This past weekend brought the conclusion of a six-week Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) about infographics and data visualization through the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, taught by Alberto Cairo, University of Miami journalism professor and author of The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization.

I’ve been a fan of data visualization and infograhics (not the trendy, tower/skyscraper junk that is so popular with web marketers currently, but journalistic quality information design) for years, so when I stumbled upon a tweet from Alberto Cairo about the course, I jumped on it. Good thing too, because 2,000 other students around the world jumped on it as well and open registration was turned off within a few days of registering.

About the Course

From the course syllabus:

This course is an introduction to the basics of the visual representation of data. In this class you will learn how to design successful charts and maps, and how to arrange them to compose cohesive storytelling pieces. We will also discuss ethical issues when designing graphics, and how the principles of Graphic Design and of Interaction Design apply to the visualization of information.The course will have a theoretical component, as we will cover the main rules of the discipline, and also a practical one, as you will learn how to use Adobe Illustrator to design basic infographics and mock ups for interactive visualizations.

What will I learn?

  • How to analyze and critique infographics and visualizations in newspapers, books, TV, etc., and how to propose alternatives that would improve them.
  • How to plan for data-based storytelling through charts, maps, and diagrams.
  • How to design infographics and visualizations that are not just attractive but, above all, informative, deep, and accurate.
  • The rules of Graphic Design and of Interaction Design, applied to infographics and visualizations.

The expectation for workload was 4 – 6 hours per week. I’m sure that varied from student to student, as what you get out of something like this is a direct result of what you put into it, but I probably put in something like 8 – 12 hour per week, especially in the last half of the course.

This course is being offered again in January, so here’s a rough breakdown of the weeks for those who’d like an idea of what to expect.

Week by Week Summary

Week 1 remake

Week 1
In addition to reading a couple of chapters of his book (which he provided for free) there were 7 video lectures, focusing on visualizing information. We were also tasked with critiquing an infographic about global social media usage, and, optionally invited to try to remake that. To read more about that and see my remake, check out my posts on Visualization Critique and Global Social Media Usage Infographic.

Week 2

The focus of week 2 was  Visual Perception and Graphic Design Principles; Planning for Infographics and Visualizations. Fellow student Javier Sandoval created some awesome sketchnotes of these lectures which he allowed me to post on VizThinker.

We again had a critique, this time of an interactive NY Times visualization about word counts at the national conventions. As with the previous critique we had to discuss this in one of the online forums provided. Many of us again tried our hands at remaking the visualization, at least in a static form.

Word Count as Bar Chart Visualization Mockup

Week 4 assignment

Week 3

The video lectures for week 3 were on interaction and visualization design. Rather than another critique, the work assignment this week was to present a proposal for an interactive visualization to Alberto, on the topic of visualizing world aid transparency, using a dataset provided by the Guardian Data Blog. Here’s the mock-up/proposal that I submitted.

Week 4

Week 4 brought yet another exercise to present a proposal for an interactive visualization. The topic this time, US Un-employment, using data from the Guardian Data Blog again. And here’s what I submitted for that one.

Weeks 5 and 6

The final two weeks of the course, we were turned loose to make an infographic on the topic of our choosing. We were allowed to work in teams, so I teamed up with my wife, also taking the course, to create an infographic that covered economic diversification efforts in the state of Hawaii. As with the others, this is also posted on my VizThinker site:

Final project

Hawaii Economic Diversification Infographic

So, very interesting course. A lot of work, but very worth it. This was the first massive online open course (MOOC) I’ve taken. While you can’t expect to get the kind of personalized input from the professor like you’d get in a normal course, I was amazed at how active Alberto was in the forums and how much personal feedback he was able to provide.

As I said earlier, you get out of it what you put into it and in courses like this, the more seriously you take the critiques and the mock-up assignments and the final assignments and try to make a professional piece, the more you’ll learn.

I’m glad to have taken the course, despite also having a busy workload at the time. But, I’m also glad it’s over and looking forward to having some down time in the evenings again. But, if a follow-up course to this is offered I’ll definitely be in it.

I’ve got an even greater respect now for journalistic quality data visualizations and infographics and the time and effort that goes into creating a piece that functions as a communication tool and explain something visually. It’s something that I plan to pursue more and at some point in 2013 will likely start offering static infographic data visualizations as an additional service to compliment the animated video infographics services.

p.s. Fellow student Manuel Castells also just published an overview of the course on his blog: The MOOC Experience.