Data and a Polygraph: A Look into Data Journalism

As the uses and values of data become more well-known, more and more unique ways of exploring and presenting data are emerging to the forefront of the Internet. When Wesleyan invited one of these explorers, Matt Daniels, to give a talk on data journalism and media art, I immediately dug into his portfolio. Daniels hosts his projects on a website called Polygraph, and currently has only focused one exploring data related to music. I was immediately transfixed by the name of his site – polygraph isn’t a word commonly connected to data or information – and, due to blanking on the definition, Googled it. I found the following:

pol·y·graph [ˈpälēˌɡraf]


  1. A machine designed to detect and record changes in physiological characteristics, such as a person’s pulse and breathing rates, used especially as a lie detector.

With this definition swirling in my head, I came to Daniels’ talk eager to learn what he was all about. Daniels, one of the many young creators who are storming the tech industry, began by clicking to a slide of the visualization that made him “internet famous.” He describes that the goal of this project was to look at the usage of unique words by rappers in their songs. The visualization charts these usages, along with the amount of unique words used by authors ranging from Shakespeare to Melville. The visualization was then followed by some text that further fleshed out what he had discovered. And there you find Daniel’s formula, the foundation of this data journalism he has fallen into: a code narrative + a prose narrative = an interesting and interactive read.

Matt explained that he thinks of himself as a media artist who does “creative coding.” He clicks to a slide with these questions: Can code BECOME the editorial? Can it become the content? Can it have a narrative of its own? “Data seems stiff. But really, it’s expressive! We shouldn’t feel limited by that common outlook,” Daniels explained. “There’s a huge audience for visualizations that most people don’t anticipate. There’s a lot of potential growth in that space.”

This prompts the question of what kind of growth is taking place in this space, if there really is as much of it as Daniels predicts. “The best visualizations are coming from media corps” – and freelancers like Daniels – “rather than companies with lots of funding,” he explained. So why is this? What is making these smaller startups so successful? Daniels chocked it up to something called “Explorable Explanations,” a phrase coined by Bret Victor, who was one of the first to turn online discovery into an active dialogue. Victor muses on his website that, “Even the chaos of the daily world could be made playable. A few journalists transformed data into models, and let their readers explore real economic and political systems.” This is Daniels’ prerogative, even if he’s not targeting economics or politics, and he backed this up with the following diagram:


  1. Exploration                                                     2.   ??                                       3. Communicate Insight


Daniels asked us to notice the missing number 2. “What happens there?” he asked. The whole point of the missing second step is that that’s where the freedom should kick in. “If you can only explore, there’s no room to build, no place to go,” Daniels insisted. He then explained it in metaphorical terms: As the author, he creates the lake, and then the players can sail anywhere. There are parameters to the lake, but the readers can go anywhere they want and come to a variety of different conclusions.

However, this power in the hands of the visualization creator leads to some questions about the ethics of this approach – and perhaps data journalism an interactive educational visualizations as a whole. These questions were pointed out by a teacher at the end of Daniel’s talk, who mused that there might be an issue in saying this allows readers to come to their own conclusions. “But does it really?” the teacher exclaimed. “These visualizations data are always framed in a certain way, allowing media to prime certain conclusions.” Daniels conceded to this, and explained that, when exploring, us readers must always be aware of the pre-set parameters of the lake. Hands shot up into the air and a flood of questions then came in: So could our self-discovery be the lie? How do we deal with how much is hidden from us, or the possibility of endless conclusions? Are we perhaps not ever supposed to reach any real answer?

And what’s the future for this kind of work? “I do hear things like, ‘Oh, it’s going to crash before we graduate!’” But the tech industry is huge. Everything seems fine now,” Daniels said with a calm shrug. “Make funny, interesting things. Don’t take it too seriously.” And, as can be seen in Daniels’s work, not taking it too seriously will often allow the creation of a project that has seriousness beneath the surface.

I like thinking about this daunting new world of media art and data journalism in terms of the name of Matt Daniels’s site – polygraph. A polygraph records change, and is used in mainstream culture to detect when someone is telling a lie. And maybe, in the end, that is the beautiful of data – it can create truths and uncover lies. And it can also create lies and uncover truths. And somewhere between those two is the perfect balance, a balance that people like Matt Daniels are striving to find.