Google News Lab is inviting artists and designers to dig into its massive trove of data about what the world Googles. Data journalists work at the crossroads of reportage and visual creativity. They tell stories by shaping information like journalists do, but they communicate through visceral and compelling visuals. The same can be said of data artists, who emphasize the illustrative qualities of visualization over facts and numbers—but who communicate stories in much the same way.
As the data journalist Alberto Cairo, who is partnering with Google News Lab on a new artist-focused initiative, puts it: “The people we are collaborating with have this dual approach. Some call themselves artists, but their approach is journalistic in the sense that they don’t try primarily to produce art as a vehicle for self-expression, but as a means to communicate ideas.”
Since 2015, Google News Lab has worked to make the company’s huge trove of Search data accessible to newsrooms. Most of the lab’s previous projects—such as the annual Year In Search that digs back through the year’s headline news, or initiatives to train journalists to incorporate data into their stories–introduce tools that make it easier to use data in news reporting. As Google News Lab data editor Simon Rogers points out, Google has access not only to a giant swath of data—but also to data that represents what people are really interested in, honestly and without agenda. Google doesn’t get its numbers by polling people or prompting them in any way; it simply pulls them from what people naturally search for. “It takes you beyond the echo chamber of social media into what the world really thinks and cares about,” says Rogers.
Rogers and his team wondered what would happen if they handed over access to that data to designers and artists instead—and gave them total freedom to choose not only what to visualize, but how. In collaboration with Cairo, they turned to a different group of professionals to parse Google’s Search information: data artists.
Their Data Visualization Project, which began in December, aims to explore new ways of visualizing data through experimentation with artists and designers. The only requirements the project imposes on participants are that the work should push data journalism forward, and it should be mobile-friendly.