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Yan Wu. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University.

School of Journalism alumna Yan Wu has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) as a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for her data visualization of New Jersey police officers who used force from 2012 through 2016. The SPJ Sigma Delta Chi Awards honor exceptional professional journalism produced throughout the year. Yan, who graduated with her master’s degree (Media Innovation track) in 2018, was named the winner in the Informational Graphics category.

“I was surprised to receive the recognition and I am very grateful. While the team has been recognized for multiple awards because of their excellent work for The Force Report, The Sigma Delta Chi Awards is the first recognition that I received for the data visualization. It feels good that hard work pays off,” Yan said. “Though I am the only author of the project, my editor at the time, Christopher Baxter, and everyone else on my team, have offered me tremendous help and support during the design process. I am aware that this project alone does not tell the whole story and I couldn’t have done this without them.”

The visualization that Yan created, with the support and help of her team, was part of “The Force Report,” a 16-month investigation by NJ Advance Media for into problem police officers in the state. She joined the NJ Advance Media data team last September and jumped right into the project; at that point, the team had already spent months collecting, digitizing, and analyzing data (read more about how the data was collected here).

“I was lucky because on the first day I joined the team, I received a well-formatted spreadsheet which my team had spent months cleaning,” Yan described. “My goal was to take this data and build a visualization to show readers that a small proportion of police officers accounted for a large amount of all uses of force and provide a new way for users to explore the dataset. After killing my first prototype, which included an accumulative line chart and an interactive map, my editor told me about his vision of a galaxy of dots and skee ball. We had quite a few brainstorming sessions and we have been greatly inspired by The Pudding’s ‘The Unlikely Odds of Making It Big.’”

Once Yan had a vision and strategy for the visualization, everything started to fall into place. The project was not without its challenges, though. She describes her biggest challenge overall as plotting 17,000 data points on one graphics (check out this article in Storybench to learn more about the plotting process). When making a visualization, it is important to identify the story it needs to tell, and ensure that it is accessible to the target audience.

“After a few experiments, I turned to Three.js, a framework built on top of WebGL that makes it easier to create 3D graphics in a browser. I had worked with it on a 3D project over the summer, which was long-listed by the Kantar Information is Beautiful Awards. I was worried that I was going to be trapped in a black hole and accomplish nothing due to my painful experience trying to tame it the last time. But somehow, I made it!” Yan said. “For me, by using discrete elements to represent individuals, this graphic becomes more intuitive and accessible and provides users the power to check out every officer easily. Especially for this story, I think it is necessary for the public to interrogate these police officers who were given the right to use force on others. The project allowed our audiences to pinpoint each officer, especially those outliers who may be abused of power.”

Yan works at as a news app designer and developer, and her projects vary from developing stand-alone interactive news apps to creating short-term graphics. Before she came to Northeastern, she had a basic understanding of code, design, and journalism, but her time at Northeastern taught her how to unleash their power for creative storytelling.

To highlight her growth at Northeastern (she even earned a Google News Lab Fellowship!), Yan points to two projects she created as a student here: one from her first semester and one from the summer before she graduated.

“My professors at Northeastern guided me into data journalism and data visualization,” Yan said. “I became a writer for Storybench, which gave me the opportunity to interview award-winning data journalists about their innovative ways of storytelling. Our academic coordinators were very flexible with the courses we wanted to take. I was able to attend two data visualization courses and one web development course. Thanks to the co-op program and many professors’ recommendation, I got a data visualization internship at The Boston Globe. It opened another door for me to learn and experiment.”

Congratulations, Yan, on your recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ)!