"Media badly misplaying Foxconn suicides"
Jun 1st, 2010 by Tom Johnson

IAJ Fellow Patrick Mattimore, currently living in Beijing, recently wrote in China's People's Daily Online:


Media badly misplaying Foxconn suicides

Patrick Mattimore

One newspaper has called the recent suicides at the electronics company Foxconn an epidemic. Another newspaper reports that Foxconn is experiencing a “spate of suicides.” Unfortunately, this is an instance of media hysteria and disregard for statistical facts which may have real world negative consequences.

Taiwanese-owned Foxconn has had seven suicides this year. That sounds like a lot, but the firm has an estimated 800,000 workers, more than 300,000 of them at a single plant in Shenzhen.

Although exact figures are hard to come by, even the most conservative estimate for China's suicide rate is 14 per 100,000 per year (World Health Organization). In other words, Foxconn’s suicide epidemic is actually lower than China’s national average of suicides.

French media similarly hysterically misreported suicides last year at France Telecom, the French telecommunications giant that employs 102,000 people in France. There were widely disseminated reports about those suicides and, as in the instant case, the suicides were not particularly out-of-line with national averages.

If the only upshot of these stories was heightened attention to workplace issues, such as improving workers' conditions, then the stories would not be troubling. The problem is that people are fired and the stories become political ammunition for various groups. In France, for example, last year's suicides at France Telecom were a political bonanza for groups like the increasingly irrelevant Socialist Party there.

Another problem is that responsible businesses like Foxconn often take benevolent, but misguided actions to try and “solve” their problem. Foxconn has reportedly established rooms with punching bags where frustrated employees can go to take out their aggression. Besides the costs and manpower to create the solution and maintain it, the punching bag room may actually worsen relations at the company.

The idea that we dissipate aggression by getting it out on a substitute for the real target of our anger (a psychological concept known as catharsis) has been tested and, as it turns out, doesn't work. In a variety of controlled trials, individuals' anger increases after they have acted out their substitute aggressions.

In other words, hitting a punching bag with your boss’ face on it will make you want to hit her even more.

Another troubling facet of misleading the public with the Foxconn suicide story is that there is a very real desire to scapegoat Foxconn. That tendency is understandable because it is human nature to want to shift the blame for the act of suicide to someone other than the perpetrator. However, that shift should not be mistaken for reasonably reading the situation.

Stories now proliferate to explain the “suicide problem,” accusing Foxconn of insensitivity, the same charge, incidentally, that was leveled last year at France Telecom. Disgruntled former employees are sought out to confirm the company’s poisonous culture and other explanations as to the deaths of the young individuals (i.e. broken romantic relationships) are either disregarded or made to sound like excuses if proffered by the company’s executives.

The larger problem stems from the fact that most journalists have not been taught to critically examine statistics. They follow the herd which often means that they report numbers without providing readers a context for making sense of those numbers. In his 2008 book, “Real Education,” Charles Murray, writes: “Widespread statistical illiteracy… is cause for immediate concern because none of us, no matter how thorough our training, has the time to assess the data independently on every topic. We all have to rely on the quality of information we get from the media-and, as of today, that quality is terrible.”

Reporters often write stories with statistics that are incomplete, misleading, or just plain wrong. Hopefully, the public will wake up to the fact that there is nothing wrong at Foxconn and demand that newspapers act more responsibly and begin supplying some context when they decide to instigate their next corporate suicide watch. [IAJ editor's emphasis]

The author is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism and a former psychology teacher.

The article represents the author's views only. It does not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

 Then “SiliconAngle” picked it up and commented:


White House to tie together mapping and data sites
May 28th, 2010 by Tom Johnson


White House to tie together mapping and data sites

By Aliya Sternstein 05/28/2010

The White House has contracted with a major developer of mapping software to merge a federal website that publishes geospatial information with, the government's depot for downloadable data sets, the company's president said on Thursday.

California-based ESRI began last summer tying to, the geospatial information gateway, said company President Jack Dangermond in an interview with Nextgov. He said he expects's map services, which enable Web-based applications from different sources to communicate with each other, to be available on within two months.

