If Kites Could Fly to the Future, What Would They Find?

If only Benjamin could see this…

The Control Room
The Control Room

These are photographs from a small series published by CNET that focuses on a power grid control room. As one can imagine, managing the flow of electrical energy across somewhere the size of New England could be a bit…complicated. And so one can see from some kind of network map (perhaps?) on the main display. At the very least I can make no sense of it.

Voltage Map (right) and Monitor of Neighbouring Power Grid (left)
Voltage Map (center) and Monitor of Neighbouring Power Grid (left)

On the other hand, I only wonder what would happen if Homer were sitting behind a bank of those monitors?

Photographs by Martin LaMonica, CNET

It’s Hard to be a Saint in Hell

Perhaps the 21st century version of the Pentagon papers, the ‘War Logs’, as they are being called, consist of some 90,000 classified documents centring on the Afghanistan War. While they do not paint a necessarily different picture from what is known publicly, the War Logs do provide interesting glimpses into the war, a war that, like any other, is a messy and ugly business despite the polish of design, propaganda, and the media.  To put it differently and perhaps in another sense, the War Logs offer depth down to the ground-level, unpleasant details of warzone combat. But the documents lack an overall, strategic-level—I daresay antiseptic—breadth of understanding. The War Logs suffer from a lack of the broader context—but they do provide useful and interesting stories, vignettes, and anecdotes that flesh out the story we all broadly know.

The Guardian is one of three main newspapers that received the leaks in advance; the others were the New York Times and Germany’s Der Spiegel. And one of the things the Guardian did was create an interactive piece exploring improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and where and when they occurred in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010.

While I understand the use of Google maps, I always see the map as a distraction. For example, why in a story about Afghanistan do I need to see a map that includes the small cities of India. To some degree, the same can be said about the bordering countries like Iran and Pakistan—but as those countries are along the border and are to varying degrees involved in the action, their inclusion can be understood on a case-by-case basis.

Guardian Piece on IEDs
Guardian Piece on IEDs

Choice of map aside, the piece  highlights the detonation of IEDs as circles whose area reflects the number of casualties. The colour of each circle represents which ‘group’ of people had the most casualties: civilians, Coalition soldiers, or Afghan soldiers. However, by reducing the data to a single circle of a single colour, we lose the potential added depth of breaking down the event into the deaths of soldiers and civilians alike. Do I have an instant solution on hand? No. But I do note that if one clicks on the specific event, a window appears that breaks down the event into said figures.

One of the more interesting things about this whole story is that at least the Guardian is putting out the data as a spreadsheet. Perhaps in the near to intermediate future those with the time and inclination will take that information and make something truly interesting for the public’s consumption.

Won’t You Be My Neighbour

The BBC has an article about the massiveness of Facebook—at least in the United States. They have taken the data and spent time to do a little bit of visualisation. It is worth a look; the design is not perfect but acceptable in a broad sense.

Social Networking Usage
Social Networking Usage

Poor MySpace.

Rules Exist for a Reason

(and when I learn that reason, I shall let you know)

FlowingData has an interesting post today. It is less about an awesome graphic and more about the best practices of creating, well, an awesome graphic. Largely it makes sense. Learn the rules. And then learn how people break them. And then when you should break them.

A Hand Drawn Chart. Of Something Important.
A Hand Drawn Chart. Of Something Important.

Coffee Flavoured Coffee

My post is inspired by a post on FlowingData a few days ago. FlowingData’s post is about a diagram of coffee recipes and it interests me on a personal level. For long before ever designing anything professionally, I was a barista. Over three and a half years of my life were (somewhat) dedicated to crafting coffees, espressos, and on the rare occasion, tea. We used Starbucks’ recipes—and on several occasions I commented about the graphics and diagrams they sent so baristas could all be making the same drink. I may have even kept a few…but that would require some digging through some really old collections.

However, Plaid Creative made something for me. Well, me in the sense that I would like to talk about it here and now, not really for me. They created a diagram to explain the various recipes for coffee and espresso-based beverages. I am especially fond of the inclusion of Irish whiskey. However, FlowingData’s post comments upon how Plaid’s piece is in some sense an update of an earlier chart by Lokesh Dhakar, found here. (Update: So that link to Lokesh’s work is broken, here’s a link to it courtesy of The Babble Out.)

Plaid Creative's The Perfect Pour
Plaid Creative’s The Perfect Pour
Lokesh Dhakar's Illustrated Coffee Guide
Lokesh Dhakar’s Illustrated Coffee Guide

So how do these two compare?

