Want to Use Data Effectively? Destruction Is a Place to Start

27 Dec 2014 8:00am, by

Here’s a story by NPR that has me returning again and again. Destruction is a photo essay/slide show about the end of Chicago’s public housing and the people whose lives were changed with the demolition of the high-rises that were their homes. The story gives scope and dimension to the destruction that came with what NPR calls “the end of Chicago’s public housing.”

It’s a story supported by Patricia Evans photography, and a narrative written by David Eads and Helga Salinas. It uses data to create graphics about the city’s invisible borders and the documenting of what happened to the people after the high-rises were torn down. It has a UI that draws the reader into the story. It makes the story, not the tech, most relevant.


Destruction represents a modern form of journalism. But it’s also a good example for how tools can be used by really anyone to tell stories effectively. It shows how to use multiple data elements and package them into one story:

  • The medium is right for the story being told. Destruction, part of the NPR Cities Project, uses photography as its anchor. The reporting, data analysis, graphic design, and unobtrusive UI support a story about how communities are defined and remain vital no matter how much destruction comes to them.  Each element of the story is used effectively. For example, the descriptions tells you something that you can’t see in the photos and the graphics. The data in the graphics support the narrative that is being told.
  • The story is an example for how data, when used correctly, can help us see through complex social issues. In Destruction, it helps us understand how the public housing, before and after its destruction, fits into the geography of the Chicago landscape.
  • The UI is right. The slide show does not get into the way. It supports the story.

So often we hear about data, how it gets mined, processed and analyzed. But the greater value is in the story and what the data helps us tell. It may not mean using photography and graphic design to evoke a picture of a particular topic or issue. It just depends on the story itself. Destruction represents a new genre of Internet-style journalism. But in its making are core principles that we can all apply to the work we do.

Feature image: “Ickes Building Demolition” by Colin Davis is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Photo of Tiffany Sanders by Patricia Evans, whose work is featured in Destruction and NPR’s “look at this” Tumblr blog.