When the synchronization is complete, the new content on will benefit not only Web developers who mix government data with outside data sources to find trends, but also nontechnical individuals. Anyone will be able to create mashups on the free website, which ESRI launched on Saturday. Mashups are combined sets of statistics or information that typically are presented in the form of a map or chart to illustrate relationships. The site already allows anyone to search for graphic layers of information from data sets ESRI retrieved from federal GIS databases. Visitors then can add the layers to a base map, or a background map, to complete the picture. ESRI, which makes money by licensing software for managing and publishing geographic information, is offering the site free of advertisements and does not claim ownership of any content that people and agencies contribute, Dangermond said.

Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, who is responsible for, told Dangermond “to make sure your private sector investments help us leverage government expressions of data,” Dangermond recalls. He declined to disclose the cost to the company, but said it is in the range of tens of millions of dollars and involved three and a half years of work. “We can afford to do it through our software licenses,” he added. Users can share their work with a defined group of people, sell their creations on their own websites or share them with the public to let others enhance them. For example, individuals with little or no programming skills can use to see how the oil spill could affect livelihoods along the Gulf Coast.

A user could click on the area of the map where the he or she wants to visualize a trend. In this case, the visitor might want to click on Texas. The person then would search a library of map services for the word “oil,” which would pull up a list of several relevant items, such as a color-coded layer indicating the Gulf Coast area's proportion of revenue from fishing and seafood, as well as a layer representing the unemployment rate for March. The person would then choose from an array of base maps, including street and topographical maps, for the backdrop of the mashup.

The resulting image would allow the user to view the communities that are most dependent on the Gulf Coast waters for income and the areas that were experiencing high unemployment before the disaster occurred. The site is in beta mode so some of the content does not list the source of the material, as was the case with the two data sets as of Friday. The tool is an example of what President Obama would like to see agencies pursue under his open government initiative. A day after taking office, he issued a memo that called on federal managers to use new technologies to foster transparency, collaboration with industry and governments, and public participation.

With, state and federal agencies allow ESRI to tap geographic information stored in government databases, encouraging collaboration. The site invites the public to participate in the process by allowing people to save in a gallery any map they create so others can view it, by generating links to their maps, and by adding data, or metadata, to data sets based on personal knowledge they may have about a subject. The mashups also provide transparency.

ESRI won a contract in 2004 to build and host and last summer began informally helping the White House move thousands of geographic data sets from the site to so users could extract and manipulate basic maps. Earlier this year, the government paid ESRI about $50,000, as an add-on to the contract, to accelerate integration of the two sites, including the map services. Dangermond's plans for include collecting more source material from the federal government and citizens. “One of the big things is going to be more and more content: It's not just any data,” he said. “What we want is ready-to-use maps.”

Almost every federal agency has an enterprise license with ESRI but producing map services takes time, he said. also can serve the government, company officials said. “Events happen and events happen across jurisdictions and you have to respond very quickly,” said Bernard Szukalski, ESRI senior product manager. “This provides a framework for situational awareness.” Dangermond added, “The feds have data that they'll share back and forth. But what about the local data? The parcel data? Nobody knows who owns the property.

“Being able to bring in the map of local properties so it can be overlaid on top of the flood map” is something a government decisionmaker might want to be able to do in a hurry, he added.


GIS and Twitter mash-up
May 28th, 2010 by Tom Johnson

 From GISUser at

Social Media and Geo-Services – A Fabulous ArcGIS Explorer, Twitter mashup

Modeling real-time situations… This video goes back a few months to the Haiti disaster response, however, its a great example and reminder of how geo technology (ArcGIS Explorer in this case) and social media (Twitter) can be combined to result in a very useful application. Enter the video showing Real-time modeling of the disaster situation in Haiti. Viewing Twitter updates on the map in real-time really puts the situation in context and provides the responders with much needed situational awareness. No doubt these forms of Geo services and mashups will be useful in the near future with the Gulf of Mexico BP oil spill response and cleanup efforts.

"BP tries to mislead you with graphs" — From FlowingData
May 27th, 2010 by Tom Johnson

 Go to:

BP tries to mislead you with graphs

By Nathan Yau – May 26, 2010 – Mistaken DataPost on Twitter

BP tries to mislead you with graphs

BP senior vice president Kent Wells explains in this new video what his group is doing towards repairing the leak. He presents the bar graph above to show the improvement in their efforts. It's increasing, so they must be improving. Nifty. The problem is that it's cumulative, and the rate at which they're collecting isn't improving.

