With the power of an Olympic skater owning a gold medal routine, illustrator and data journalist Mona Chalabi took the 2018 99U Conference stage by storm with her visualizations on testicle size and hangover cures. We sat down for a longer conversation with the self-proclaimed TMI Queen about her journey beyond the halls of academia, the future of data journalism, and the likelihood that you’ll regret any tattoo she gives you.
Mona Chalabi photographed skateboarding and reading in her Brooklyn neighborhood.
We know you best as a data journalist, but right now, on top of working at The Guardian US, you’re traveling for speeches, trying out acting, and you just got back from a fiction-writing retreat in Banff. What is that busy schedule like?
I feel like I complain about traveling all the time. When I was younger, I’d be like, “Do not complain about privilege like that! My friend always says the same thing when we’re feeling frustrated in our careers: “What would 18-year-old Mona think?” Eighteen-year-old Mona would be like, “Ahhh, you made it! You live in New York. You have acted in something.” Eighteen-year-old me would be so impressed. Thirty-one-year-old Mona is a bit like, “Eh.”
How did you become a data journalist?
I went to college. I studied international security. I went to go join the International Organization for Migration. I was producing reports there, and I felt really frustrated that the work was being read by a tiny handful of people. It’s funny – well, it’s not funny, it’s kind of disappointing: I wish more academics reached out to me to say, “Hey, I’ve got this data. Can you help me make sure that it has a big audience?” I used to hate working in an academic tone. But what’s exciting now is that I don’t have to write in that tone but I can still read that work. I feel like a big part of my job is to be a translator.
You speak multiple languages, plus you work in visualization, which sort of transcends language. How are you embracing this role of translator?
I’ve always been interested in languages. I grew up in a household where English was my parents’ second language, and they were really adamant that we would be raised speaking English. That first sparked my interest in language. I went to Jordan when I was 19 to try to learn Arabic. I failed miserably. It’s not a language you can learn in a summer. And then I went to France to study and stayed on there to do my master’s. I think that was actually a really important turning point in my career, because I realized how much – maybe you’ll totally disagree – I felt like when I was a speaking a foreign language, at a certain point, I wasn’t translating my English thoughts anymore. My brain was thinking in completely new ways.
Chalabi photographed in her workspace where sketches double as wallpaper.
How was your brain working?
For example, the word sad has got such a weighted meaning for me in English because I’ve heard it in all of these different contexts, right? When you move to a new language and that word hasn’t been ascribed with years of memories, it’s a lightweight word. That means your use of it is different. There aren’t books that I’ve read with that word. I was free to think in different ways. If I was going to learn another language, I’d learn sign language, because I’m interested in languages that traverse cultures. Numbers can do that in an exciting way.
How do numbers do that?
Numbers, especially the actual digits, with very few exceptions, are universal across different places. And one of the goals of all the visualizations that I make is to reduce the number of words that I use to, hopefully, a point where you’re not seeing any words but it still makes sense. I’m a long way off from doing that, and it’s very difficult. But that would be the dream.
How did you move from producing reports for International Organization for Migration to data visualization?
I did a one-day workshop with Simon Rogers, who was then the data editor at The Guardian. And then I ended up getting an internship at The Guardian. It was an unpaid internship, so I could only do it one day a week. Then I ended up doing it two days a week. Then they needed me three days a week. And then I was like, “You got to pay me if you want me three days a week.” That’s how I got my foot in.
How did the transition to the U.S. happen?
I moved to America to work for a website called FiveThirtyEight. I only started to draw again because I hated that job so much that I would keep my sanity by doodling.
When I started, I was the only female writer. I was the only writer of color, and I was the only person who wasn’t American.
A lot of the thing is all about being proactive and trying to find solutions, but there are some workplaces that you should just get out of. I was never going to succeed there. There was no route for someone like me to succeed.
What does “someone like you” mean?
When I started, I was the only female writer. I was the only writer of color, and I was the only person who wasn’t American. It meant that every single room that I entered, I didn’t fit in. They prided themselves on being geeky and nerdy and that you were either smart enough to understand FiveThirtyEight or you weren’t. And that is not my philosophy about journalism at all.
What do you think information and data should be?
Accessible. It needs to be accessible to everyone – in particular, the people that need it to make informed decisions about their lives.
Did taking up illustration as a hobby help navigate you out of that toxic situation?
Those illustrations that I posted on Instagram made such a big difference. It gave me a little bit of confidence to see strangers reacting to them and saying the complete opposite of what I was hearing in that workplace.
Color factors heavily into Chalabi’s work as each color can symbolize a different feeling.
How does color play into your work?
I think about it a lot. For example, [for a chart of] the Palestinian versus Israeli death rates, I needed to pick two colors that you would be able to visually differentiate from each other, because it’s tough to see the purple, because the Israeli deaths are quite low. I have to make two colors that are going to jump off the page. I can’t have any of them be green, because people will attack me and think I’m implying that those green deaths are fine, because green is “okay.” If I do red, that implies that those deaths are somehow more serious than the other ones. Blue feels a bit weird. It’s weird to choose orange and purple. I struggled a lot with the colors of that.
Chalabi designed this chart that shows the Palestinian and Israeli fatality rate per month. Image courtesy of Chalabi.
Going back to the baggage of language, I guess there’s baggage to color as well. And it’s not always the same across cultures.