First, keep in mind that Plaid’s is much more extensive in terms of the number of recipes examined and the number of ingredients used (or suggested). For while Dhakar’s piece uses a consistent and simple colour scheme that relates well to the subject matter, Plaid addresses the breadth of its recipes by introducing patterns and so allows for the colour scheme to still relate to the subject. I like the idea of patterns, and here they work in differentiating between the ingredients. However, it took me a little while to make sense of them all and I wonder if a small legend would not have been helpful. Or even just labelling the colours and patterns when each first appears.

However, the one thing I find most interesting about the two pieces is that Plaid represents the drinks as multiples of pie charts. The proportions of ingredients are thus wedges or slices of said pie. Dhakar’s piece instead keeps the cup form and shows the proportions as layers. (And what is noticeably helpful is that the sides of the cup are straight, making comparisons easier than they might otherwise be in cups with fancy, curving sides.) And while I prefer the aesthetic of Plaid’s piece, that Dhakar chose to show proportions as layers allows him to also show the order of events.

From personal experience, the order of events can actually impact the flavour of the drink. And to be honest, I am not certain that Dhakar intended to show order of events—for the mochas I made always started with the mocha first. But the system he used to show the drinks would theoretically allow for that element in the actual graphic. Plaid’s would likely have to have the order of events be written explicitly; the only other option is to order the arrangement of the pie wedges, but I am not certain that doing so would be as easily assumed as pies are normally ordered by value, here the proportion amounts, if ordered at all.

Both, however, do help the average Joe enjoy his, well, you know as increasingly create more and more complicated versions and variations. And in that sense, both are successful and entertaining pieces. If one, however, were to try and use either as a more educational piece in a true recipe-like sense, than I find Dhakar’s piece to the more successful of the two.

Either way, I still do not like coffee.

Computer: tea, Earl Grey, hot.

The Name’s Bond…

The Washington Post has released an in-depth article, or series of articles, about the intelligence community of the United States and its growth since 11 September 2001. There are several visualisations of data and relationships between government agencies and companies along with a video introduction and, well, a traditional written article or two.

A Screenshot of an Interactive Piece of the Article
A Screenshot of an Interactive Piece of the Article

Overall, the piece is quite interesting to look through—although I have not yet had the time to do just that. Some of the visualisations appear a bit thin. But, that may be just because I have not yet had time to play with them enough to draw out any particular insights.

What is nice, however, is again having visualisations supporting editorial content in such a fashion.

Damn the Torpedoes…We’ll Just Use Our Fists

A brief bit of background before I begin, a few months ago, a South Korean warship, a corvette, was sunk in waters claimed by both South Korea and North Korea. And technically speaking, the Korean War has never ended and the two countries remain at war. An independent commission studied the situation and determined that a North Korean submarine sank the ship with a torpedo. It did not help North Korea that North Korean markings were found on the remnants of a torpedo not far from the submerged wreckage.

Regardless, North Korea claimed innocence and the case went before the United Nations. The UN expressed, per usual, its toothless displeasure at the entire affair and everything has since sort of faded away—at least here in the United States it has. However, apparently somebody has smuggled a poster out of North Korea that hints at responsibility. According to the article, the text in the poster reads “If they attack, we will smash them in a single blow”.

North Korean Propaganda Poster
North Korean Propaganda Poster

photo uncredited, via the New York Times

I just found it fascinating that in 2010 we can still see good, old-fashioned propaganda posters. Even if we can only get them smuggled out of North Korea.

Money

This is not strictly related to information design or maps or any such things, however, India has adopted a new symbol for their currency, the rupee. The symbol joins the dollar, the pound, the euro, and the yen in having a special symbol. According to the article in the New York Times, adding the symbol to unicode will take some time. But when it eventually happens I will probably have to learn a new shortcut.

New Rupee Symbol and Its Designer
New Rupee Symbol and Its Designer

Photo is from the Associated Press via the article.

Oil and Water

We all know about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and so there is no need to rehash what has already been said. However, I do want to point out the continuing and evolving coverage from the New York Times. At the outset they located the spill on a map and began to add interactivity to the map in order to show change over time.

When I returned to the NYT for the latest—after admittedly more than a few days away—I discovered that an interactive supplemental to news articles had transformed into an interactive article in a sense. The story is broken into different chapters or components and each of these chapters uses graphics or photographs or videos to explain just what is going, what happened, and what the effects may be.

