Many Eyes: Take a Fresh Look at Drinking Water Reports

June 25, 2008

The trouble with drinking water quality stories is that they're often unbearably dry. But now a convergence of tools and information could create a "perfect storm" of intriguing drinking water news.

If it hasn't done so already, your local water utility is supposed to publish its annual consumer confidence report (CCR) by July 1. This summary of local drinking water quality can be a key resource for a variety of environmental, health, and consumer stories year-round.

Many utilities post their CCRs online (through their own site, or through EPA's). Others only publish them in print. It might be worth calling your water utility this week if you haven't seen yours yet, to request an advance copy. It's probably finalized by now.

Also, dig into your files to pull out the CCRs from the past few years. (If you don't have them, you can get them from your local water utility, too.) It's time to turn this data into something more useful — and interactive.

You're probably already aware of ongoing or new local drinking water quality issues. But rather than simply report the latest data (a sure recipe for reader eye-glaze), you can now easily show your readers what those numbers might mean with a data visualization tool called Many Eyes — provided free by the Visual Communication Lab of IBM's Collaborative User Experience project.

Many Eyes allows you to upload your own data sets (in common formats like an Excel spreadsheet) and then present that data in a variety of "visualizations" that are not only more intuitive than mere numbers, but also interactive. Even better, you can embed them in your own site.

Examples of Many Eyes visualizations on all kinds of topics.

For instance, a reporter in Washington, DC might upload a spreadsheet showing reported lead and copper levels in local drinking water for the last 5-10 years — and compare that in a "stack chart" against the lead and copper rule that EPA updated in October 2007. Or have fun creating other visualizations, such as a bubble chart, scatterplot, line graph, matrix chart, and more.

Once you create your visualization, you can define how users can interact with it (such as viewing subsets of the data, changing views, or making their own comparisons). Then you can embed it on your own web site.

Obviously, Many Eyes can create engaging additions to any news story backed by a data set. But the forthcoming CCRs provide a perfect opportunity to start, since they report data in a fairly consistent format from year to year.

Many Eyes contact.