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Using data visualizations in online story packages


Students will learn about the rationale for using data and and the possibilities with data visualization tools, then create their own data visualization.


  • Students will understand why data has become an important part of online journalism.
  • Students will explore various tools and methods for finding and using data online.
  • Students will use a data set to build a simple database and produce a visualization of data from the database.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.9-10.5 Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning and evidence and to add interest.


90 minutes, plus additional time for group project work


“Four ways to slice Obama’s 2013 budget”

Slideshow: Data journalism

Google form to collect student data — will shorten lesson time if students take the survey in advance of class

Computer access

Links to tools (in slideshow)

Lesson step-by-step

1. Introduction — 10 minutes

Begin by reading to students the information in the paragraph on the opening slide of the slideshow (Obama budget data summary). Ask students what stood out to them. Was it easy to follow? Would they remember those facts? Was it easy to see what is most important? What if there were 10 times the number of facts and statistics?

Then open the link to “Obama’s budget sliced” New York Times interactive graphic. Take a few minutes to walk students through the visualization, asking them to share what they notice as you interact with the visualization. Specifically, what trends do they notice? What conclusions can they draw about the overall story, and Obama’s budget proposal, by seeing the data and watching it as it is grouped and rearranged? How did interacting with the data visualization differ from reading it in paragraph form?

2. Instruction — 20 minutes

Begin with the slideshow:

  • Why data: Making information that’s hard to get accessible (journalistic purpose)
  • Goes two ways: You can take data and shape it, or you can create searchable databases
  • Examples of both: salaries database, L.A. schools database
  • Finding data online
  • Using data in visualizations
  • Data viz tools from simple to complex

3. Creating a data set — 10 minutes

Create a simple spreadsheet. To do this, create a Google form that feeds to a Google spreadsheet. Have all of the students in your class take the survey through the form. Here’s an example:


  • Name (optional)
  • Grade
  • Number of courses taking
  • Number of AP/Honors courses
  • Hours of nightly homework you do on average
  • Hours spent in extracurricular activities each day on average
  • Number hours you sleep nightly on average
  • How would you describe your homework load: Very little, about right, more than necessary, overwhelming
  • Do you usually complete all of your homework?
  • How helpful do you find homework to be? Often helpful, sometimes helpful, never helpful

Once responses have populated the spreadsheet, make the spreadsheet publicly accessible to those with the link, and make the link available to your students so they can access it. They will now all have a common data set to work with.

4. Manipulating the data — 15 minutes

For this portion, it will work best if the teacher is modeling on a projected screen the steps that students should take.

Ask students to create a copy of the spreadsheet in their own Google Drive. They can now work with the simple spreadsheet in various ways. Show them how they can adjust column widths, titles, and add new rows or columns. Demonstrate the Find and Replace function, which is helpful when data is not in the exact format needed. Also show students how to do simple functions, like finding the sum of two columns. Then, show them how to export the data into other formats, such as .csv (Comma Separated Values) and .xls (Excel format).

(For more detailed instruction on working with Google spreadsheets, you may want to complete a few tutorials in advance or review this Basic Guide to Sheets.)

5. Using the data — 30 minutes

Now students will learn how to use the data with a simple data visualization tool. First, show them how to access the simple graphics available within the Google spreadsheet itself. They can do this by selecting “Show summary of responses” through the top menu.

After, have them extract some of the data for a simple visualization using Infogram or another simple online infographic creation tool. Give them time to experiment with the data using a few of the simpler tools, then, if you have time, show them some of the more advanced tools. It is not likely they will be able to use those tools right away, but as they become more adept at building data visualizations, they should know that there are more options, with more customization options, available.

6. Online package integration — 20 minutes

Now students will meet in their small groups to discuss at least one way they might integrate data into their online story package (group projects) or any online story package they might use as an example. Sample ideas may include:

  • collecting data from an outside source and visualizing it for readers
  • conducting a survey and creating a visualization of the results
  • creating a searchable database of information related to their story package


The options here are endless, and the teacher will need to adapt based upon his or her students’ level of experience and readiness to learn this unique set of skills. If students seem overwhelmed, consider breaking the lesson across a week or two.