Blog Archive

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Protest Signs Code

Protest signs are a challenging design spec: get your point across in a limited amount of space, with a DIY, rebellious aesthetic. Classic features of a good protest sign: 

  • Memorable, pithy slogans
  • Symbols and imagery that convey shorthand meaning
  • Iconic colors, like green and pink


Although this guy above has a cute point, protest is not dialogue. Protestors have to shout their demands from the street. Protest is energetic demand for change, and protestors need bold, energizing statements. This creates two design constraints: a need for simple slogans that people can shout in a short amount of time, and a message that can be read from a distance. Those constraints, and the dimensions of a placard relative to the readability doesn't give the designer much room. 

Take I AM A MAN, from the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike. In the midst of racial violence between strikers and strike breakers, and between strikers and local police, the Reverend James Lawson addressed the strikers with a sermon, including these stirring words: 

"For at the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man, that a person is not a person. You are human beings. You are men. You deserve dignity."

That sermon created the inspiration for the simple, plain, and powerful red letters that spelled out the message that the protestors carried.


Symbols allow the protestor to communicate ideas in the relatively limited space of a placard. In fact, the word symbol derives from the Greek symbolon (σύμβολον), which is an amalgam of syn- together and bole, a throwing, a casting, the stroke of a missile, bolt, or beam. 

 One of the most iconic and universally recognized symbols of protest is the peace symbol. While the symbol itself is an apparent abstraction, those who are familiar with semaphores will enjoy the visualization of two different semaphore motions, the 'N' and the 'D'. Combined, they form the peace symbol.

The author of this symbol, Gerald Holtom, thus creatively and visually superimposed the two words Nuclear Disarmament into a manageable space onto lapel pins, flags, placards, and other material. Why didn't he just go with the letters N and D? He reflected:
"I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya's peasant before the firing squad. I formalised the drawing into a line and put a circle round it."
In practice, it allows protestors to represent the basic theme of peace, while still providing them enough space to add their own message specific to their context.  


Although many colors are culture-specific, the color green transcends all culture through its association with vegetation, and hence, the environment.

Ironically, much of the traditional commercial production of the color green requires toxic chemicals to preserve the vitality of the natural color (it oxides into brown) or to artificially combine blue and yellow into green hues. A protestor might want to reconsider color for the sake of their own cause. 

The color pink is well known for its association with women's issues, notably breast cancer. In the early aughts, Code Pink's women-led efforts combined anti-war stances and positions that, while often controversial, were memorable and created a strong association between color and protest. The color pink was also used by the PussyHat project during protests of Donald Trump's swearing in as the 45th president of the united states. Their pink hats created a ubiquitous color for marches across the nation by women who reminded Trump of the strength of their coalition. 


A good sign employs a font that allows the protest sign maker to find a way to balance kerning and tracking to squeeze in that pithy slogan. For the unfamiliar: kerning is the process of adjusting the spacing between characters with unique spatial features to achieve a visually pleasing result (e.g. the overlap between AV), and the overall tracking, which is spacing letters to fit the allotted space provided.

The example below is far too distracting to be a good lesson, but once you stop laughing, take a moment to also appreciate this great example of kerning and tracking. 

A good artist with a sharpie can use his or her artistic license to create lettering that suits their purpose. For those who are going to use software instead, selection of fonts is key. Patrick St. John offers ten, here. 

For other great links and articles on the topic, try these: 

Vice: How to Make a Protest Sign That Isn't Garbage

Core 77: The Graphic Designs of Protest Signs

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Beware the catalogue and the taxonomy?

Marginalization. Discrimination. Eugenics. In their paper titled "Big data problems we face today can be traced to the social ordering practices of the 19th century," Hamish Robertson and Joanne Travaglia of New South Wales University explore traditions of using data for social order, and compare them to modern data practices.

Are catalogues, taxonomies and other organizational/cognitive methods inextricably linked to power and control? Or are they inherently neutral, sense-making tools? The path to power is paved by intent and purpose - in particular statistical descriptive methods that, in crude form, define a 'normal' society, and deviations from that norm.

Robertson and Travaglia raise legitimate concerns, given the history and use of such tools. But rather than focusing on the tools and techniques, they could explore the importance of the accessibility of both data itself and tools/techniques to a much broader set of society.

Whether known as 'democratizing data' or 'occupation', the important question is how we foster and enable independent data analysis, reporting, and journalism. This freedom is precious, for it allows us to see different viewpoints and defend against narrow agendas. DataKind and Propublica are just a few of the examples of funded organizations that continue this hard and important work.

The critical and central topic for years to come should be whether laws, in conjunction with free enterprise, will be effective at governing data privacy, ownership and control. Can we be clever enough to protect the rights of those who spend capital to acquire data, while fostering free competition for that data? At what point do certain types of data or certain scales of data create unfair or even dangerous, limited power?

