The Shrinking Extent of ISIS

Yes, ISIS does receive a lot of attention in the media and during the presidential debates. But you might be surprised to learn that actually the organisation has lost a significant amount of territory lately. This BBC article details the territorial changes through a nice interactive map slider.

Use the scroller to see the changes over time
Use the scroller to see the changes over time

You could create a single map showing the losses/gains instead of using this light-duty interactive piece. And to the BBC’s credit they did. However, between the image quality and territorial changes, I think in this instance the interactive piece does add clarity to the story.

All in one map
All in one map

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

UK Performance at the Olympics

The Olympics are over and Team GB did rather well, coming in second in the medals table with 27 gold medals, more than they won back in 2012 when they hosted the Olympics. (See my piece four years ago where a colleague of mine and I accurately predicted the UK’s total medal count.)

Consequently the BBC put together an article with several data-driven graphics exploring the performance and underpinnings of Team GB. This screenshot captures a ranking chart that generally works well.

How the Olympics rankings have changed over the years
How the Olympics rankings have changed over the years

However, the use of the numbers within the dots is redundant and distracting. A better decision would have been to label the lines and let the eye follow the movement of the lines. A good decision, however, was to label the grey lines for those countries entering and falling out of the Top-5.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

Airplanes in Hangars

Today’s post features a simple set of graphics on the BBC, however the creators were actually the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. The background? The increasingly tense geopolitical situation in the South China Sea, where China claims numerous islands and reefs claimed by other countries—and to a smaller extent other countries make similar such claims. Just a few weeks back, the Hague ruled against Chinese claims against islands within the Philippines territorial waters. But as these graphics show, it takes more than a legal decision to effect change on the ground.

Satellite photography shows military installations on numerous Chinese-held islands. But what makes the images potent in the communicative sense is the simple overlay of white plane illustrations. They show how many fighter jets, support aircraft, patrol aircraft, &c. that China can base at the various military installations. It is a simple but incredibly effective touch.

Fiery Cross Reef
Fiery Cross Reef

Credit for the piece goes to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

Timeline of Recent French Terrorism Attacks

Yesterday the French Catholic community of Rouen was attacked by an alleged IS terror group. In the aftermath the BBC put together a graphic published inside a broader piece. The graphic documented the recent history of terror attacks in France.

When you read or scroll through the overall piece, a bit more symmetry could be added by aligning dates to the central column. That would make the dates more easily comparable. Though it should be noted the important point is made by the rapid clustering of events in the most recent time period.

And for a personal quibble, I believe that timelines are more effective when the most recent date is at the top. Presume the timeline starts in the 1950s during the middle of the Algerian War fought between France and Algeria, which at the time was an integral part of France. Would we want to read all those incidents from the 1950s and 60s? Likely no. Instead, we could scroll down the entirety of the piece. Here, however, we start in the relative calm of 2012, 2013, and early 2014.

Timeline of terror attacks in France
Timeline of terror attacks in France

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

National Heights

And by this title I am not referencing McKinleys, K2s, or Everests. No, the BBC published this piece on the changing average heights of citizens of various countries. This was the graphic they used from the report’s author.

National heights of people
National heights of people

Personally speaking, I do not care for the graphic. It is unclear and puts undue emphasis on the 1914 figure by placing the illustration in the foreground as well as in the darkest colour. I took a thirty-minute stab at re-designing the graphic and have this to offer.

A comparison of the six heights
A comparison of the six heights

While I admit that it is far from the sexiest graphic, I think it does a better job of showing the growth than decline of national heights by each sex in each of these three select countries. Plus, we have the advantage of not needing to account for the flag emblems. Note how the black bars of Egypt disappear into the black illustration of the person.

Credit for the piece goes to the eLife graphics department.

In Putin’s Russia Steroids Dope You

I mean really, given the rampant and pervasive nature of the Russian state-aided doping programme, how could I not use the Russian reversal? Yesterday WADA, the international anti-doping agency, released its findings on Russian doping at the Olympics. And, suffice it to say, the report is rather damning. The BBC published this graphic in an article to help demonstrate the scheme.

How it all worked
How it all worked

Unlike the evidence of doping, I find the graphic itself lacking. More could have been done to create more consistent type. Text justification ranges (pun intended) from left to right, without any clear system. Why do some stages, e.g. four, align to the right and then others, e.g. seven, align to the left?

Also, I believe more could have been done with the illustrations, in particular the bottles labelled A and B, to better differentiate between a clean sample and a contaminated sample. Why, for instance, does Step 1 include both an A and a B when it mentions only one sample?

In short, the story certainly warrants explanatory graphics, especially as to how the sealed lids were removed, but this piece is not the solution (pun also intended).

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

Critiquing Brexit Results Designs: Part 2

So now it is two weeks since the Brexit vote. Yesterday, I looked at the results designs from the New York Times. Today I want to take a look at those of the BBC. Not surprisingly the two share in the use of choropleth maps; the choice makes a lot of sense. People vote within districts and those form the most granular unit of data available. But, whereas the New York Times led and really focused on one giant map, the BBC opted to use multiple, smaller maps. (They did choose a different page for their live results, but we are comparing post-result coverage.) For example, their piece leads in with a map of Leave’s results share.

Leave's share
Leave’s share

There are a few key differences between this and the New York Times. First and foremost, this map is interactive. Mousing over various districts provides you the name, and by clicking you move into a zoomed-in view of the district. It displays the district name, the vote totals and share for the two camps, and then voter turnout. From a design standpoint, the problem with the zooming in is that the scales of the outlining stroke does not change.

Zoomed in, looking at central London
Zoomed in, looking at central London

A thin stroke at the national, zoomed-out view, translates to a thick, clunky, and awkward-looking outline at the local, zoomed-in view. And as the above screenshot highlights, many of the urban districts are small in comparison to the more rural districts. Unfortunately the map does not offer the functionality of zooming-in prior to selecting a district. So many of the districts in the more urban areas like London, Manchester, Birmingham, and Belfast are difficult to see and select. Thankfully, below the map the BBC offers a function to type in your district, post code, or Northern Irish constituency to help you find smaller districts.

Another design criticism I have with the piece is the colour palette. Broadly speaking, the piece uses blue and yellow. The two colours make sense in a few ways. Both are present on the European Union flag, with yellow stars on a blue field. (Importantly the twelve stars do not represent EU members like the US flag’s fifty stars represent the states.) Another, far looser interpretation could be the blue of the Conservatives and the yellow closer to the gold of the UK’s Liberal Democrats, the former broadly anti-EU and the latter pro-EU. Regardless of the rationale, the choice of yellow to display multiple levels of data is less than stellar (pun intended), as this Remain share map highlights.

Remain's share
Remain’s share

Having multiple tints and shades of yellow makes the map difficult to read. The lowest value yellow is brighter than the next higher level, and so stands out more vividly on the map than those districts that had a higher share of Remain votes. Using yellow against blue does work, especially in the bar charts throughout the piece and seen in the aforementioned Islington screenshot. But, as a colour for wider, more intense use, yellow was not the wisest decision.

The BBC also included several other choropleth maps exploring the vote breakdown. In this instance of voter turnout, we have the same choropleth map, but a green colour indicating the total vote turnout.

Voter turnout
Voter turnout

The colour and its choice makes broad sense; green is what one gets when they mix yellow and blue, when you combine Remain and Leave. However, the map functionality of clicking to reveal results still shows the overall results.

Should the vote results be given the highest priority?
Should the vote results be given the highest priority?

At this point, we have moved on from the vote results themselves to the breakdown of the vote. I would have redesigned the mouse-click to display a results view that highlighted turnout over the results themselves. Certainly keeping the results is important, but the focus of this map is not the vote, but the turnout. The data display should be designed to keep that consistent.

One part of the piece where I quibble with the designer selection of chart type follows on from turnout: a comparison of turnout to the youth population.

