Knight Center
Knight Center


Maps, timelines and infographics: 5 tools to build your own interactive visualizations

Infographics and data visualizations have become essential tools for journalism with the emergence of digital media, where huge volumes of data need to be interpreted and communicated in easy to understand language for the audience. As technology advances, journalists are able to create their own interactive graphics and add visual components to their reports, an area once reserved for graphic designers. 

The outpouring of interest in a recent Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, on infographics taught by Alberto Cairo showed that there was a pent up demand for the skill. There were 5,000 participants from 138 countries, the largest Knight Center class to date. Cairo, the author of the book "The Functional Art," says that the principal function of graphics is to inform. 

"For me, there is no difference between written and visual work. The objectives are the same. Designer and journalist should be most concerned with the investigation, the quality of the graphic's structure and its functionality before making it 'pretty,'" he told the Knight Center in an email. 

However, the greatest hurdle for journalists who attempt visualizations and graphics is usually not the investigation, something they're well accustomed to. With this in mind, the Knight Center selected (and tested!) five tools that allow journalists to build timelines, graphics and maps without having to learn to code, or use Adobe InDesign or Illustrator, skills outside the wheelhouse for many journalists. Learn how to use:


This tool is a treat for someone without professional graphic design programs. It offers six layouts and 14 styles of graphics (bar and pie charts, line graphs, among others) to build interactive visualizations. To avoid getting overwhelmed with options, remember that the style of graph should match the information on display, its functionality. For example, bar charts are usually better than bubbles when making comparisons (other great tips from the first chapters of Cairo's book are available for download here). On the right-hand side of the editing screen there is a menu to add graphics, text boxes, maps, images and videos. Double click to edit an item. When editing the graphic, include the data to be illustrated or import a spreadsheet. After all the edits, the only thing left to do is publish the graphic or embed it in a website, copying the HTML code provided. 

Pro: It takes just a few minutes to create a professional looking visualization (click here for examples).

Con: It's only possible to organize data in a column or grid and the themes are not flexible.


Were you impressed with Get ready to check out This online infographics service (still in beta) is super intuitive and offers some functionality that doesn't, like the ability to freely organize the layout and make edits to the pre-defined themes. There are 15 themes to choose from but the company plans to offer more soon. To start a project, click "Start fresh" on the homepage. You can drag and drop features like backgrounds, shapes and text on the edit screen. You can also change colors and move elements, write text, change the background, insert shapes (arrows, circles, balloons) and even upload your own pictures. After finalizing the project, you just need to save and return to the homepage to share your work.

Pro: The edit screen is very simple and there are a lot of customization options

Con: You can't create graphics from data spreadsheets and the graphics are not interactive.

3. Tableau Public

More complex than the previous two, Tableau Public is an interactive data visualization program that does not require programming skills but does require a good understanding of database organization and graphic formats. We recommend watching the tutorial video before starting. After downloading and installing the program, the first step is to upload the data from Excel, text documents or Access databases. If the information is formatted correctly, the data should automatically separate and you can drag them into columns and lines to make your graphic. There is a broad range of editing tools and it's possible to merge tables and graphics to create more complex visualizations. The website offers training and tutorials for anyone interested in the program. 

Pro: The graphic retains its interactive elements when you export it, including filters, categories and keys, instead of a static image. 

Con: Sadly, it's only available for Windows!

4. TimelineJS

Timelines are very useful for providing context and creating narratives, that's why they're among the most common inforgraphics used by news organizations. VéritéCo offers a free open source tool to create interactive timelines. There's no need to register but you will need a Google Drive account since the program uses Google Docs spreadsheets. Click here for the template, found under "File Formats" on the main menu. Fill in your information in the spreadsheet (adding images, videos, maps or other visual elements in the "media" column brings a lot to the timeline), publish it (under "Publish to web in the Google Doc) and copy the link. The final step is pasting the link in the homepage's "Embed Generator." Voilà! View your timeline in the preview window below.

Pro: Because the software uses Google Docs, it can be edited collaboratively. All you need to do is share it with others. The cells also accept HTML so you can add links to the text. (Check out a few basic HTML commands here.) 

Con: There's no way to personalize the background. 

5. Mapbox

Created by the organization Development Seed, this tool allows users without any experience with geographic information systems to build interactive maps. After logging into the website and clicking "new map," add information to the markers (title and content) and position them on the map. There is a search option to help find specific points, like neighborhoods, rivers and streets. After placing all your markers, publish. The publishing feature allows you to embed the map in a website or opt for a more advanced option (for those with the developer's spirit) called MapBox.JS or add it to an iOS application (Apple's operating system).

    Interface de edição do Mapbox

Pro: At its most basic, Mapbox does not require latitude and longitude coordinates for the point you want to reference. The markers' text boxes accept HTML. 

Con: On the other hand, this version does not allow you to import data from spreadsheets, which can be a pain if you need to enter a lot of information. In this case, your best option is to download Tilemill, developed by the same organization as Mapbox, and start reading. With it you can make maps based on databases (see one below, created by Pedro Markun) but you'll also need the geographic coordinates for your locations and a basic understanding of CSS. 



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