Archive for the ‘dataviz’ category

Visualizing the Iraq War, and the Scary Future of Journalism

9, July, 2008

I’m not sure how I missed this wonderful act of journalism-by-data visualization produced by Mother Jones magazine.

Titled “Lie by Lie,” it’s the wayleft publication’s “history of the Iraq War.” The project was undertaken, the editors state, “to create a resource we hope will help resolve open questions of the Bush era. What did our leaders know and when did they know it? And, perhaps just as important, what red flags did we miss, and how could we have missed them?”

Why I love this work of journalism [my own political inclinations notwithstanding]:

1. It’s nothing fancy, hardly a data visualization at all. It’s essentially a timeline navigation of information on the Iraq War. The only visual grace note is the roulettey spin of the date slider as you move it around. But the tool is functional: It permits navigation of the same data by topic, tags or search. It engages and it works.

2. It is an aggregation of content reported by others. This is a great example of curation, of journalism by assembly. Clearly, smart people knowledgeable about public affairs paid close attention to a huge amount of information, made careful selections and used available digital technology to make it accessible and flexible in a way no print publication could.

3. It proves you can advance a political agenda with digital journalism just as easily as you can in the analog world. Edit, select, tweak, ignore. . .and you can assemble your own version of history, just as certainly as the wingnuts at The Washington Times or the pinkos at the New York Times.

4. By virtue of its form, it surfaces new understandings that a reader of the original reports would not achieve. For instance, noodle around with the “Dick Cheney” taq and you’ll discover, right at the top, this entry dated . . . over 15 years ago:

Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, speaking to the Discovery Institute in Seattle, says the first President Bush was right not to invade Baghdad: “The question in my mind is how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is not very damned many. So I think we got it right, both when we decided to expel him from Kuwait, but also when the president made the decision that…we were not going to go get bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq.”–Aug. 14, 1992

But even as it offers a great example of digital journalism, “Lie By Lie” raises troubling questions about same.

Most of the information is drawn from reports that appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, Knight-Ridder, the New Yorker and many more. Yes, some bloggers made significant contributions. But it’s hard to imagine there would be much of a record of events to assemble without mainstream journalism’s (eventual! shame-faced!) commitment to digging for facts about the runup to Iraq.

The rub: This original reporting cost a fortune. It was produced under the old, dying model of journalism, wherein investigative reporting is funded by advertisements for cell phones, new subdivisions, mattress-chain mega-sales, designer clothing, and so on.

It’s important to remember that for all their swashbuckling highbrow bravado, the authors of New Yorker articles write on the back of designer vodka ads.

As Mother Jones has shown, people who are passionate about telling a story have powerful new tools at their disposal to do so. But without high-quality content–difficult, time-consuming, intellectually demanding, butt-numbing, sometimes actually dangerous reporting–the tools are just toys.

And who will pay for that reporting as we glide forward into the age of paper-free journalism?

Pour yourself a designer vodka and think about that one.

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Viewzi’s Visual Search: I’ll Know It When I See It

22, June, 2008

Let me be unambiguous: It’s Google’s world, we just live in it. There is no “search war,” no “game-changers” in the world of search. When the End of Days finally arrives, some bony finger will type “eschatology” in the search box, hit “I’m Feeling Lucky,” and the world will end. Google’s victory will be complete.

Happily, none of this is preventing people from doing some wily, aspirational things with search. The most compelling (if maddeningly flawed) example I’ve seen is called Viewzi, which has just opened itself to the public after a buzzy closed beta.

Short version: It’s a visual search tool that offers 15 [!] different ways to view search results. It’s a dazzler, a hum-dinger, a Halloween bagful of eye candy. If you’re a flash developer, a dataviz geek or a distractable noodler, you’ll find it irresistible. Viewzi makes Google’s results look like Braille.

