[Reading #8] Discounting, data stories and long journalism

1. Discounting

So discounting is what retailers do – at Christmas, to seize the momentum of buying ahead of Christmas, and, in June, to get cash rather than debts on the books ahead of the end of financial year.

But it’s something we all do. Think about the choice between watching TV or doing exercise. We know going for a run is better for us. Thinking for next month, maybe even next week, you probably imagine tying your laces and doing it. But faced by the decision today, we tend to choose the TV. It’s easier. We know it’s better to do exercise, but the immediate satisfaction of sitting on the couch is more attractive.

Gareth Hutchens explains, in an SMH op-ed, that’s why we use credit cards – the hit from buying something with our credit card now trumps the cost of the interest we’ll pay down the track.

We “discount” future consumption in favour of present consumption. The question is by how much, and that depends on our “discount rate”.

To find the discount rate, economists ask: How should we compare the welfare of future generations to the welfare of the current generation?

There are two ways to answer it. We can base our calculations on market interest rates (the positive approach), or we can base them on ethical judgments about the relative values of people’s lives (the normative approach).

Seems simple, but this simple idea of discounting underpins everything we think about the future, from building infrastructure to dealing with climate change.

2. The climate debate is a failure of data visualisation – can we tell data stories better?

Anyone who’s sat through a climate science talk intuitively knows this. It’s serious. Talk to climate researchers offline and they’re compelling. Go to a talk and – with notable exceptions – it’ll be a glacial drift of excel graphs.

Illustrators and other artists used to be crucial parts of research laboratories, though in most labs they’ve long since been let go. Watching Ben Hosken (from Melbourne data visualisation powerhouse Flink Labs) talk last week at #media140 in Brisbane, I couldn’t help but see it as a renaissance of the artist’s role in research.

Flink Labs did this project for #apps4nsw using real time Sydney Buses travel data (it’s not real time now though – the RTA removed public access to the data within hours of the program finishing). I love the potential of these kinds of projects for real time city governance – the sort of projects MIT’s Media Lab and Stamen have specialised in.

The #media140 talk was fairly introductory, not much new. But what I found interesting was Hosken’s broad principles had little to do with the technical side of data crunching, writing algorithms and doing graphics. Here’s a series of my tweets from the session:

Expressing data’s story in a way that doesn’t obscure the truth… also need to tell a really good story.

Data viz is telling a story you can interact with and explore, not broadcast

Tell the story, don’t just show data

& any storytelling RT @allinthemind: “not about the average”.. biggest & smallest sometimes reveal most enriching data viz stories

It’s finding the story in the data – not just processing the data unvarnished. Though as Natasha Mitchell (Radio National’s All In The Mind) said, using outliers to tell the story is ripe for misrepresentation. Take care.

Stanford’s Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer wrote a great paper on telling stories through interactive visualisation. German visual analytics researcher Enrico Bertini (from Fell In Love With Data) blogged the key points in a guest post on Andrew Vande Moere’s Infosthetics blog:

1. The table with the design space can help you during the design phase to understand what components you can use in your solution. Choose a genre, a visual narrative tactic, and a narrative structure. You can also think creatively and see if there are useful combinations of these elements that have never appeared before. Alternatively, you can think out-of-the-box, and come up with new solution altogether.

2. Be careful with the level of interactivity and messaging you provide. This is probably a choice that you have to take early in your visualization project: do you want to give lots of freedom and risk that the message is not conveyed clearly or you prefer to guide the reader but remove the thrill of exploration?

3. The hybrid models are ready-cooked solutions that you can use right away. Again, these can both serve as a way to find a model that suits your message, or just as a starting point to create new hybrid models.

The most popular software being used by designers and others who aren’t code natives is Processing, but there’s a stack of others. Computer World reviews 22 free packages including Data Wrangler, Google Refine, R Project, Google Fusion Tables, Impure, Tableau Public, IBM’s Many Eyes, VIDI, ZOHO Reports, Choosel, Exhibit, Google Chart Tools, JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit, Protovis, Quantum GIS (QGIS), OpenHeatMap, OpenLayers, OpenStreetMap, TimeFlow, Gephi and NodeXL. Get visualising.

3. Long form journalism

A big trend’s just about always complemented by its almost opposite. So while Twitter’s firing, there’s a balanced explosion in long form writing. You can see it in the thriving New Yorker magazine. Yes, Twitter is limited to 140 characters, but it’s driven by the deeper content of features, books, documentaries, conferences, movies and a hundred other things.

Annabel Crabb wrote a typically great piece for ABC’s Drum on the topic.