From the Maddow blog:

[T]hose green bars go up because the tube has been in place since May 16. The longer it stays, the more gallons it collects. It's not necessarily collecting more oil on successive days, let alone “most” of the oil as Wells says they're trying to do.

Stephen Few provides a different view, with collection rates:

Few goes on to say:

While the amount of collection increased in the beginning, it has decreased or held steady for the last four days and is now well below the average amount of daily collection for this period as a whole. Things are definitely not getting better. How do you spin bad news like this? One way is to create a misleading graph, but cover your ass by doing it in a way that isn’t an outright lie.

To put it differently, you could easily spin BP's results in the opposite direction. A cumulative graph for the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf would be an increasing one too.

Trafficing in Maps
Apr 15th, 2010 by analyticjournalism

Nathan at posts a nice collection of traffic mapping examples.

Explorations of real-world traffic

Posted by Nathan on Apr 15, 2010 to Mapping / 8 comments

Explorations of real-world traffic

Traffic visualizations, mostly in the form of geographic maps, have been popular lately. Governments and organizations have been releasing lots of GPS data, and as a result, we get to see some impressive animations and explore some slick interactives.

We don't often get to see how cars, trains, subways, airplanes, etc move in physical space, because, well, we're usually in them, so it's always interesting to see the big picture. The activity feels very organic as traffic peaks during rush hours and slows down during the night, taxis provide service to and from the airport, and air traffic continues into the late hours. The maps pulsate with energy.

Let's take a look at some of these great traffic visualizations, some new and some old.

Traffic in Lisbon

Pedro Cruz's maps showing traffic in Lisbon (above) are the most recent on the list. They're another take on the ghostly trails aesthetic. Areas turn bright when there's more activity. Watch the animations play out over time.

NYC MTA Ridership

Sha Hwang, now a part of Stamen Design, spun off of the fruminator's subway sparklines with a Modest Maps rendition of NYC MTA Ridership. Tracks get thicker with amount of estimated riders. Obviously, there's some interpolation going on.

Tracking Taxi Flow

We saw this one by The New York Times fairly recently, made possible by a collaboration between Sense Networks and New York City’s Taxi & Limousine Commission.

UK Traffic Flow

With the launch of came a bunch of visualizations and applications. Ito World put together several maps that show car, bus, bicycle, and motorcycle traffic.

San Francisco Buses and Trains

Taco Lab had some fun with public transit data. The animation looks a lot like ants scurrying around in the dark.

Cascade on Wheels

Cascade on Wheels by Steph Thirion and team was an effort during the Visualizar workshop to show traffic in Madrid's city center. In a bit of a different approach that we've seen, traffic was represented with rising “walls.”

AirTraffic Worldwide

AirTraffic Worldwide by Zhaw shows just that. Each yellow dot represents an airplane, and air traffic dies down as the cloud of darkness called night passes over the region.

Britain from Above

Britain from Above by 422 South was created for a special segment on BBC. The series of videos revealed the ebb and flow of land and air traffic using GPS data.


Of course we can't talk about traffic visualization and maps without mentioning Stamen Design's Cabspotting. Launched way back in 2006, previous cab trails are drawn in the background, with current cabs driving around the city.

Flight Patterns

Finally, we can't forget Aaron Koblin's Flight Patterns, which (obviously) shows a day of flights in the United States according to an FAA dataset. It won a first place prize in the 2006 NSF visualization challenge.

See, I told you there was a lot of great stuff. Did I miss anything obvious? Leave a link in the comments below.



Great — and helpful — interaction between data and newspapers
Apr 5th, 2010 by analyticjournalism

 We have long been critical of newspapers' failure to marry data with real-time readers' interests.  Interests like finding a cab in New York City.  It's great to see the gang from the NYTimes doing some innovative mapping to truly present added-value to their product.

Tracking Taxi Flow Across the City

Information from millions of taxi trips provides a telling record of the city's vital signs. The map shows the average number of pickups for different times of the day and days of week, Jan. – March, 2009. comment icon Comments (41) | Related Article »


Reporting Complexity (with Complexity)
Mar 31st, 2010 by Tom Johnson

“Reporting Complexity (with Complexity): General Systems Theory, Complexity and Simulation Modeling

See the PPT slides from a vid-conference lecture from Santa Fe to

School of Public and Environmental Affairs
School of Journalism 
COURSE: Mass Media & Public Affairs
March 31, 2010

Applied Complexity in Havana
Mar 28th, 2010 by Tom Johnson

In January, Team Santa Fe (Tom Johnson, Steve Guerin, Nick Bennett, and Alfredo Covaledo [Bogota]) rolled up in Havana to attend the 10th Congress of Complexity Studies in Cuba. (Steve, Nick and Alfredo also taught a day-long workshop on Netlogo and simulation modeling following the conference.)