Put a query in the search box, and a ribbon of blurry choices spreads across the screen: Basic Photo View, VideoX3 View, 4 Sources View, and more. [Note: Since this is an application built in flash, I can’t provide specific URLs to any of these features. If you click on the images below they’ll take you to a new search box. You’ll need to conduct a search yourself to see the features I’m discussing.]

Viewzi Mix

Below is the 4 Sources view, which presents screen shots of results harvested from Google, Yahoo, Live and Ask. I can’t understate the goofy pleasure I get rearranging and digging among these results. Bonus: You can see immediately which results the engines share, value differently, bury, etc. SEOers will dig it.

Viewzi 4 Sources View

But the most powerful–and potentially disruptive–feature is something called 3-D Photo Cloud view. It has a creepy, responsive intelligence that I find affecting in ways I can’t explain. It somehow creates the unsettling impression of knowledge accumulating in real time, of neural pathways proliferating as you watch, of an infobeing gathering power as it grows. [I have not been drinking anything stronger than coffee while writing this, I swear. This thing is freaky.]

Yakov Sverdlov, Viewzi 3-D


The Viewzi project has the feel of an open-source playground, a platform where search geeks and datavizualists can create new ways of organizing information visually. This may turn out to be the real value of Viewzi–a kind of Challenge X for visual search that inspires some serious bug-eyed innovation. [Or not: There’s already evidence of creativity being stretched thin over commercial ambitions: There are Celebrity Photo, Weather, Recipe, Shopping and TechCrunch (?) views. Can a FaceBookNewsFeedView (sm) be far away?]

Meantime, I tried Viewzi for some “real” searches I’d recently done on health, a recent political poll, an old friend from college, some tax stuff, a vintage car. Here’s what I realized: Most searchers are harshly pragmatic, unforgiving of excessive keystrokes and distractions. Google is perfect for the drive-by infosnag.

Viewzi offers some simple search views for mundane topics, the most servicable of which is the Web Screenshot View, which allows you to scroll through images of results pages. It’s slower and more annoying than Google, but it allows you to preview a source before you click into it.

So That\'s a Matador?

Google rules the everyday search. But if you have the need or leisure to dig into a topic and explore it from a bunch of different sides, Viewzi has plenty to offer. Block out two hours on Outlook and close your door. You’ll be awhile.

But if anything funny crawls out of that 3-D  Photo Cloud and attaches itself to your forehead like a tick, don’t blame me. I warned you.

So Simple. So Smart.

20, May, 2008

On Tuesday night, while results from the Kentucky and Oregon Democrat primaries were coming in, the New York Times had this wonderful tool above the fold on its home page.

NYTimes Delgate Slider

Meantime, the folks over at CNN.com offer the considerably more complicated (if subtle) calculator shown below.

CNN delegate counter

Making complex material simple but accurate is one of the highest callings of journalism. Both sites attack this particular complexity well. But I give the nod to nytimes.com.

More Dataviz: Microsoft’s “Blews” Project

25, March, 2008

I came across this recent item on Microsoft’s “Blews” dataviz project, still in the lab, which visualizes how news items are linked to from the left- and right-leaning blogosphere–and shows how much “heat” each item generates.

blews.jpg

Freaky Dataviz: NYTimes’s “Ebb and Flow”

24, March, 2008

I confess an irrational love for dataviz. A properly done data visualization can be brilliant and beautiful–a graphic representation that does more than words, photos, videos or flat graphics to explain some aspect of “reality.”

An excellent web dataviz makes you say “Oh, I get it” after even a brief glance.

A perfect one also is so beautiful you want to spend time just clicking and admiring–and, as you do, your understanding deepens.

One of my favorite examples: Digg Labs’ “Stack” real-time visualizer of users’ diggs. Ignore the fact that Digg content and users have an unsavory quality. The point is the Tetris-like dataviz shows what content is being recommend, and how frequently, in real time. If you want to dig deep you can click through to the articles that are stacking up.

