Datavis in documentary

Although this blog is about interactive infographics, I’m interested in other aspects of information visualization as well. Lately, as the previous post indicates, I have been studying Isotype as a forerunner of infographic design. Earlier I wrote about my fascination with animated infographics or explanimations. Logically, I was very happy with a presentation by Ekaterina Yudin that I attended last week.

To obtain her master’s degree in New Media at the University of Amsterdam, Ekaterina wrote a thesis on data visualization in documentary films. She analyzed modern work but also included films by the famous British documentary maker Paul Rotha. During her presentation Ekaterina showed some fine examples of the way Rotha used the pictorial language Isotype to explain economic and demographic processes. Unfortunately these early examples of Isotype on screen are not available on the web – unless you have access to BFI Screenonline.

The other movies she studied are more contemporary. Most are modern classics – at least in the visualization community – like An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Food, Inc. (2008), The Crisis of Credit (2009), Joy of Stats (2010), and Inside Job (2010). I.O.U.S.A. was new to me – I somehow managed to miss it when it came out. This documentary uses all kinds of animated charts and diagrams to explain how the exploding national debt of the United States brings us on the brink of a financial meltdown. Mind you: the film was released in 2008 before the financial system actually collapsed.

In all the examples mentioned above visualizations are used to explain something in a classic, linear narrative. However, as an increasing number of interactive documentaries demonstrates, on the web stories no longer have to be linear. In online documentaries, explains Ekaterina, visualizations can have a different purpose than explanation. Mostly they are used as a part of the interface, like a map or a timeline that helps to navigate the story. Examples are Gaza Sderot (2008), This Land (2009), and The Interview Project (2010).

Online documentaries rarely use truly interactive visualizations “where viewers can manipulate the data points on the graphic display or interface, introducing design decisions that do not apply to non-interactive media.” Ekaterina found only one: Collapsus (2010), a dramatic story about the forthcoming transition from fossil fuel to alternative fuels that combines interactivity with animation, fiction and documentary. This award-winning project was produced by Dutch cross media production outfit Submarine. Not coincidentally, the same company hired Ekaterina as the new producer of their online channel. I’m looking forward to future documentaries with lots of interactive infographics!

Before adding all the interaction you can imagine, think!

Andrew and Louis are two computer engineers from Minneapolis who wanted to know where their tax money went. So they collected the data and put them on That are a lot of data. So now Google and art and technology center Eyebeam have created a dataviz challenge for designers to visualize how individual federal income taxes are spent by the US government.

To inspire potential participants the site offers some links to nice visualizations about the destination of tax money, including an interactive bubble chart and ditto timeline, but also an explanimation and the wonderful (but not very intuitive) tool to create a Better World Flux. Last but not least Jono Brandel from Google Creative Lab created an example visualization in HTML5 that allows American citizens to input their income and see how the government spends their dollars.

Who wants to join the competition has to know that the judges will be looking for “that wow factor, that addictive tool that shows us something we didn’t know, something that illustrates relationships, hidden stories, and simple facts in a way that is uniquely insightful to tax payers.” They will pay attention to storytelling, clarity, relevance, utility and aesthetics. There’s some controversy about the rule that the challenge only is open to “users who are physically located in the United States” but for me the most interesting part of the briefing consists of this “Note on Interactivity”:

We’re excited that the web is making it easier than ever to create interactive data visualizations, and we’re hoping that this challenge will produce some great interactive pieces. That’s why we’ve provided the API. However, before you start adding all the interaction you can imagine, think about what meaning an interaction brings to the piece and how best to convey that meaning.

(via Chart Porn)

Wanted: an interactive explanimation

The one thing that has always fascinated me most about online media – first as a journalist, now as a researcher – is the evolution of new, digital genres. Interactive infographics are one example, explanimations an other. The last term is a contraction from animation and explanation and is used for… well, animations that explain something. The concept has been around for a while (think about the Did You Know video’s) but it was not before I saw a presentation by In60Second, a Dutch company that specializes in explanimations, that I came to think about it as a genre. For me the archetype explanimaton is The Crisis of Credit Visualized by Jonathan Jarvis, but there are much more examples. I kind of collect them, so be sure to post your own favorites in the comments.

The thing I like about explanimations is their persuasive power. They often use voice over, music and sound effects to grab your attention. Their strong pace keeps you involved. At the same time, that’s also their disadvantage: they are classic, linear stories that don’t let you dig deeper to understand better. That, of course, is one of the main characteristics of interactive explanations like this older example about Dutch biofuel plant Ecoson or this recent one about the pros and cons of a school reform in Germany.

The holy adage of the infographic community reads “Show, don’t tell”, I know. But sometimes I wonder if it is possible to have the best of both worlds: the engaging power of explanimations, and the in-depth features offered by interactivity. So if you know a nice example, please let me know!

BONUS: an explanimation that doesn’t explain anything at all except the creativity of the designers:

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: