Like most Course 6 majors, Joanna Kao thought her passion for data would lead to a career in computer science, or maybe even in genetic research.
“Then I saw places like the New York Times and ProPublica use computer science in their reporting and storytelling, and I realized I could combine what I was learning in my classes with what I enjoyed doing outside of class,” she says.
That included Kao’s work at the MIT student newspaper, the Tech, where she created a multimedia exploration of student surveys on stress and religion. As an intern at the Boston Globe, she designed a guide to the 2013 Boston mayoral race and created interactive graphics that detailed the 2013 trial of mobster James “Whitey” Bulger.
“I like to tell stories in a visual way,” she says. “I like the challenge of taking a complicated subject or data set and making it accessible.”
Kao’s student experiences led to a career as a data visualization journalist. In 2013, she joined the staff of Al Jazeera America and focused on issues affecting U.S. military veterans. Her accomplishments included an award-winning multi-platform report on non-citizen veterans who were deported following their military service.
“I looked at the different reasons why people in the military had been denied citizenship,” Kao says. “I traveled to Tijuana and spent a week with veterans who formed a support community after being deported from the U.S. It’s an important story a lot people weren’t aware of.”
After Al Jazeera America closed in 2016, Kao joined the New York office of the Financial Times, where she creates visual stories on a variety of subjects and covers financial aspects of theater. Before the 2016 presidential election, she helped build an app to track and provide context for polling and election results.
“Independent media is really important to the future of this country,” she says. “It’s about telling people what’s going on—not only in their own communities but in other communities, too.”
Kao, an Iowa City native, lives in New York, where she is a part-time faculty member in the New School’s Journalism and Design program. She says her experiences and teachers at the Media Lab were crucial to shaping her views on data visualization and reporting.
“People like Ethan Zuckerman and Nathan Matias SM ’13 exposed me to media in a way I hadn’t seen anywhere else,” she says. “The Media Lab made me think differently and helped me create stories that can have a real impact on people.”
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.