That’s some deep baggage. For instance, in the U.K. our political red and blue is the other way around. Red is always a color of the left in all of Europe, pretty much in most countries. And blue is always conservative. It’s really weird that it’s the other way around here. It took me a long time to unlearn those colors here, and even still, if you show me the color red and say to me, “Left wing or right wing?” I’m going to say, “Left.” Always.
Chalabi’s piece from The Guardian about popular New York dog names based on data from the New York City Department of Health, 2017. Image courtesy of Mona Chalabi.
Have you ever tried stand-up?
I tried it when I moved over here. I did one where everyone loved it. I was like, “My God, I’m so good.” And then the next time, no. And then I was like, “I don’t think I have the stomach for this.” It was a stand-up about statistics. The starting point was these statistics about how often Americans curse versus Brits and went on to use that to talk about how Americans are repressed. Sorry.
That’s how we think about the British.
I know. Everyone thinks that. I think it’s the total other way around. Don’t you think you guys are a little bit repressed? A little bit?
A little bit.
Yeah. A little bit.
What’s the process of getting an assignment? How do you comb through all the information for it?
Most of the time I don’t have an editor. I’m coming up with stuff and doing the whole process myself. For a thing I worked on recently, The Guardian was producing a documentary called White Fright, which was about an attack on a community of Muslims in New York. The plan had gone really far and the terrorist was arrested just before it took place. He was trying to kill hundreds of people, and it got barely any press attention. I did a piece that was based on a forthcoming study which showed that Muslim perpetrators of terrorism get 357 percent more press coverage than non-Muslim perpetrators.
There are three questions you want to ask yourself before you take a commission: Is it good money? Will I grow professionally from it? And will I enjoy doing it?
I started up by doing this visualization analog, literally drawing them out and then photographing them from my notepads. I drew five different types of hands, five different ethnicities holding five different types of microphones, and then in a Photoshop file, you replicate those and you can see all of the layers, so I know for a fact I’ve got the right number. That also means that my Photoshop files are like 5,000 gigabytes.
Chalabi takes a tea break in her home kitchen.
Where does your hand-drawn style come from?
For me, it’s important to show a human made this. With computer-generated graphs, it can seem like this completely neutral, perfectly objective thing that made the chart. And that’s not true. It’s a human who makes objective decisions about which rows and which columns in the data set to show you.
Also, it’s about replicability. I want people to feel like they are empowered. That not only can they understand it, but if they wanted to test it, they could recreate it themselves. And you can recreate anything that is hand drawn, right? Whereas with charts, most people don’t know how to create a computer-generated graphic. It’s about leveling the playing field.
If you could try out any new medium, what would it be?
I would absolutely love to create something that is really fun in stop motion. I’ve bought a ton of Play-Doh that’s sitting on my shelf at home. And I’m just like, “One day I’m going to do something fun in stop motion.”
Has anyone ever asked you to design a tattoo?
My friend was asking me to do it. I actually once did a piece on “How many people regret their tattoos?” Which is what I wanted to have tattooed on him: the probability that he’ll regret it. It would feel really special to me. I don’t have any tattoos because I’m so scared about marking myself for life. And this friend of mine is like, “Give me anything!”
What’s the best bit of money or salary advice you’ve gotten?
Before you set your rates, ask other people how they set their rates. Ask the client which territories it’s going to be used in. Ask where it’s going to appear, how many languages. Ask whether they’re going to own it in perpetuity, or for a certain amount of time. And then give them the price.
The world needs good journalism more than ever before. However, by and large most people are still unwilling to pay for journalism.
My general philosophy is bleed the private corporations dry. I was about to go on my first holiday in five years. And I got asked by a big corporation to make some illustrations, and I was like, “I would like $10,000 per illustration,” kind of knowing that they would say no, but also if they said yes, that’s fine. But with any nonprofits whose work I believe in, I basically charge them next to nothing.
There are three questions you want to ask yourself before you take a commission. The illustrator Hallie Bates was telling me this: Is it good money? Will I grow professionally from it? And will I enjoy doing it? And each job has to satisfy at least two of those three criteria. And the truth is, this is another thing about how privileged I am. Most people don’t even get to add in those second two criteria. It’s just about: “Is it going to mean I can pay the bills?”
What’s the biggest challenge for a data journalist in 2018?
There’s like five different things, and I’m like, “Which one should I say?”
You can also say them all. It’s a challenging year.
Yeah. One of them is keeping your integrity. For instance, at The Guardian right now, I’m the only person who works with data and data sets like this. Someone will come to me and say, “What is the answer to X?” And I give it to them, and then it’s published. There is very little oversight of exactly how I’ve collected those numbers and exactly how I’ve crunched them. But it also means that someone with less integrity could be like, “This is close enough. Let’s just go with it.” So a challenge is maintaining your integrity when you’re trusted. A part of that is being as transparent as possible. Because readers often fact-check me.
This personal piece by Chalabi uses data from the Department of Homeland Security, 2018. Image courtesy of Mona Chalabi.
What’s another challenge?
Money. Journalism doesn’t pay particularly well. The world needs good journalism more than ever before. However, by and large most people are still unwilling to pay for journalism. Until they are, we’re always going to be underfunded and scrambling to survive.
It feels like there’s a lot of momentum in your career right now.
Which is really bad. It’s wonderful. But this momentum is just carrying me along, and I want the opportunity to step back and say, “But what do I want to do?” instead of just responding to things. Part of the problem is I’m still so excited by different mediums. I want to be able to write fiction and nonfiction essays. I want to produce films. But I want to concentrate, too. Now is the time to focus on which direction to go.