Blind people need to be considered more when making data visualizations
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Visual data representation is being used more and more in digital newsrooms across the world. The downside, however, is how exclusionary this can be for people with visual impairments.
It’s clear that visual journalism will play a huge part in the digital future for media outlets. From audience analytics tools measuring the impact of content, to representing complicated data in an easy to digest format, it’s easy to see the benefits of such tools and production techniques for creating impactful digital journalism.
It’s also clear that without a better understanding of how to make visual journalism work for everyone that huge parts of the audience are going to be left behind. In the UK alone, the Royal National Institute of Blind People estimate that around 2 million people are living with some sort of sight loss. Globally, the World Health Organization claim the number is close to 2.2 billion, with that number set to rise dramatically as people continue to age.
As a blind journalist, I’m concerned that the increased use of visual data representation without careful and creative thought about accessibility is widening the inaccessibility gap.
During the COVID pandemic I wasn’t easily able to access COVID data represented on digital graphs, and I wasn’t alone. A project by MIT researching the problem of data visualization accessibility cited a simple chart from the beginning of the pandemic.
The cited chart demonstrated the benefits of mask wearing and social distancing for limiting the spread of the disease. The chart was amplified by many global media outlets, but was missed by millions of blind readers due to lack of meaningful text or audio description.
Data journalism’s access issues and greater potential
In my job as a digital journalist, I’m becoming increasingly aware of the desire to publish more and more impactful visual data journalism.
For a lot of people, visual representations of complicated data has the ability to translate data into a format our brains can comprehend easier and quicker. However, what’s not so obvious is how exclusionary that can be for those of us who don’t operate in a visual way.
I can’t take any of the other myriad of visual data tools and translate them quickly into a way my brain understands. This includes infographics, maps, pie and bar charts, etc.
As someone who uses a screen reader to translate what’s on my screen it’s imperative to have an alternative method of accessing whatever data I’m being presented with. For example, this could be through simple alternate descriptions in a bar chart or map.
I would also argue that this is fairly limiting and isn’t presenting the data in the creative and impactful way most visual data journalists strive for. What I’d like to see is more thought being given to developing creative alternatives for me and the millions of other people like me.
I would even go as far as arguing that visual data by its’ very nature is an accessibility tool. It’s taking complicated data and presenting it in a way which is easy for many people to understand. I want to see the same thought being given to people who absorb information differently.
I would also like to see thought and care being given to people who absorb information differently. Making visual data more widely accessible for neurodiverse people, or people with cognitive disabilities for example would also really help level a currently unlevel playing field.
In October of this year, I’m going to be starting a Fellowship with the prestigious Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. I’ll be working on how best to bridge this accessibility gap. It’s something I’m really passionate about, but it’s also something I know only from a user’s point of view.
I’m a journalist. I’m not a UX specialist or web developer in any way, shape or form. I care about making all forms of digital communication as accessible as possible. However, I’m acutely aware that being able to do this is outside my current skillset.
I’m a proficient screen reader user and can navigate the web reasonably well. Where my skillset is lacking is being able to design accessible user experiences for the increasing amount of visual data being produced.
I’m also aware that the need to know exactly how it all works isn’t entirely necessary. Before the widespread adoption of digital printing techniques, thousands of people were employed in the hot metal era of creating newspapers, and I would argue that not all journalists understood that world of printing. In the same way, there are designers and developers who can create the underlying design and code.
I’m really hoping by being able to work with these designers and developers, as well as with different people with many different skillsets who care as passionately as I do about universal accessibility and equitability for all. Together, we can move the dial on making more visual journalism accessible.
Global news organizations are rightly alert to the need for diversity and proper representation amongst their staff and the content they create. However, there’s a huge mismatch in this awareness and how data is being collated and presented in an equitable way for all parts of a global audience. I’m hoping by highlighting the issue I’ll be able to help efforts address this mismatch.
Please do get in touch if this sounds like something you’d like to know more about or can offer advice or help. I’m really hoping by pulling together we can all help to make a difference.