A picture may not always be worth 1,000 words, but when it comes to telling a good story, it can certainly help a lot — particularly if it’s based on reliable data and it’s interactive and animated.
That’s the philosophy behind the new graduate offering of the School of Communication of the University of Miami (UM): A Data Journalism and Visualization track within our MFA in Interactive Media. This new track is the product of a collaboration between the departments of Cinema and Interactive Media, Journalism, and Geography. The other new tracks proposed for our MFA are focused on game design, Web design and storytelling.
Collaboration is a key word here. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson explains that innovations usually don’t come from solitary individuals ruminating on their own, but in many cases derive from constant and frank — brutally so, sometimes, I assure you — interactions between people of varied backgrounds, interests and agendas. In the past few months at UM’s School of Communication, we’ve experienced something very similar to what Johnson describes.
WHY FOCUSING ON VISUALIZATION?
In the three years that I’ve been a professor of data visualization and infographics at the University of Miami, many organizations have asked us for a special kind of student: Someone who is able to transform information into charts, maps, diagrams and explanation infographics, and who is also reasonably proficient in statistics, storytelling, Web design and programming. This kind of professional is sometimes called the “unicorn.”
Other universities in the U.S., like Columbia and Northwestern, have created excellent programs to train unicorns so, to make ours distinctive, we decided to transform visualization and infographics into its central component. Analysis, research and computational skills are obviously part of our course list, which you can see here, but most of our other mandatory classes deal with the visual display of information.
While completing their core classes, our future students will be able to use electives to specialize even further in whatever area they are interested in — statistics, data visualization, journalism, GIS, Web development, etc. — or to complete a specific set of courses in UM’s geography department. In this case, a student may graduate not only with an MFA — a terminal degree — in Interactive Media with a specialization in Data Journalism and Visualization, but also with a Certificate in Geospatial Technology.
Another key component of the new MFA tracks will be the opportunity to work on real projects with different kinds of organizations. In the Fall 2014, for instance, some of our graduate students helped the World Wildlife Fund develop several interactive tools for an information campaign.
During that same semester, the School of Communication signed an agreement with Univisión Noticias to develop a student-driven information graphics unit. The first result of this collaboration is the series of charts and maps about the midterm elections that a group of our students created for Univisión’s website on November 4 and 5. We will announce more agreements like these in early 2015.
Next spring, students from the School of Communication and the School of Marine & Atmospheric Science will partner up in a large infographics project. In that same semester, another group of students will design an ambitious multimedia website about the risks that rising sea levels pose to Miami.
WHAT LIES AHEAD: EVEN MORE COLLABORATION
Opportunities for our future graduate students won’t be limited to the MFA in Interactive Media or even to the School of Communication. Visualization has become a subject of great interest at the university level. Our Center for Computational Science (CCS), where I’m one of the directors, has recently created a dedicated visualization website which showcases work done all over UM. Promoting interdisciplinary collaboration is paramount to all of us.
Moreover, the University of Miami has recently announced the VizUM Annual Symposium, after the success of the Places&Spaces visualization exhibit and lecture series. And the CCS and our Department of Computer Science are about to inaugurate a new visualization lab, which all students and faculty will be invited to use. Digital Humanities and Business Analytics are other areas in which we are also expanding.
Everything considered, it’s a very exciting time to be a visualization designer in Miami.
Alberto Cairo teaches visualization and infographics at the School of Communication of the University of Miami. Starting in summer 2015, he will be the Knight Chair in Visual Journalism at UM, where he’s also director of the Visualization Program at the Center for Computational Science. He is the author of the book “The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization.” He has been graphics director at several news publications in Spain and Brazil and has consulted and taught in more than 20 countries.