And, for organizations like DataKind and Propublica, how do we further develop their economic sustainability without ties or dependence on key sponsors who, inevitably, will have their own limited agendas?


Monday, January 4, 2016

Happy New Year!

Changes underway but 2016 content will be the same. New posts coming soon!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Brian Williams, Dan Rather...and Data Journalism

News media outlets continue to struggle through embarrassing occasions of flagship news presenters such as Brian Williams and Dan Rather losing their credibility. Williams and Rather were powerful representatives of trust and longtime commitment to journalism. These journalists allegedly made conscious decisions to present unreliable stories. Both men shared the same outcome: their professional careers toppled.

The Excitement of Data Journalism…and the Looming Failure

We can make journalism more democratic and participatory through data journalism. No longer will we have to depend upon handful of news outlets whose content is driven by advertising revenue and subject to the filter of producers and entrenched news readers. Instead, independent teams can work with deep troves of public data to reveal unseen trends and truths that matter.

In order to release, analyze, and present the massive surge of information that is becoming available to us, we have to use code. It's the first tool we have to use to convert the noise to signal. But it seems that we have lost perspective on the remaining steps, process and overall governance of what is good journalism versus mere presentation of data for the sake of supporting a point of view. Are we reducing our definition of data journalism down to...coding? 

This is a theme which I see repeated again and again in Twitter, blog discussions, and general purpose data journalism propaganda. It was good however, to see that Paul Bradshaw created a more thoughtful discussion in his blog. It's a discussion between well known and respected Alberto Cairo and other contributors on the importance of coding as a data journalism skill.

Points made:
  • Developing a story is important
  • The key skill for a data journalist is knowing whether the data in question is actually interesting
  • A journalist should know some basic CS and coding
There's two points still missing. First, journalism is a discipline and it's why we have whole schools of higher learning dedicated to the craft. Second, in order for us to be engaged and to be given value, journalism must be credible. Otherwise, we will be no better off than our current state. We refer to journalism as the fourth branch of government, and for good reason.

The Common Thread through Journalism and Credibility

If you Google "Journalism" and "Credibility" you'll get plenty of results that refer to an important word: sources. Data provenance is critical. Clean, credible sources are key to journalism and all other professions in which we are entrusted to tell stories and communicate points of view with data.

But when it comes to data journalism, does anyone have a good example of discussion and attention to the credibility of the data, and its provenance? Or even a solid method for dissecting what the data means? Field by field? Record by record? A method for building a validated data dictionary, prior to taking the data and shaping it into a story? 

Readers: what are your experiences and suggestions? 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Price of Life: Eating and Isolating Ourselves to Death.

Wired Magazine has published an infographic displaying the National Institutes of Health's budgetary allocations for work to prevent the top causes of death. 

The second sentence of the introductory content asks: why do we spend more than $13,000 for each person who dies of diabetes but only about $3,000 for each heart disease victim? 

Sadly, the most dramatic diseases - heart attacks and cancer - are the ones we pay the most attention to. Yet we pay less attention to the highly prevalent, pervasive and destructive yet manageable diseases: diabetes and mental illness.  Diseases that shouldn't be killing us. Yet they are, every day. Diseases that we can prevent and minimize, as shown here: 

But prevention and minimization is thwarted by a web of poverty, food policies and social stigma that prevent us from solving these destructive patterns. We are eating ourselves to death, and dying from our separation and isolation from one another. 

We in the United States consider ourselves a 'developed' nation. We have a lot to be proud of, but we have a lot more work to do. Without that work, we will continue to allow a human catastrophe.   

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Vaccinations and Data Viz: A Case Study (Part 3 of 3)

In the third and final part of our case study (see Parts 1 and Parts 2 if you haven't previously read them) we attempted to develop an alternative data visualization to a bubble chart data visualization of the outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs) world-wide. In those original first and second parts, we evaluated the visual effectiveness of the bubble chart, the provenance of the data, and whether the context was appropriate. As we explained, we felt that there might be better visual options for this story. 

Again, here's the visual, and the link to the original L.A. Times blog

As we developed our own alternative visuals, we came to our most important conclusion: the story was probably miscast. The story is neither a global or a national story. It's in fact a local story. And it’s not about history or trends. It’s about risk. Local communities have high local risk. Local communities can effect local action to protect themselves against outbreaks, and the importance of being community minded about how we increase and maintain immunity.