So it’s with a mixed sense of awe and bafflement I regard The New York Times’ “The Ebb and Flow of Movies: Box Office Receipts 1986-2007.”

nytimes-movies-small.jpg

It intends to show how hundreds of movies performed at the box office over 20 years. It’s gorgeous and unsettling, a thing to behold and ponder. It suggests the botanical metaphor for the male never seen in Georgia O’Keeffe paintings. Or a flayed trachea. Or maybe some  crustacean group housing complex you come across while snorkeling and flipper away from real fast.

She shame is, it’s hard to figure out.

Some movies that made less money are shown as peaks higher than those who made more. See “I am Legend” and “National Treasure.” This has to do with the difference between weekly and total box office revenue, but I had to work really hard to figure that one out.

There appears to be no logic to whether a movie is rendered above or below center, though the mind expects some connection.  It’s not quality of movie per the Times review; I checked.

To be fair, spend enough time with the Ebb and Flow and you come to understand, with visuals not words, a few worthy observations about box office behavior:

  • Blockbusters tend to hit hard and fade into a skinny long tail
  • Some movies that do poorly in total box office (Little Miss Sunshine) have more staying power than high-grossers (Evan Almighty, to use a Steve Carrell comparison, which peaked and petered).
  • Okay, it’s no surprise, but the movies that do the best box office around the time of their release are summer and holiday fare.

Anyway: Ebb and Flow is a beautiful and ambitious dataviz. It does remind me of a  phenomenon from my days in words-on-paper journalism, however, which makes it a good cautionary tale for those who undertake dataviz projects.
Back in the day, an editor and reporter would get all excited about a story, sell it around the newsroom, do lots of reporting, work all the sources, gather some slam-bang quotes and cool facts, craft a great narrative and then realize. . .well, there isn’t much story there.

It never stopped the words-and-paper journalists from publishing. It probably shouldn’t stop the datavisualists either.

Coolest New Political DataViz

13, February, 2008

Check out the LA Times’ dataviz that compares candidates’ delegate totals and which states the delegates were earned in. Cool as they come, and very informative about candidates’ geographic strengths. Below is just a picture of it; the live version on the site includes the cool interactivity.

LAT Dataviz


Most-TV-Like Home Page. . .NYT?

10, February, 2008

It wasn’t Super Tuesday. It was Sad Sack Saturday, which is to say I was at the computer again after dark on a weekend. It happened to be the night Obama swept Washington, Louisiana and Nebraska (and the Virgin Islands, if that counts).

So I was poking around, avoiding my real work, looking for numbers–why were Washington’s GOP caucus results stuck at 37 percent? Will Huck pull it out and do a GOP sweep? I jumped from news site to news site looking for the most updated feeds.

And I noticed two things:

  • If you’re using the web to find news info in real time, even the most successful news sites’ home pages aren’t particularly good at this sort of “broadcast” display. The Washington Post, USA Today, MSNBC, FoxNews, AOL, Yahoo, even CNN–none had a real-time graphic leaderboard on their home pages. They published headlines and photos and, inside, one or two clicks deep, maps and charts with fresh-ish data.
  • The most successful example of a news homepage broadcasting real-time election results in graphic form was. . .The New York Times. The Times alone had an updated, easy-to-follow data graphic on its home page displaying the election results as they came in.

Times election results

I was surprised that CNN and USA Today–both veteran deviners of audience desire–whiffed on this easy pitch. (Both had links on their home pages that led to real time data inside).

If I’m programming a news home page on election night–a Saturday evening! With little else happening!–what “use case” am I anticipating? People out browsing for election results. Sticking the real-time results map on the front is sort of a no-brainer.

It’s striking to see that the New York Times appears to understand that on the web, even significant news should, when appropriate, be presented visually, quickly and accessibly.

There is time and a place for reasoned analysis and fuller explanation. It’s called tomorrow’s newspaper.