Kelly Shea, ’11, strives to make hope visible. The journalism graphics major led a team of Ball State students to develop information graphics for global news organization Circle of Blue, a consortium of leading journalists, design experts, and scientists dedicated to chronicling the murky intricacies of the global water crisis.

In fall 2010, Shea and a handful of her peers—mentored by multimedia journalism professor Jennifer Palilonis—created interactive graphics that visually convey the elaborate statistics and complex stories Circle of Blue has been reporting since its inception in 2002. The immersive learning experience exposed impassioned students to the demands of professional journalism and the significance of water scarcity on the sweeping political, social, and economic issues of our time.

“You always think of third world countries when the topic of water scarcity comes up, but it is a major issue in our backyards,” Shea says. “My eyes were opened when I started working on a graphic for our first project, Choke Point U.S. I researched extensive pipelines around the world that deliver water to cities in need. I was shocked that many of these systems are in the United States.”

Professional Recognitions

Circle of Blue included one of Shea’s graphics, which illustrates the nexus between water and energy, in its 2010 Pulitzer Prize submission; university professors have developed the visual into lectures about water scarcity.

“Knowing that my graphics were being used in practical and powerful ways fueled my passion for information design,” Shea says. “From day one, Circle of Blue has treated us like professionals, and we all have risen to the challenge. It was amazing to leave college with such real-world experience.”

Circle of Blue senior editor Keith Schneider says the organization’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize nomination for interactive series Choke Point: U.S. is due in large part to Shea and other Ball State students’ graphic and research contributions. The range of maps, charts, diagrams, and typographic displays efficiently guides its online readership through the collision of diminishing water supplies and rising energy demands.

“Anybody who wants to see a nice use of interactive data graphics around a globally significant piece of journalism, just take a look at Choke Point: U.S. and Choke Point: China. It’s first rate stuff,” Schneider says. “Look at Choke Point: U.S., nominated for the Pulitzer Prize with Ball State’s graphics, which were a central part of that process. It’s really exciting.”

Lasting Bonds

The partnership between Ball State journalists and professional reporters around the globe proved so successful that the immersive learning experience continued into the following semester. The Ball State force grew to 25 students — all focused on supplying the nonprofit with comprehensive maps, charts, and graphics for its Choke Point: China series. Palilonis says the 11 graphics students produced for the project captured the heroic stories and intricate statistics surrounding the country’s impending energy shortage.

“The work Ball State students did to help tell the story of the water and energy crisis in China was both outstanding from a journalistic perspective and a great representation of how transformative immersive learning can be,” says Palilonis, ’96, who has taught at Ball State since 2001. “Our students rose to the occasion by exhibiting outstanding professionalism and journalistic savvy well beyond their years. They also helped show the value of visual reporting and data visualization in an increasingly digital media landscape.”

A Collaborative Future

Shea’s partnership with the organization has continued beyond her graduation in May 2011. The native of Carmel, Indiana, spent the summer in Michigan, working with Circle of Blue reporters to illustrate the impact climate change and invasive species have on the Great Lakes. Throughout the internship, Shea collaborated with Ball State student designers, including Malik Cato, who plans to graduate in May 2012 with degrees in magazine journalism and journalism graphics. Cato says his work to illustrate the impact of El Nino on the Great Lakes, for instance, has given him perspective about the importance of journalism in all its forms.

“Getting the chance to apply my skills to something that is relevant and affecting hundreds, thousands, even millions of lives is so rewarding,” says Cato, who interned in summer 2011 for the News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “I see the weight put on journalists’ shoulders to convey the facts and others’ ideas, so I take what I do a lot more seriously.”

The Circle of Blue immersive learning partnership has had a lasting impact on the students who poured their talents into helping others visualize needs and solutions, Shea says. The legacy of cooperation endures as another generation of students collaborates with the nonprofit affiliate of renowned water, climate, and policy think tank — The Pacific Institute.

“Water touches every aspect of our lives. It’s the thread that weaves everything together, but we hardly ever notice unless something starts to go wrong,” says Shea, who plans to work as an environmental journalist in Seattle. “I think it is awesome the partnership with Circle of Blue has continued beyond that first course. Students will gain such perspective and self-respect as their work takes on real-world significance. These problems aren’t going away, and Circle of Blue is a phenomenal organization that is forcing the world to reevaluate its perceptions of water and energy.”

Related Links

Immersive Learning

Department of Journalism

College of Communication, Information, and Media

Photo by Valerie Carnevale

Kelly Shea
“You always think of third world countries when the topic of water scarcity comes up, but it is a major issue in our backyards. My eyes were opened when I started working on a graphic for our first project, Choke Point U.S. I researched extensive pipelines around the world that deliver water to cities in need. I was shocked that many of these systems are in the United States.”

—Kelly Shea, ’11