Digital innovation, data storytelling and the Rio Olympics

An interview with Mariana Santos

21 July 2016

Marianne Bouchart

The 2016 Olympics are set to captivate news consumers and sports lovers from around the world as digital innovation is brought to the front. The Brazil Olympic Committee welcomes a team of experts in data journalism and interactive storytelling to help visualise issues surrounding the Rio Olympics and engage with the international audience.

Mariana -square -1 (7)Leading that effort is Mariana Santos, a well-known figure in the world of news innovation and digital forward-thinkingness. She is Director of Interactive and animation at Fusion Media, Knight Chair of Innovation at FIU and CEO of Chicas Poderosas. In this interview she talks about the future of digital innovation, data-driven storytelling and Unicorn Interactive, the joint venture co-founded with lead developer Kit Cross, which launches on 1st August 2016 after both of them leave Fusion Media.


How is the world of digital storytelling doing today? What’s exciting about its future, what’s not?

Digital storytelling is becoming a stronger way of communicating specially to masses and from masses. It’s an opening and democratisation of information production and consumption. The good part is that you can now hear voices you couldn’t reach before, the down side is that you end up getting a lot more unfiltered information that adds little to the conversation.

You’ve created an agency called Unicorn Interactive just recently after leading interactive and animation at Fusion. How did this project come about and what’s your objective?

Unicorn Interactive was cofounded by Kit Cross and myself, a developer and a designer. We both deeply care about journalism and want to collaborate with bright minds who want to make a change in the world and do their best work. From this passion of working with people who are fully engaged and committed with the stories they are telling. As media companies evolve to ever more digital system we believe that we can lead an interactive team, with developers, interactive designers, UX and UI designers, illustrators and animators who can work on each project with different media organisations.

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 Co-founders Mariana Santos and Kit Cross

We rely on groups of editors with ideas they want to see realised into digital storytelling, to partners and NGO’s who have a lot of data to be told into digestible stories. One of our goals is to tell amazing visual stories, work with good persons and create an amazing work environment. We want to collaborate with our own heroes and we want to start a mentoring master class program to train more developers, designers and data journalists, so we can increase the number of people with these skills.

Being at Fusion since the beginning has taught me how to work on a digital media start-up, having had the chance to work with great professionals both in digital news, television and broadcasting, and now radio (Univision). It has opened a huge number of doors and broadened my thinking on digital storytelling experience in the different platforms. Having had this opportunity for two years, I feel less of a need to be attached to Miami, NYC or London to be able to produce content with editors.

What does data bring to the understanding of a topic and to the understanding of news events in general?

Data is now occupying a huge role in journalism as more and more information is monitored and accessible digitally. So there is a need to transform this huge amounts of data into a contextualised form where someone who is not a data expert or analyst can consume and understand the story.

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6x9 is the Guardian's first virtual reality experience, which places you inside a US solitary confinement prison cell and tells the story of the psychological damage that can ensue from isolation

Which examples of data storytelling projects impressed you recently?

Recently, I’ve been impressed with the work of Google and the Guardian on solitary confinement (see 6x9: A virtual experience of solitary confinement). Seperately, and not strictly data storytelling, I love the work of Blink’s Dougal Wilson for the “We’re the Superhumans” paralympic trailer.

What techniques do you think bring news engagement to the next level?

I am very excited about the intersection of art and technology, which is why, for example, there is a spot for a paint and ink artist in our team. There is an explosion right now in accessible means to film. Aerial footage is easier than ever to record with light and cheap drones and 360 video cameras are coming down in price.

What do you think are the biggest challenges for data storytelling today?

Anything produced has to stand out amongst the crowd. People are deluged with stories from many different social feeds. You need to make stories that captivate and stand out from the crowd. We hope to do this by producing stories that people haven’t seen before.

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Kit Cross, lead developer, Miguel Costa, lead UX & UI, Davi Campos, interactive designer, Mariana Santos, interactive & animation designer (missing in the picture is Victor Abarca, illustrator and data visualisation)

You will be working on the upcoming Rio Olympics, putting together datadriven projects around the games. What sort of content can we expect and for what audience?

The Brazil Olympic committee is our main client, and we’ve gathered a team of five experts in data visualisation: Kit Cross, lead developer, Miguel Costa, lead UX & UI, Davi Campos, interactive designer, Victor Abarca, illustrator and data visualization designer and me, Mariana Santos, interactive & animation director. We will use the ODF (Olympics Data Feed) and contextualize it with the overall situation of the readers. Our goal is to talk to international readers, to engage them not only with the Olympic Games but with the Paralympics as well. Among those projects we are doing service design as well as animation on data about the games, about Zika, about all the concerns an international audience has compared to the reality of what is happening here.

How will it differ from what has been done on previous Olympic Games?

I’ve previously worked on the London Olympic Games in 2012, while at the Guardian, we had access to a restricted set of data and information. This time is a bit different as we are working from within the Olympic committee and thus have access to more information. We plan to mix the journalistic approach with these datasets. The other difference I would like to see in our outputs is that we love mixing art with technology.

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Example of a data-driven project tackling the 2016 Olympics: Google Trends visualises the top Google searches and the Olympic torch route in this interactive graphic

How does the collaboration between you and the International Olympic Committee work? How much input do they have on what you do?

They are leading the editorial direction of our output as we are here to collaborate with them and helping them tell the stories they want to tell. We are planning to transform the vast amount of data that comes out of the Olympics into small applications that can be shared and embedded anywhere on the web.

Where will the data come from? Is it provided by the IOC or other sources? How easy is it to work with such data?

All our content is provided by IOC and we have access to the ODF, it is quite easy for us, as insiders to have access to this data. Drawing on the experience we have with large datasets we can make fast work of processing this data and getting stories out quickly.

Finally, if you had three pieces of advice for people doing innovative data storytelling, what would they be?

Go out there and do it, fail fast, fail often, learn by doing and never hesitate to ask for help from those who are doing amazing stuff. People aren’t as inacessible as you might expect and we can learn a lot by not being ashamed to ask questions.

Top photograph of Mariana Santos by Kent Hernandez