Cool stuff from the lab

It may sound like some obscure location where the US military conducts experiments but the DoD Lab actually is a very interesting Dutch website about open data, visualization, and journalism. It offers a extensive list of links to Dutch and international data sources and showcases some nice examples of Dutch infographics you won’t find on other English blogs. But international work is featured as well, like this interactive by The New York Times that puts the spotlight on some products that really come out of the Lab of that other DoD: the Department of Defense.

The New York Times adores sliders

A month ago I wrote about the visual coverage of the US midterm elections by the New York Times. In this fascinating presentation, graphics editor Amanda Cox – AKA the Queen of InfoVis – explains some of the reasoning behind these and other Times interactives. She may be not an overwhelming speaker as Hans Rosling but here story is at least as interesting. There’s a lot of absorbing stuff in the 55 minute video, but my favorite quote starts around 11’17” when she is talking about this interactive map:

We sort of adore sliders. I think sliders are the best user interface element ever in terms of a journalist. Because there’s this kind of cheap way of having a story in it. There’s a beginning and a middle and an end to the slider, so there’s this narrative structure.

Catching up with the story

Having been very busy with teaching and trying to finish the first chapter of my dissertation, I’ve neglected this blog for a while. So it’s time for some catching up. And although you’ve probably seen it on all the other blogs about visualization, the trailer of The Joy of Stats should not be missing here. In this BBC documentary Hans Rosling once again will demonstrate his enormous enthusiasm about the revealing powers of visualized statistics. According to some critics the slick, minority report-like visuals are a poor and unnecessary substitute for Roslings original TED-talks, the snippet shows again that the real power of interactivity and visualization is revealed in combination with a strong narration.

Slick sites with sad stories

Two impressive map mashups were released this week. The Magnum Foundation unveiled a website for its Emergency Fund. It showcases the work of photographers who document social issues worldwide. The site is not quite finished. A lot of information is ‘forthcoming’ and the interface – an interactive worldmap – sometimes seems to acts on its own. But the stories that are already online definitely are worth a visit.

Products of Slavery also features a clickable worldmap. The site contains a visual inventory of more than 122 products that are produced in over 58 countries using child or forced labor. The same data is also accessible in an interactive graph and can be ordered by country or by product. Clicking on a product reveals more information and links to more sources. Just like on the Magnum site, the slick interface reveals rather sad stories.

Mandatory reading

I really wish I could have attended the workshop on Telling Stories with Data that was part of this years VisWeek. But Salt Lake City is a long way from Amsterdam when you have to pay for your own ticket. Fortunately FlowingData offers a rich summary of its content, including a list of issues that need further attention by both researchers and designers of interactive data stories:

  • reconciling the open-ended nature of interactive visualizations with the fixed paths of traditional storytelling
  • identifying specific interaction techniques in visualization systems that assist with storytelling
  • applying methods from film and other time-based media to visualization design
  • identifying potential characters, events, and plot in a dataset and revealing them to an audience

The post is recommended for everyone who is interested in a combination of datavisualization and interactive storytelling. For the students that participate in the tutorial on datajournalism that started last friday, it’s mandatory.

Election day: a feast of interactivity

From a European perspective the midterm elections held today in the United States are a feast of democracy. Voters elect new members for the House of Representatives and the Senate and all kinds of local representatives. Furthermore they are able to give their opinion on several ballot measures, initiatives, and propositions.

Election day is also a feast of interactivity. As always The New York Times is leading, with interactive election maps for the House and Senate, a visualization of political tweets and an overview of states where Tea Party candidates are running.

But of course others show their best too. Good visualizes how the political climate has changed over time while Forbes concentrates on billionaires’ favorite politicians. Pressure groups also have discovered the power of infographics. Oil Change International reveals how energy companies attempt to suspend the California Global Warming Act by funding Proposition 23. A nice example of the power of zoom, except for the counterintuitive slider. Less interactive but much funnier is this explanimation that promotes the legalization and taxing of cannabis in that same state:

Revealing answers instead of data

Last week I wrote about interactive modalities (clicking, hovering, dragging, etc.) and their functions. Probably the most important function of interactivity in infographics is hiding or revealing information, especially in case of multidimensional data.

But hiding information can also detach data from meaning as Kaiser Fung clearly demonstrates in Detached in time and space, a blogpost about a donut chart by Reuters on corporate sentiment in Asia. Fung also has some noteworthy suggestions to improve the graphic:

A better way to organize the chart is to start with the types of questions that the reader is likely to want to answer. Clicking on each question (say, compare ratings across industries within a country) would reveal one of the above collections of charts.

In short: try to reveal answers instead of data.

The powers of zoom

One part of my thesis is about the anatomy of an interactive infographic. Obviously the most important feature of an interactive is the way it enables users to manipulate the visualization. Using interactive modalities like typing, clicking and dragging they can hide, reveal, add or filter information.

Or they can zoom. In 1968 Ray and Charles Eames enlightened the world with a brilliant short film that first zooms out to the edges of the universe and then zooms back in to the inside of an atom. Cary and Michael Huang did something similar in an interactive that gives you the opportunity to zoom the universe. The University of Utah used the same idea (and a much more talented designer) on this great site about genetics.

It’s the story, stupid

It may well be the most famous interactive infographic: Gapminder World, the interactive and animated graph showing the wealth and health of nations since 1800. Of course it is renowned for its clear and innovative design and the importance of the data is represents. But most of all its fame is based on the inspiring TED presentations of Hans Rosling, the creator of the underlying trendalyzer software and a passionate advocate of a data driven approach to world development.

For me the most important message of these talks is the importance of a story. Animation and interaction are nice, but adding narrative really can make an infographic powerful. Rosling’s recent presentation about a the “front-page-worthy good news” that we’re winning the war against child mortality is the latest illustration of this fact. Bill Clinton would say: it’s the story, stupid!

Dashboard of Digital Live

Before I decided to write a thesis about interactive infographics I wrote a research proposal for a study into the digital habits of online news consumers. The working title read: What are they doing online? The answer to this question is (at least partly) given by TNS. This custom research agency surveyed almost 50,000 consumers across 46 countries about their online behaviour and perspectives. The results of this Global Digital Life research project are beautifully visualized in a interactive dashboard that allows users to compare the internet penetration and digital lifestyles in different countries and between different generations. Some of the key finding: Globally, people who have online access have digital sources as their number one media channel and, on average, they are spending more time on social networks than on email. To be honest I find the interface more interesting than these results, so I’m glad I changed my subject.