Malofiej – just wow!

Just returned home from Malofiej. What a week it has been! I’ll write a more detailed report (in Finnish) next week, but here are some quick thoughts on the event.

First of all: if you mostly work with information graphics, visualization, data journalism etc., you should go to Malofiej, even if you have no works you’d want to enter to the competition. The competition is only a part of it, albeit probably the most famous part. I personally didn’t enter any projects and quite a few other people I talked with were there likewise only, or at least mainly, because of the conference part. Of course the competition is important and the winners are well worth checking out, but for me the presentations by the judges and the networking opportunities were far more important.

(There’s actually a third part besides the conference and the competition: the Show, Don’t Tell! workshop. It is a masterclass type of three-day workshop for infographics professionals to perfect their skills under the guidance of the world’s top experts. I’d really want to take part in the workshop in the future, but this year I simply couldn’t find the time to do so and thus can’t say much about it. Seems it was a success, which is hardly surprising given the caliber of the teachers.)

All in all it was both a very intensive and a very rewarding experience. At first I was somewhat starstruck to be hanging around with all these people whose work I really admire and whose Twitter feeds and blogs I read for inspiration, but practically everybody I talked with seemed to be very down-to-earth and willing to politely listen to the at times incoherent ramblings of yours truly. I made many new friends and was really fascinated to hear informal behind the scenes stories of the daily grind at world class news organizations’ graphics desks. The sheer amount of all the informal goings-on around the main programme combined with some logistic problems (I ended up spending 21 h travelling from Helsinki to Pamplona due to a cancelled connecting flight) meant that I only catched maybe 15 h of sleep between early Tuesday morning when I left home and Saturday evening when I’m writing this post. Add to that the considerable amount of boozing involved, and my hot tip for next year is to rest well before coming to Malofiej and reserve some time after it for recuperation.

As for the conference programme itself, I must really congratulate the organizers for getting together such an interestingly diverse set of judges/speakers. All the presentations were interesting and the best ones were fantastic. Some themes spanning several presentations included the importance of sketching, programming vs. hand-crafting and different narrative formats (linear vs. nonlinear, the role of annotation etc.). More of these in a later post. The works shown were really interesting and showed a wide variety of themes and techniques, which was also great.

To list a few negative things I have to mention keeping schedules and translation. Some of the speakers kept within their alotted time very well, but some were more liberal in their use of time which is a bit unfair towards the other speakers. Basically all the talks were so interesting that they could have filled a longer time slot, but time is a limited resource so if one speaker goes overtime, someone else often needs to cut their presentation shorter. Not nice!

All the talks were either in English or in Spanish (except for one which was half in Spanish and half in Portuguese) and interpreted into the other language. The basic setup with wireless headphones worked reasonably well, but the translators had a hard time at least when translating to English. The impression I got was that something was lost in translation with all the non-English-language presentations. I think a part of the problem may be that the translators (I think there were two) were Spanish native speakers. It probably would work better if Spanish was translated  to English by a native speaker and vice versa. At least that’s how they usually do it in organizations like the EU.

I’ll write later more about the actual awards, but to quickly summarize I think all the gold medal winners certainly earned their prize. I’m slightly disappointed that NYTimes’ 512 Paths to White House didn’t win the Best in Show, but at least it got gold and the NYTimes’ sports piece about hurdles is very well worth the prize, too. Awarding the “best online map” to ProPublica’s StateFace font was an interesting move and certain to create a bit of controversy. The first ever medal (bronze) for a Finnish media was awarded to Hannu Kyyriäinen’s map of shrinking Palestine in Suomen Kuvalehti. Finland even beated our eternal arch-rival the Swedish who this time got no medals. (Personally I think SvD’s graphics should have deserved some, but let’s not go there…)

I highly recommend checking out tweets with the hashtag #malofiej, especially Alberto Cairo’s fantastic coverage.

To sum up, I really enjoyed myself, learned a lot and made new friends and professional contacts. Easily worth the money and time spent. I’m definitely going next year (the dates for 2014 were already announced: 23rd to 28th March) and highly recommend everyone to do similarly!

PS. A minor, but to me an imporant point: Being a “pesco-vegetarian” I did occasionally find it a bit challenging to feed my self in Pamplona. Although many a restaurant offered had a great selection of fish and seafood, many seem to put ham in an amazing variety of dishes, including seemingly vegetarian ones. I hear the local ham is really good, but if you’re a vegetarian – or muslim – I’d be careful. And it would be nice if there was a meatless option for the awards dinner next year. ;)

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