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Comic Tackles Big Data

CoverComics journalism is doing well. More and more media organizations realize the potential of this form of storytelling. Last week, Al Jazeera America published its first comic, a 46-page graphic novella titled: Terms of Service: Understanding Our Role in the World of Big Data. The comic is a joint venture of Al Jazeera America reporter Michael Keller and comic artist Josh Neufeld and is freely available online. According to Al Jazeera, the comic sets out to 'a thought provoking, entertaining field guide to help smart people understand how their personal, and often very private, data is collected and used.'

We can only applaud Al Jazeera's decision to produce a comic. It's great to see a major news outlet recognize the power of comics journalism and use it to tackle a serious issue like big data. Neufeld's artwork is excellent and the story has a nice flow. It touches upon a number of serious and complicated issues connected to big data and how big data could shape the future society we live in. Part of the aim of the comic is to provide people with a foundation to ask their own questions.

That goal is certainly fulfilled, but the downside is that the comic touches on so many important issues that you sometimes feel you are left with more questions than answers. Some of the subjects the comic deals with are definitely worthy of a more in-depth analysis, such as the way insurance companies use data to fundamentally transform the way they work, or the way data is used (also by journalists) to create narratives that might be faced on facts, but are not always true. We hope this piece will be a proof of concept for Al Jazeera, so that they might produce more comics that will deal with these issues in more detail.

Sample page

Another interesting aspect of the comic is how the story is told, through the characters 'Josh' and 'Michael'. Josh and Michael travel the country to talk to experts about big data; as they travel, their interaction provides the backbone of the story. This works very well, at times it feels like your watching a good documentary instead of reading a comic. Sometimes, however, the interactions feels slightly too whimsical, as if Al Jazeera thought that comics absolutely need to be funny. As a result, the comedy feels a bit forced here and there. But it might just be a matter of personal taste; maybe comics journalism needs to incorporate more humor to reach a mass audience. Time will tell.

These slight drawbacks notwithstanding, we can highly recommend the read. The comic does what it sets out to do: it educates, it stimulates you to ask questions and it's entertaining.

We can only hope this is the first of many comics to be produced by major media organizations.


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