The Art Of Telling No Story – Data-Driven Journalism

311 calls New York
There were 34,522 complaints called in to 311 between September 8 and September 15, 2010. Here are the most common, plotted by time of day. Illustration: Pitch Interactive

Recently I wrote about data-driven journalism and whether it is worth the effort in regards to their monetisation potential for publishing companies. Although there are definitely great and interesting stories to be told with large data sets, it seems unlikely that the immense costs involved in the process of creating these stories can be justified within the current framework of digital business models within the publishing industry.

Still many data-driven stories and corresponding data visualisations seem interesting (e.g. in form of infographics) or even insanely beautiful (e.g. in form of maps or graphs). There is one problem with some kind of data visualisations in terms of storytelling though: they tell no story.

Consider the prominent visualisations of the 311 calls in the city of New York for instance. Although immensely beautiful and acknowledged by design experts around the globe, it’s hard to find any substantial story within the data or its visualisations. As shown above a plot of 311 calls by time of day with different colors for different types of complaints surely leads to a beautiful image, but there is no real story behind it.

The facts that there are more calls during the day, complaints about street condition seem to drop during the night and noise complaints are on the rise during the evening are hardly surprising. Even if these calls are plotted on a map, an attempt also explored with the 311 data, things do not get more interesting.

Still, the visualisations of the 311 calls not only look awesome, they received high praise and are on display at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. I am not disputing the aesthetic qualities of the visualisations, but in terms of data-driven journalism or data-driven storytelling, there is not much to be found here.


 DISCLAIMER: This post has been written for the seminar “Online and Mobile Media” during an international research exchange at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia, within the “Next Media” master program at the University of Applied Sciences Hamburg (HAW Hamburg) in 2016. For more information or any questions please contact me at mail@moritzrecke.com.

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