention and likely your interest (not to mention the time it would take for us to put together and you to read). Likewise when we're looking at health care data for patterns, it might help to isolate particular geographic areas.

Sometimes, this data distillation will require a certain something infused into the mix. Jo Mannies will keep track of candidates during the run-up to the election, bringing the local, statewide and national pictures into focus. We'll add context to the numbers about why some St. Louisans are in poor health -- history, politics, economics, urban development and culture are among things that play a role. In each case, the data will tell us "what is true," and the context will provide "why."

This process of evaluating the data and then converting it into something useful to you is similar to the process of design. Just as there is a vast amount of data on almost any topic, there are also a nearly limitless ways to tell a story. First there is the question of medium: Is this story best told using words or pictures or video or data or a game or ... ? You get the idea. And once that fundamental question is answered, a thousand paths still remain to choose from.

In many cases, we must edit: Choosing a map and several photos and multiple pullout quotes and several links and charts and graphs and an educational Web game to accompany a short story would quickly overwhelm anyone who clicks on the page. Picking a powerful photo and playing it large may draw more attention than having 300 thumbnails in a gallery.

In some cases, we must infuse something beyond the elements of the story themselves. Attention paid to the elements chosen and how they are arranged adds a sense of organization and can provide context. Certain design elements can be used to provide structure -- separating sections, drawing the eye along a path, identifying hierarchy.

At first glance, the Web seems easy to handle for news organizations: "You have all the space you need," people think (or worse, editors tell their staff). Mountains of data? Tomes of text? Giant, lavish graphics? No problem! Just throw them up there!

At wholesale, hundreds of headlines on a page, leading to thousands of pages of text, containing millions of pixels of images and graphics provide no more news that matters to you, the reader, than a fleeting glance at a passing billboard or the front page of the paper of your fellow bus rider or an overheard snippet of radio from a passing car.

The problem is that although the constraints of the 24-page newspaper section, the 30-minute television broadcast and the 5-minute radio news segment have been eliminated, the reader's attention span, interest and available time have not increased.

Our job, in both news and its presentation, is bringing the news that matters. It involves wading out into that ocean of information and bringing back what's important. But it doesn't stop there: To do our jobs, we must take that important information and distill it, removing the extraneous, attention-sapping elements and infusing the context and connections you need to decide what it means to you.

Brent is the data visual specialist at St. Louis Public Radio.

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