And the truth is, even though reading long articles on screens can be fiendish, especially when you are – as so often social media users do – breaking off every 30 seconds to check Twitter or let your intimates know that you’re up to page six and you feel a bit like a burrito, the internet is also coughing up new ways to recover, locate and enjoy longer pieces.

She mentions Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky’s site longform.org and Instapaper – both fast friends with iPad owners. There’s also The Paris Review and, one of my favourites, Longreads.

I was a music writer for ages, though I seem to be having a break. Editing Cyclic Defrost magazine, we shifted short reviews to the web and focussed the magazine around long feature length profiles and essays. With in depth music writing all but gone from the papers – most dailies get syndicated copy, and the magazines get more and more concise – we wanted to give more context, looking at creative communities and the broader culture. And that’s something you can’t approach in the usual 15-30 minute, 500 word feature.

Doesn’t need to be in print, either. Dan Hill’s great blog City of Sound is a case in point. He’s leaving Australia with this piece on planning in his wake. There are a stack of other writers doing much more interesting critical writing on blogs than anywhere – Alison Croggon, Anwyn Crawford, Linda Carroli – mostly because there isn’t the space in print publications for that depth.

4. Other good stuff

Greplin is a personal search engine that allows you to search all your online data in one easy place.

Scribble notes while you surf the web with Markup.

Fascinating Cindy Frewen Wuellner series on future cities at her Urban Verse blog.

Kate Carruthers asks if innovation actually helps.

And N+1 magazine on elites.

Three great things I came across this year

It’s almost the end of December, best of lists are everywhere. And I love lists. But… I find them a bit arbitrary – it’s all so dependent on what you saw, where you were, how you felt. Still, there’s something to them: a look back, before leaping into a new year.

I’m a science writer and researcher, an arts broadcaster and music obsessive, and a compulsive reader, so there is a  lot to draw on. Too much. So I decided to focus on three great things I came across this year and haven’t been able to stop talking about.

Tipping Point, Performance Space

It’s seems right to start here, considering I started this blog a week later. The idea had been kicking around a while, of doing a radio show, online thing, whatever, about ideas and where they come from and how they’re made. But talking to people at Tipping Point convinced me to get this ball rolling.

I didn’t know what to expect of #tpoz10 (as it went on Twitter). Several events this year promised fascinating ideas, brilliant minds, but delivered typical programs of good and/or dull. Tipping Point stemmed from a UK event of the same name – it was even sponsored by the British Council and Royal Institution, alongside the Australia Council for the Arts – and ran over two days in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Producer Angharad Wynne-Jones and her team assembled a stellar group to talk about how artists and scientists could work together on climate change.

On the first night, I met a sound designer, a theatre director and an urban wastewater consultant. Over the course of the following couple of days, I chatted with IPCC lead authors, a design activist, a narrative specialist and a huge range of other creative people. There were artists, scientists and others – not sure which camp I fitted in, though with the low count of scientists, I found myself explaining that part of the game most often – but at any point in the weekend it felt as though the organisers could have arbitrarily picked speaking talent from the audience, it was really pretty special.

There was a lot of electricity. The British Council announced a round of Climate Commissions for new work. People talked about doing art/science job swaps, coming up with ‘Carbon Dating’ or ‘Me & We’ websites to connect artists and scientists who want to collaborate, a new online database of climate change knowledge, documentary ideas, and stacks of other stuff. It’s been pretty quiet since then, so I’m not sure how much real stuff came out of the weekend.

But for me, the most important thing was realising my eclectic mix of experiences make sense together. Science, technology, art, music, ideas – that intersection was the centre of a lot of discussions over the weekend, and that was a fascinating place to be.

Other Film, Sydney Opera House

Video art may have come of age, but its half sibling film art still languishes. The captivating scribbles, daubs of paint, images, bursts of colour, text and found footage aren’t quite film, they’re not a linear, or often even two-dimensional narrative, and they haven’t made complete sense to the art world either.

Len Lye’s show at ACMI last year showed just how difficult this work is to place – much of his work was made as advertising. But Lye’s show was part of a growing reevaluation of film art – I interviewed Mark Titmarsh early this year about his experimental film in Sydney in the 1980s and his magazine at the time, On The Beach, as well as a retrospective on the Canadian film maker Norman McLaren.

It can be as simple as projecting an (albeit wildly inventive) film on a standard screen, or something closer to a ’60s ‘happening’ with sculptures in front of the projector scattering the film, shapes protruding from the screen, and even performances with the film or screen being scratched and painted as the film rolls.

