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Interviews

Data visualisation at the FT: what makes it unique

Now more than ever the FT hosts data driven content and news stories that subscribers can discover and learn more from. By focusing on accessibility and data storytelling, FT journalists ensure their work is easily accessible and understandable to as many people as possible.

This is the final installment of the two part series with the FT’s senior data visualisation journalist John Burn-Murdoch. In this second part we learn more about data journalism and its value to FT readers.

If you’re yet to explore part one in the series, check it out here.

What do you think sets FT data visualisation apart from its competitors? What insights do we offer that readers can’t get elsewhere?

John Burn-Murdoch: One thing we take especially seriously at the FT is that we spend a lot of time focusing on actual academic and scientific research on what makes data visualisation effective. Time is spent looking at our chart titles to make sure we have a clear and transparent message in the words as well as the visuals. There is a huge amount of research that shows how critical it is to make an effective graphic and clear titles. We really pay a huge amount of attention to this.

Especially over the last few years, I think the FT has come to treat database visualisation as an integral part of what we do, which is a critical part of journalism. Occasionally, news outlets place graphics in a story for largely decorative purposes. At the FT, we want these graphics to be beautiful but we also absolutely want them to be imparting information to be essentially no different than someone reading a paragraph.

You read a paragraph to get information, why should a graphic be any different?

I think that there is a real focus on clear communication and we make sure graphics are woven into the story, rather than just a bit of gratuitous eye candy. We really try to pack in as much substance as we can into our graphics — that’s the main difference with the FT.

In your experience, what kind of readers would value your and your team’s work the most?

JBM: I think the value of data journalism can vary from sector to sector, reader to reader. There are many areas where industry experts sit on huge amounts of data and need to know how to get the best value out of it. In terms of what readers can learn and what they find directly in our articles, I think there aren’t many sectors where this information isn’t valuable. Especially as we start to do more interactive work and share our datasets openly.

Even so, there is more and more content that our subscribers can discover and learn from. This is information that they won’t find from just words alone. For anyone working in specific sectors or needing to understand niche information, the FT uses huge amounts of data underpinning the sector-specific journalism we create. We can create far more value in our work when visual and interactive elements are involved.

We've seen how data journalism can act as a mass communication tool. How do you think we can expand the accessibility of charts and push the current boundaries?

JBM: Accessibility is really important and it's something we take very seriously at the FT. Within the context of data visualisation design, it essentially means how can we ensure our graphics are as easily understandable and available to as many people as possible. It’s about how we design these charts, what topics to choose, and where we put them.

There are several ways we're currently doing this at the FT. Firstly, there are actual design works that go on behind the scenes for FT charts and graphics. Our user experience editor, Caroline Nevitt has done an incredible job ensuring that readers who are colourblind or readers with other visual deficiencies are able to easily read and understand our charts.

Another example is that we know a lot of our readers are under time constraints and may only have a few minutes to look over an article. Our charts are designed to help readers get the maximum information out of our charts in a short period of time.

In the data visualisation team, we work closely with the social media and audience engagement teams. On this front we’re ensuring that as well as data content on FT.com, we are getting content out on social media too, like the FT’s instagram page. We’ve been putting a lot of our visualisations out on social media and we tend to get very large amounts of traction.

There’s a huge amount of value we provide to both existing and new FT readers. By bringing our data visualisation skills to the front-line reporting of the pandemic we’ve really shone a light on what is possible for data visualisation.

In your opinion, why is it important that readers have access to charts and data journalism coverage?

The FT has found that people respond really well to charts and data journalism. A lot of it is that people are quite short on time these days; we’ve got a lot of things going on and we’re being bombarded by notifications with only a few minutes to race though as many news articles as you can. With articles that have multiple charts in, our readers have explicitly said that they liked that they were able to grab key parts of the story more quickly than they would have been able to if it was just a text article.

The great thing about charts and graphics is that — as the cliche goes — a picture can paint 1000 words.

We also lean on a huge amount of research in our team. There is a lot of evidence that charts are more visually engaging and can pull people in quicker than with just words alone. I think it's the dual ability of a chart, to firstly summarise a complex story into something more succinct. Then with the aid of interactivity, allow people to explore in more detail and discover their own findings. We really notice that readers spend particularly long amounts of time on our stories that have these visual elements.

What trends or new stories can readers look out for in the coming months?

JBM: The team and I are working on all sorts of new pieces. I think more pieces on climate change and Climate Capital will be a huge area of focus for our team — probably a big focus for any data visualisation teams for decades to come. Already we have people in the team who are very acquainted with the best sources of climate data to map out what’s happening in the world at the moment. I think there will be a huge amount of growth in this area.

We’ve recently started a visual storytelling team at the FT and we’re really pushing the limits on how we’re displaying visual information and making visualisation more immersive. We want our readers to feel involved and connected to absorbing news in this way.

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