The site is worth checking out, though it shall take more than a few minutes to read and look through. But it evidences how the smart use of charts, graphics, and photos can be combined with well written prose to tell a great—or in this case perhaps tragic is more the word—story.

The New York Times' Latest Update
The New York Times' Latest Update

Frisky New York

Today the New York Times published an in-depth examination of NYPD stops of individuals ‘based on a reasonable suspicion of a crime’. The item includes a lengthy article; a printed, full-page information graphic; and an online, interactive piece from which the printed piece appears to be derived. The print piece is credited to Ford Fessenden and Janet Roberts, the online piece to the same along with Matthew Bloch.

Print Version

Print Version
Print Version

Online Version

Screenshot of the Online Version
Screenshot of the Online Version

Each version of the information graphic centres upon a street map of the five boroughs. Data for the number of stops is graphed at the appropriate addresses, thus making a geographically-correct map appropriate for the type of data. What is interesting is that a decision was made to represent the number of stops by means of the area of circles presumably centred upon the address or the street—each police stop is encoded into the circle by an incremental edit to the circle’s radius. This is despite the fact that area is less than an ideal means of discerning comparisons between discrete datapoints. I am left to wonder if other means of representing the data could have been perhaps more effective. Perhaps if individual streets were coloured according to a carefully crafted distribution one could see a better examination of individual streets. For while absolute fidelity would be lost in grouping datapoints into bins, individual streets and intersections would become far more visible and, perhaps, accessible. Perhaps there are even other ways of representing the data that are not so readily apparent to me.

And while on the topic of street-specific data, an interesting point about these pieces is that the online piece displays the circles atop a desaturated Google map of the region whereas the print piece is atop a stripped-down outline of the five boroughs. Some of this may well be due to the difference between the screen and print resolutions. However, I find that the Google map is distracting for displaying too much in a nearly garish fashion. To the designers’ credit, they reduced much of those distracting elements by eliminating colour from the equation. However, and perhaps this is an issue of personal aesthetics, the map is still competing too much with the circles. Despite the reduction in quality on the newsprint, I prefer the print version of the map.

That all, of course, assumes that one is looking at the full picture of the city. The online version allows one to zoom into particular neighbourhoods and intersections. To some degree this alleviates the clutter of Google’s maps but for the loss of realising the larger message. From my perspective, the printed piece provides a more interesting view of the whole story, for the large map is clearer through the reduction of extraneous map data but the interesting neighbourhood stories are highlighted on the large map with the most interesting given a detailed review. And it is in this review that the specific features of street names, buildings, &c. are made available to the audience. Indeed, the detailed look at Brownsville, Brooklyn is not available in the same level of clear, concise depth as it is in the online version.

Another advantage of the print format is the ability to present the map in a larger context and integrate stories and supplemental charts in the white space carved out by the natural geography of the boroughs. Combined, these elements occupy all the space above the fold whereas in the browser windows I used at both work and at home, only the map and one story for the selected neighbourhood is immediately visible. Thus the print’s integration, albeit made at the expense of the online’s interactive map, makes for a more inviting initial experience.

The remainder of the print and online versions are largely the same with the exception of the detail about Brownsville—which, as aforenoted, is available as a subset of of the online map and is provided outright in the print version. The space of the print version allows for the charting elements to be laid out amongst two columns whereas the online version is a single, vertical column down the webpage. Between the two versions, the largest difference is colour. I would suspect this is due to the differences in fidelity between printing the charts and viewing the charts online. I think both colours work in their respective medium.

Of the remaining graphics, the most interesting is that which displays the breakdown of stops by age in comparison to the city’s population as broken down by age. The first interesting point is the omission of a vertical scale; I can only assume that the scales are identical in both positive and negative directions. I did, however, readily understand the chart. Some may not ‘get it’ as quickly as one is asked to add the city population as it heads in a typically ‘negative’ direction. However, that the entire piece is designed to invite one to explore the statistics in detail, I think creating charts that may require some to think just a few seconds more are perfectly acceptable.

When the information graphic is combined with the whole of the article, the New York Times has again pulled off an impressive feat of editorial design that combines adeptness at the use of the English language with video and photography—from the associated multimedia from the article—along with the here-critiqued information design. Such level of depth provides a well-rounded examination of the issue or subject at hand and better informs the audience by way of both anecdote and fact while photography brings the audience visually into the story.