It is a very 1960s vibe, actually. Heavily psychedelic, with a lot of music. That’s how a couple of Brisbane locals came to film art. Joel Stern and Danni Zuvela were more involved with the fiercely independent and experimental music scenes, and regulars at events like This Is Not Art, Newcastle, and Straight Out Of Brisbane, when they came across some of the experimental film being shown alongside the music. It quickly spiralled out, and Zuvela’s academic work on the topic is attracting increasing attention.

In Brisbane, Other Film runs regular expanded film happenings. But I saw a rare Sydney show that paired a spectacular Robin Fox with Melbourne’s difficult but hugely influential Cantrills, an intense Joel Stern performance with Sydney film maker Paul Winkler, and Holy Balm playing a stop start set of psychedelic clunk funk through a film from George Gittoes. Captivating.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

When I first mentioned to my former obstetrician father-in-law that I was reading a book about ‘HeLa’ cells, he asked: “Helen Lane?” That’s who the textbooks say she was, a white woman called Helen Lane or Helen Larson. She was actually a poor Southern farmer called Henrietta Lacks, and this book tells the whole, fascinating story.

Rebecca Skloot writes for the New York Times, New York, Oprah Magazine, Discover and she’s a contributor to WNYC’s Radiolab, so she has form. But the kernel that became The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks appeared when Skloot caught a stray remark about the HeLa cells in high school biology. She was 16. She kept that kernel of an idea in her head for a decade, until at 27 she finally started working on a book.

It took her another decade to write it, and that time and dedication is so crucial to the book’s rhythm and flow. It’s an adventure to dig out information, to find Henrietta Lacks’s family and to get them to talk, and that’s why Skloot is a key part of the story. She talked to everyone, and in a stellar piece of literary journalism, wove the story from Henrietta, whose cancer cells were taken to form the cell line, through to her descendents (human and cellular). Insightful and intensely readable.

Reading #1

  1. Museums everywhere are experimenting with ways to manage their huge collections of physical things, information, visitors – basically data – and in Canberra, the National Museum of Australia has just started an experimental data and visualisation lab
  2. So climate change is played out as a debate. But because the answers to denialist arguments are complicated, it often feels like taking part in the debate is just answering the same questions over and over. Which a robot could do. Cue Nigel Leck’s brilliant idea, a Twitter  chatbot called @ai_agw that scans Twitter for climate change denial and posts responses
  3. Clever ways of using Dropbox
  4. And with Tipping Point just finished, you may need another chance to flex your creatively intellectual muscles: Knowledge Cities Melbourne or TEDxMelbourne
  5. Dealing with data is one of the big challenges of science. We just have so much. Fortunately there’s an exploding range of options goodbye Excel graphs
  6. Steven Johnson in Wired about New Yorkers phoning in to complain about a smell of maple syrup – a tricky problem solved by data visualisation
  7. Community mapping as a basis for urban planning in Kibera (Nairobi, Kenya), where young locals are creating the town’s first free, public and digital map.

This is a new thing

It’s been a slow and fast process realising that far from heading away from each other, my obsessions for science and technology, art, music and creativity were actually closing in on something interesting.

It came to a head last weekend, actually the one over a week ago, when the Tipping Point art/science juggernaut rolled through Sydney. TP’s a conference about how artists and scientists could work together on climate change and environmental issues, and unusually, I found myself right in the middle of the conversation.

Climate change is a big problem. But it’s just one of a handful of intersecting threats. And science can definitely help. But science is just one of the ways we observe and understand the world, and while it’s a particularly rigorous way of assessing things, its recent structures have shifted away from the creative.

There’s a world of reasons why artists and scientists don’t work together more often, but the reasons aren’t all that good.

I’ve been a scientist and worked with scientists, and I’ve done lots of creative things and worked with lots of artists, and thinking about how the two areas intersect, there’s a lot to work with. But if you ask scientists or artists who aren’t already at the boundary what they think, it’s polarised:

Artists: urbane, exploratory, creative. Scientists: geeks, boffins, way down the autism spectrum.

Scientists: innovative, thoughtful, high impact. Artists: airy-fairy, superficial, lacking rigour.

I’m sure you can guess who says what. Sitting in the closing session at Tipping Point, after a weekend of inspiring and electric conversations between artists and scientists, an artist got the microphone and decried the lack of engagement and understanding from scientists.

I don’t know how many scientists knew it was on, or got invited, but there is definitely a disconnect. I guess it goes back to studying in opposed faculties at university. Maybe further. But in my experience, as people, artists and scientists are not all that different.