Through this series, we found a few things:
  • We cannot generalize the state of vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs) - globally, or even nation-wide. There are some areas that have been unaffected; others, substantially. 
  • And, in fact, taken as a whole nationally, despite the "anti-vaccination movement," as it has been dubbed, the immunization rates haven't significantly changed. 
  • But locally, we are having significant and scary breakouts. This highlights the importance of looking the parts as well as the sum. Vulnerability is highly varied by community and by context. We have clusters of high risk in what seems to be a low risk population.
So, in this final blog post, we talk about some alternative visualizations that might better convey the story, which is about local vulnerability and risk. But first, to explain each of the points above with some examples: 

1. We cannot generalize as a whole the state of VPDs. Here's an exciting visual that we created that depicts the recent trend in pertussis cases, aka whooping cough, that might be as visually compelling as the original bubble chart. In this case, instead of a geographic bubble chart, we wanted to show a historic trend line. The result: a compelling message that surprised us. Have we really regressed to the 1950's? And we wondered, what if other things, like technology, regressed in our country to that of the 1950's. Would we accept that? Of course not! 

But not all VPDs have this same trend. Here's an alternative, seemingly positive outcome for measles. 

However, in the face of this assertion, we are also simultaneously experiencing an outbreak of measles in New York's hospitals!  So in fact, it's possible to advertise this victory, and yet measles continues to be imported into the United States, where vulnerable populations may be exposed and come down with the virus.  

2. Despite the anti-vaccine movement, nation-wide immunization rates for the primary VPDs haven't recently reduced.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's survey of vaccinations from 1995 to 2011 do not show (in the aggregate) statistically significant downward trends in vaccinations. 

So again, if we aggregate vaccination trends at the national level, we aren't making a compelling case. 

3. This highlights the important point that community vulnerability - not national vulnerability - is our starting point for action and communication. Why? Because as community members, we should and can take action in our local communities. And furthermore (fortunately!) we don't yet have compelling statistics upon which we can make a compelling case for action. However, we can talk about vulnerability - and risk. 

In 2010, a localized outbreak in California of 9,000 pertussis cases represented one-third of all pertussis cases nationwide. In addition to the waning effectiveness of the current vaccine, it also appears that clustering of unvaccinated individuals played a role. Census districts with a statistically significant higher number of exemptions (referred to as an 'exemption cluster') were 2.5 times more likely to also be in a pertussis outbreak cluster. 

Outbreaks are related to the immunity of the population - driven by, for example, who has been vaccinated or has been previously exposed to the disease. The more that unvaccinated (and presumably vulnerable) people are clustered in a community, the higher the chance they will contract the disease, turning it into an outbreak.  

This diagram (credit: National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases) shows the basics of how a community's composition can affect the likelihood of an outbreak: 

4. We need to bring the data visualizations and the messages down to the local level. The real story is local. Since, fortunately, most localities do not have a history of VPD outbreaks, we have to think about compelling ways to report and show risk.  

So here, to satisfy the brief, we thought about ways to present statistics in terms of the community - in this case, the potential for exposure to others. We wanted to illustrate the connectedness of the community, and the implied consequences of behavior. We imagined a kind of Public Service Announcement (PSA) scorecard for each community, by disease, where the centerpiece visual would be the connectedness of a single infected child to their community, showing the geometric effect where many more could be exposed:

And overall, support the message of consequence in the context of a community. 
To support the PSA scorecard, we relied on discussions from The Journal of Infectious Diseases, the CDC's MMWR reports, and West J Med's report of a 1990 California outbreak of measles to generate the statistics and assumptions embedded in this PSA. We are not epidemiologists or health workers, so this is only a placeholder for what might be more appropriate statistics and better handling by said professionals! It does assume, however, that at least some of the the county or district health departments in the United States would be giving thought to the following statistics or calculations: 
  1. Immunization rates in their community;
  2. Estimated 'R' rates of diffusion/transmission, especially in school systems based on attendance and classroom conditions;
  3. The likelihood of infection rates, based on #1 and #2;
  4. Estimated hospitalizations and deaths based on their age and health demographics;
  5. Average hospital and other related medical expense statistics.
It's a strong message, and a worst case scenario. Although we've qualified some of the statements with hypotheticals, it may be excessive. We assume that health departments have to find the right balance between developing strong language that encourages community health-mindedness, versus sensitivity to those who truly have medical exemptions or other significant religious concerns.  

And, importantly, we assume that county and district health departments would have the resources to collect, compile and regularly produce not only the statistics #1 - #5, but also to be able to produce and distribute the information in the format we've provided above. So, we think of it as a starting point, but perhaps the actual implementation of the solution might have to be iterative and even more grassroots. 

And finally - it goes back to the issue of whether a media organization with a national reach can effectively describe this issue in national terms. Our conclusion: it's valuable in terms of bringing attention to the issue, but the real value, as it often turns out, is illustrating what it means to you and me. 

What are your thoughts? Is this sensible? Excessive? Something else? 

We said this at the beginning: this is NOT the forum to debate whether there is a link between vaccination and autism. It's rather the forum to debate the effectiveness and validity of the original visualization, and our proposed alternatives. Please limit your comments to those on-topic. 

- Michael Thompson, Vivian Peng, Adam Vigiano