Choosing the Right Tech for the Job


We love technology as a means to reveal and convey insights quickly and conveniently, rather than as an end. That said, software is a key enabler to quickly boil down what data is about. It takes savvy and taste for experimentation to put software to work for publishing without becoming slave to it.

We thus tend to gravitate towards software that has been adopted by a critical mass of developers or users, with good documentation and a vibrant community backing it. This keeps us away from the very bleeding edge which in our opinion belongs in the lab rather than in production environments serving thousands of readers. Such successful projects in turn tend to remain viable options over the long run.

We use a mix of open source and commercial software based on the merits of each package rather than because of any ideological preference. In other words, we go with what works!

Our Core Online Publishing & Visualization Toolbox

For online data publication and visualization we use, among others:

  • Microsoft Excel, the tried-and-true data stalwart for organizations of all types and sizes. Many business users live in spreadsheets and offering this type of file to readers can add a lot of value. Yes, we have a black belt in pivot tables and Vlookups!
  • Tableau offers business intelligence (BI) functionality and visualization types that complement Excel well. (While we’re fans of “core Excel”, we’re less impressed by Microsoft’s forays into BI such as Power View.) It can be used to generate embeddable interactive charts, but also as an authoring tool to generate PNG static graphics. Here’s our take on Tableau 9.
  • Google Charts includes interesting options such as motion charts derived from Hans Rosling’s amazing work at GapMinder. DataWrapper is an open source alternative among other interactive charting libraries that has been adopted by a number of news orgs.
  • WordPress has not just become an almost ubiquitous content management system, its handling of media files has also blossomed over the past few years.
  • Jquery/javascript and selected plugins such as Datatables, Isotope, or D3,js help us turn web pages into interactive and mobile-friendly user experiences.
  • Bootstrap gives the ability to create responsive websites without reinventing the wheel. Speaking of responsive designs, here are the trade-offs and options to deliver visual data while remaining mobile-friendly.

This list is far from exhaustive as we monitor and try new technologies all the time, including by keeping tabs on open sources contributions from news organizations.

Playing Nice with Ecommerce Platforms & Digital Marketing Tools

Our operational experience with software used for publishing also goes beyond front-end concerns and includes the following back-end functions:

  • Payment/subscription management – e.g., Recurly
  • Customer support/success – e.g., Intercom
  • Analytics – e.g. Google Analytics, Chartbeat, Segment, Woopra
  • Testing – e.g. Optimizely, Visual Web Optimizer
  • CRM – e.g.
  • Ad servers – e.g. DFP

Thanks to this very hands-on track record operating our own online publications, we can tackle or be part of ambitious data-focused product launches that seek to generate revenue through a large range of business models.

In the end, functional requirements should lead discussions rather than software preferences, but in our experience online projects best work when they are informed by the pros and cons of each available technical approach.