Mona Chalabi discusses illustrations that allow people to both connect and engage with data

Credit: Tracy Le/ Credit: Tracy Le/

We have a tendency to think of data as concrete, as being something that communicates some kind of exact and empirical truth, just because we have found a way to quantify the world around us. However, communicating the uncertainties that come with every dataset is one of the challenges that purveyors of data journalism face today. Mona Chalabi, Data Editor for The Guardian US, has found one way to convey this uncertainty: with illustrations that allow people to both connect and engage with data, but also to not overly state its precision.

In a talk last Sunday at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Chalabi outlined her process when it comes to presenting issues through data. This talk was one of the many events centered around data and its usage hosted by the Carnegie Library over the past months.

The Department of Statistics and Data Science at the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences is one of the fastest growing departments at Carnegie Mellon University, with the number of undergraduate statistics majors being more than 20 times what it was in 2003. This uptick was attributed to the fact that the department focuses on “problems that are real,” as stated by Professor Rebecca Nugent, director of undergraduate studies.

These “real problems” are Mona Chalabi’s job. She began her talk by talking about the myriad issues she had covered during her work as a journalist, bringing up that “whichever of those issues you care about, and hopefully you care about at least one of them, with both data and design skills you can try to make sure that other people care about those issues too.” She outlined the capacity for data visualizations to engage people with different viewpoints, hoping that when the talk was over “that whatever it is that you are interested in, you leave with a bit of insight into how to communicate your knowledge to other people, maybe even people that are totally different to you.”

She also cited spreading knowledge about statistics and data usage as part of the mission of her journalism, hoping that her reporting will leave readers empowered to fact check. She states, “When you read something, it’s okay to feel skeptical.” However, she also emphasized that “it’s important to channel that skepticism into action and test this stuff for yourself. And in order to do that, it’s important that as many citizens as possible have these skills to be able to do that research.”

This commitment to careful and ethical data usage lends transparency and another layer to her work. “Mona commits to transparency at every step along the way by sharing her sources, collaborating with her followers through live streams and comments, and editing her art based on feedback. By providing a window to her methodology, Mona allows her audience to fully engage with the data and art,” stated Eleanor Tutt, Open Data and Knowledge Manager at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in a follow-up email to the talk.

Her social media usage is not the only thing that distinguishes her journalism. She firmly believes that all charts she makes should reflect something about their subject matter. She displayed generic charts and bar graphs and opined that while they were “powerful, I guess, in terms of their clarity, but if you were to remove the labels these could be about absolutely anything, and I think charts should connect to the subject matter that they are depicting.”

Though Chalabi focused a lot on how to analyze and present data, she views her job primarily as that of “a journalist who really loves numbers.” While she works as a designer and with data, she primarily views herself as a journalist. “My job is to find reliable, recent numbers and get them in front of as many people as possible. Sometimes those numbers are buried way down deep in a database, sometimes they’re in the appendix of a PDF. But my job is to track them down and translate them from endless possible iterations of digital page to either words or images.”