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Holding algorithms (and the people behind them) accountable is still tricky, but doable
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May 5, 2017, 9:52 a.m.
Reporting & Production

This site publishes high-touch, time-intensive data visualizations (and has a business that sustains it)

“Our goal is for The Pudding to be a weekly journal. We specifically seek out stories that aren’t news related, because we don’t want to compete in that space.”

Over 7,000 artists played in the New York City area in 2013. Only 21 of those later made it, really made it, headlining at a venue with an over 3,000-person capacity — among them, bigger names like Chance the Rapper, X Ambassadors, Sam Smith, and Sylvan Esso.

I learned this sort of random but fascinating tidbit from a data visualization titled “The Unlikely Odds of Making it Big,” from the site The Pudding.

The Pudding is the home to high-touch, painstakingly crafted data visualizations — what the site calls “visual essays” — that are distinct in their obsessive complexity over points of cultural curiosity. Most pieces stand wholly apart from the U.S. news cycle; no anxiety-inducing interactives around budget, taxes, health care. Want to see everywhere jazz legend Miles Davis is mentioned across Wikipedia, and how he’s connected to other people, recordings, and places? Here you go.

(Other things I’ve discovered browsing The Pudding’s interactives: that the town where I live is probably not the microbrew capital of the U.S., that there’s pretty strong evidence that NBA refs favor the home team, that the song “No Diggity” by Blackstreet is irrefutably timeless, at least based on Spotify play counts, compared to its 1990s peers.)

Pudding is the newly partitioned off editorial arm of a three-person data visualizations company Polygraph (!), started two years ago by Matt Daniels, a consultant with a digital marketing background. Daniels and his partners Russell Goldenberg and Ilia Blinderman publish sumptuous visualizations that scratch personal itches. The Pudding also works closely with freelancers on pretty much whatever questions they’re interested in exploring visually, as long as it’s based on data. Freelancers are paid a flat rate of $5,000 for each piece.

“We’re all over the map. But basically, every individual picks their idea, we vet it ourselves and make sure the data’s there, that it’s interesting, and we just go off and do it,” Goldenberg told me. (The ideas backlog for The Pudding is listed out in this public Google Doc.) “Our goal is for The Pudding to be a weekly journal. We specifically seek out stories that aren’t news related, because we don’t want to compete in that space. The Washington Post, The New York Times, FiveThirtyEight, lots of places are doing interactive graphics well, doing multiple data journalism pieces per day. That doesn’t jive with what we want to be.”

Goldenberg previously worked at The Boston Globe as an interactive news developer and Blinderman’s a science and culture writer who studied data journalism at Columbia. Despite journalistic credentials, The Pudding (and Polygraph) isn’t aiming to be a journalistic enterprise. The team might in the course of developing a visualization call up a few people to run questions by them, or have to create their own data source (this freelancer’s exploration of the Hamilton musical libretto, for instance), but most of the data it builds interactives on is already available (no FOIAing needed).

Work gets promoted on The Pudding site, and through the Polygraph and Pudding newsletters, which will eventually merge into one. Polygraph’s newsletter sharing the latest visualizations has about 10,000 subscribers; The Pudding’s has about 1,000 after launching this year. Otherwise, promotion is largely word of mouth — and some pieces have been able to spread widely that way. They’re definitely open to collaborating with “more visible partners,” Goldenberg told me, though “we’re not being aggressive about our outreach.”

(A similar project popped up last year called The Thrust, which wanted to serve as a home for data visualization projects that didn’t fit with traditional news organizations or into their news cycles. The creators left for full-time jobs at ProPublica and The New York Times and the site has stopped updating.)

The moneymaking side of Polygraph functions like a digital agency, with Daniels, Goldenberg, and Blinderman pushing out projects for large clients like YouTube, Google News Lab, and Kickstarter. Goldenberg wouldn’t disclose how much they charge for these sponsored pieces, but revenue generated from a handful of client projects funds the entire editorial side, including paying for freelancers pieces and the three current full-time staffers’ salaries.

“We try to take on client work to just support our staff and basically to sustain The Pudding, with about three to six freelancers each quarter — what we’re doing is maybe kind of backwards,” Goldenberg said. “The thing about our editorial work is that also essentially serves as marketing for us. Generally, when we publish a new project on The Pudding, we get a few business inquiries. It’s a nice symbiotic relationship.”

Polygraph is also hiring for two more full-time positions — a “maker” and an editor — both at competitive salaries, which suggests that its client-side business is going quite well. Its ambitions looking forward, though, are straightforward: publish more interesting data-driven visualizations.

“We want to push forward the craft of visual storytelling, and these are not things you do on a daily basis,” Goldenberg said. “We still want to take our time and spend a couple of weeks, maybe a month or more, on a project. Unless we have dozens of people working with us, we wouldn’t really be able to publish more than once a week or so. We’re mostly just trying to establish that rhythm, and keep pushing out good pieces.”

POSTED     May 5, 2017, 9:52 a.m.
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