Quartz—the digital-first publication owned by The Atlantic’s parent company—made a splash in 2012 for its lean approach to reporting, optimized for people less interested in long reads than phone-friendly skims. Over that time, simple charts created by the writers and embedded in many articles have become one of the site's defining features. In fact, sometimes a single chart is the entire article.
Now, Quartz is opening its internal chart creation tool—Atlas—to be used by anyone, for free.
The back end is as Spartan as you might imagine looking at the site’s bare-bones charts. You select one of two chart views, paste in your spreadsheet or CSV data, and then tweak a few basic options: the kind of chart you want (lines, bars, or dots) the colors, your axes, and the data's start and end ranges. Imperatively, you’ll also get a preview of how it will look on a mobile device as you create it.
A bit of logic handles some formatting for you—dates, for instance, will automatically be recognized, so that your data play out along the X axis—but you may need to tweak the presentation to get it perfect. And no matter what you end up with, it won’t be the most beautiful data visualization you’ve ever seen. Instead it will be clean, clear, and inoffensive—the way a stock might be graphed in a traditional newspaper’s business section.
In this sense, Atlas is approaching a different arm of the market than products like Tableau, which for large annual costs will automatically format data into beautiful interactive presentations, begging the user to dig deep, rearrange views, and potentially mine new insights. Atlas is meant to create a quick alternative to the Excel graph. It's for people who need to prepare charts on a daily basis to convey conclusions they’ve already reached.
"We will find out quickly what we’ve taken on," says Zach Seward, senior vice president of product and executive editor at Quartz. "We know that we’re not the only ones who work with data everyday. Obviously there are all sorts of other journalists who do. But outside news, you have researchers, academics, and analysts, who are working with even more data on a regular basis."
There could be a market. Atlas is based upon Chartbuilder, Quartz's older, open-source graphing code that was eventually incorporated into platforms by NPR and FiveThirtyEight. Quartz doesn't seem interested in luring those publications to Atlas, but Atlas could woo new users. Atlas is a more developed platform than that earlier code. It's a fully built and hosted platform that you don't need to set up on your own servers. Furthermore, Atlas doesn’t just spit out a JPEG when you’re done. It creates an embeddable image that ties your data set to the chart forever. In essence, Atlas charts have built in an automatic citation system, allowing others to download the data and remix it—and you can always come back to it and adjust it yourself.
As for how Quartz might make money on Atlas, it will feature sponsored content—like many other publications—but in terms of subscriptions, Seward isn’t sure, and seems to be approaching the project more as an experiment than with a hard-and-fast business plan. "We’ll find out how far we can go with a free model, then decide from there what else to layer on," he says. That includes an open invite for any publications that would like to incorporate Atlas into their own published content to reach out and request a customized account.
"What we’ll need to figure out in working with [news organizations] is what kinds of customizations they require," Seward says. "Color palettes are what we intend to start with, and provide an organization a way to distinguish their style from the rest of Atlas or Quartz. But we’ll find out soon enough what else those organizations require."
In this sense, you may see Atlas as something more than a handy chart maker. It's also a symbol of how modern news organizations have to constantly reevaluate their revenue streams for a rapidly evolving market. Because the chatbots are upon us, and that Facebook money is a precarious thing.