At best, science wants to observe the world, create ideas (and test them) and explain it all somehow – hopefully, help us do things better, more efficiently, with lower impacts. But while the research is a big part of the outsider’s experience of science – you hear about the field work, the lab methods – talking about the results of the work is often an afterthought.

When I think about music or painting or dance, it’s a way of processing what the artist sees, and then in some way communicating something of the experience. So although the research may be as thorough as the scientist’s, it’s often relegated to catalogue documentation, so outsiders aren’t aware of the depth of preparation.

So, at best, both involve research, both should involve creativity. And, actually, thinking about creativity like that is at the heart of this new thing.

I’ve been fascinated by where ideas come from for ages. It’s informed what I’ve done as a writer and radio maker and science communicator, it’s where they meet. So this blog is all about that. Where ideas come from? How they come into being? Who does them? How? Why?

Love your ideas, suggestions, feedback.

Jay Rosen

It’s been a busy week.

Captivating talks by Intel’s Genevieve Bell and NYU’s Jay Rosen (in the pic above) – more here on Jay’s talk, here’s how it looked in my tweet stream.

Off to see @jayrosren_nyu talk

“news is arbitrary, improvised due to drive of production routines”

“what happens when production revolutionised by web?”

“what if your laptop got updates for software you don’t have installed? This is what news does every day”

“Stories like This American Life’s Giant Pool of Money ‘install the software’ to fire that interest”

Need understanding of big picture before you’ll be interested in incremental news

“journalists should be producing public understanding, not just incremental updates”

@jayrosen_nyu calls for ABC to create backgrounder for topical areas of news – extension to Background Brief?

Puts hand up RT @matt_levinson: @jayrosen_nyu calls ABC to create backgrounder for topical areas of news – extension to Background Brief?

“do things like NYT’s Topics pages and Google’s Living Stories actually help improve understanding?”

Someone just commented on “anthopomorphic” climate change. Obviously a mistake, but ironically encapsulates the issue.

To go see another @jayrosen_nyu talk or get lunch?

@isabel_lo I think it’s going to be a late lunch!

@tmgrimson yes, giving several talks today. on journalists as explainers, citizen journalism, and business models. just the little stuff.

RT: @girlinblack From the Accidental Art file: @matt_levinson’s twitpic from a @jayrosen_nyu talk he’s sitting in right now: http://twitpic.com/2e6wxy

“NYT introduced ‘geek squad’ of 50 to newsroom – clever way of changing to more collaborative culture”

“The Guardian able to be nimble because it’s a trust – needs to ensure sustainable future, despite mid term risks”

Lots of questions about Assange and WikiLeaks – “first global media org”? Anarchist? Hacker? Adaptive to say the least.

“have to find places where closed systems (media – verification) and open (accessible, participatory) work best”

“a journalist is just a heightened case of an informed citizen”

Victorian insurers face “moral hazard”

Tracking coverage of the bushfires in Victoria over the past week, one story’s niggled at my logic systems.

Insurers count the cost of fire devastation – SMH, February 13.

The insurance industry said Government intervention after such disasters did not help reduce the strain on the industry and contributed to a moral hazard where people were less likely to hold private insurance.

Paul Giles, from the Insurance Council of Australia, said: “Those people who do insure look at people who don’t insure and say, ‘Well, I’ve been paying my insurance premiums for a number of years, why do I bother if the Government steps in?”‘.

Mr Giles said the fire services levy and stamp duty accounted for up to 40 per cent of home and contents insurance premiums, and governments would be better off encouraging people to take out private insurance.

It’s a beguiling argument, and it works logically. People tend to be less cautious when they know they’ll be bailed out. But context is everything.

‘Moral hazard’ isn’t applied evenly. In the past year, as this article points out, large insurers and banks have gone to governments, hat in hand, for bailout money.

Months ago, when the president announced a paltry plan to help out a few of the millions of homeowners who got caught in the sub-prime loan mess, he reiterated the credo: “It’s not government’s job to bail out … those who made the decision to buy a home they knew they could not afford.” Days ago, when he endorsed the giant Fed bailout of Wall Street, the president signaled it was government’s job to bail out big bankers who had made decisions to buy and sell risky securities they knew (or should have known) they could not afford.

At the same time, Australia faces escalating climate risks – bushfires, floods, sea level rise and storm surge. How prepared are insurers for these things, are they adequately prepared for the payouts?

Beyond all that, evidence is increasing that we just don’t know how to assess risk.