One of the conference attendees from the Univ. of Guanajuato (Mexico) shot some footage of Steve's Simtable demos and also a lecture by Dr. Niles Eldredge. Those videos can be seen here:

-tom johnson

Pivot Tables in Excel Webcast [free}
Mar 19th, 2010 by Tom Johnson

OReilly Webcast

Pivot Tables in Microsoft Excel

Presented by:

Michael Milton, author of Head First Excel, Head First Data Analysis, and Great R: Level 1

Pivot tables let you put together in seconds data summaries that would take forever to create with Excel formulas. That speed gives you the ability to get answers about your data as quickly as you can think up questions for it. Pivot tables are one of Excel's most versatile features, but they can be tough to break into.

Even if you're new to Excel, this live presentation will get you using pivot tables like a champ, and you'll learn

  • How to group and summarize data at warp speed using pivot tables
  • How to create explore data with pivot tables and create new segments for analysis
  • How to recognize data that can and cannot be processed by pivot tables

About Michael Milton

Michael is the author of Head First Excel, Head First Data Analysis, and the forthcoming Great R: Level 1. He has spent most of his career helping nonprofit organizations improve their fundraising by interpreting and acting on the marketing data they collect from their donors.

email register
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March 24th
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How 'bout a new term: "NewsViz"?
Feb 27th, 2010 by Tom Johnson

 Many of us are commonly using the term “data visualization” or “dataviz” or even “infoviz.”  Perhaps we should add to the lexicon “newsviz.”  If so, you saw it here first.  Maybe.  In any event, check out this interesting page at Slate.

News Dots: The Day's Events as a Social NetworkAn interactive map of how every story in the news is related, updated daily.

Like Kevin Bacon's co-stars, topics in the news are all connected by degrees of separation. To examine how every story fits together, News Dots visualizes the most recent topics in the news as a giant social network. Subjects—represented by the circles below—are connected to one another if they appear together in at least two stories, and the size of the dot is proportional to the total number of times the subject is mentioned.

To use this interactive tool, just click on a circle to see which stories mention that topic and which other topics it connects to in the network. Double click a dot to zoom in on it. From there, you can click on any connected dot to see which stories mention both subjects. To zoom out, just double click in white space or use the zoom out button in the upper left corner. The buttons in the upper right can toggle the emphasis between the importance of a subject and how recently it has appeared on the radar. A more detailed explanation of how News Dots works is available below the graphic.

Analysis,  Feb. 24, 2010: Three potential 2012 Republican presidential nominees–Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, and Tim Pawlenty–all cluster around the Republican Party dot. But newly minted senator Scott Brown dwarfs them all.

This is a work in progress, so please send us your ideas for features you'd like to see or other ways we can improve it.

How News Dots works

Step 1: Behind the scenes, News Dots scans all articles from major publications—about 500 stories a day—and submits them to Calais, a service from Thompson Reuters that automatically “tags” content with all the important keywords: people, places, companies, topics, and so forth. Slate's tool registers any tag that appears at least twice in a story.

Step 2: Each time two tags appear in the same story, this tool tallies a connection between them. For example, a story about a planned troop increase in Afghanistan reform might return tags for President Obama, the White House, and Afghanistan. These topics are now connected:

Step 3: As this tool scans hundreds of stories, this network grows rapidly, and “communities” begin to form among the tags. Subjects that are highly connected—those that appear together in many stories—cluster together in the network. This occurs in the same way that a picture of the social network of your Facebook friends would reveal clusters of friends from high school, college, and work, with some unexpected connections between them when friends belong to multiple cliques.

Step 4: The news network that results is visualized using Slate's custom News Dots tool, which is built using an open-source Actionscript library called Flare. Tags are displayed if they appear in at least four stories, and connections are made if at least two stories link those two subjects. The visualization covers the previous three days of news and is updated daily.


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