The turnout vs the youth
The turnout vs the youth

Asking people to compare undistinguished districts on one map to those of another—note the white district lines have here disappeared—is difficult. My first thought: I would have instead opted for an interactive scatterplot. Comparing the turnout on one axis and youth on the other, the user would have an easier time identifying any correlations or clusters of data.

In contrast, the following map comparison would not work via a scatterplot. Here we compare June’s results to those of a vote in 1975. In the intervening years, the geography of the voting districts changed, and so a one-to-one comparison is impossible.

1975 vs. 2016
1975 vs. 2016

The broad scope, however, is clear. A resounding vote to stay part of the European Market or single market in 1975 evolved into a narrow but decisive vote to leave the European Union in 2016.

The piece then closes out with an interactive map of the total results and then, importantly, a long list of bar charts showing each district’s results. Unlike the map, however, the bar charts are a static graphic. And with a few hundred to view, it becomes difficult to isolate and compare two in particular. But the selection of the visualisation type makes a user’s comparison far more precise.

The results as a series of bar charts
The results as a series of bar charts

Overall, I would rate the piece a solid work, but with some clear areas of improvement. And who knows? Maybe there will be a second referendum. Or a new general election. And in that case, the BBC could improve upon the designs herein.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

Coverage of the Orlando Shootings

Last Monday I stated that I would attempt a longer piece on the graphics explaining the shootings in Orlando. Since I do not have access to the print versions, I am examining only the digital versions here. Go grab a cup of tea, because this is certainly one of my longer pieces.

One of the most common ways sites covered the story was through maps of the club, Pulse. It makes a lot of sense—if we want to understand what happened inside the building we need to be able to place ourselves inside the building. So how to do that?

The first thought would be photography. But, the site is a crime scene likely riddled with bullets and stained with blood. Probably not the best thing for publications to use. So we are left with illustrations of the interior. But what level of detail do readers need to understand the story?

At the one end of the spectrum we have the stripped-down and simplified graphic from the BBC.

The BBC's layout
The BBC’s layout

In many respects this could offer the clearest explanation. Unlike the next versions, we have no graphical elements with which to confuse and clutter the drawing. Walls are omitted for a far more architectural layout. Doors are clearly marked, but that is it. We have no indication of where other key places are located. Where are the restrooms into which the attacker fled with hostages? Where are the dance floors? Where is the patio through which people escaped? We get some indication through the timeline annotations, but a lot of the detail needed to provide context is missing.

The New York Times takes a more detailed approach.

The New York Times layout
The New York Times layout

First you can see that the graphics, while smaller, are interspersed within a text-driven timeline of events. Key areas at that point in the timeline are highlighted on the graphic. For the graphic itself, the Times opts for a high-angle view with walls extending from the floor plan and the three key areas are annotated within the graphic. Colour is kept to a minimum with only whites and greys used in addition to the highlight. However, the high grey walls overlap with each other and the unidentified white boxes. What are the white boxes? Are they important? Do the walls need to be grey? Do they need to be so high that they interfere with the graphic?

We can see some different answers to those questions from the Wall Street Journal.

The Wall Street Journal's layout
The Wall Street Journal’s layout

Here the graphic is lighter in overall tone, with white and very faint greys replacing the darker tones in the New York Times’ piece. They Journal opts for the same graphics within timeline treatment. They also highlight the areas of the club relevant to the story at that moment in time. But here we first find a larger graphic. The Times could have had space limitations on their online site or they could have had to reuse graphics from their print edition for their online edition. While the Times could have very real reasons for the smaller images, the Journal’s larger graphic gives the content the space it needs to be read and understood comfortably. Also note how the use of grey vs. white for emphasis is reversed. Whereas the Times used white for unmarked boxes and grey for walls and floors, the Journal uses white for the floors and the walls. Grey is used to callout important parts of the club that are then crucially labelled, e.g. where the bars are located. Another really nice touch missing from my screenshot is how the Journal only labels the elements in the first graphic in the timeline. The second graphic only calls out the newly important elements.

The Washington Post takes a similar approach to that of the Journal.

The Washington Post's layout
The Washington Post’s layout

We see above the timeline a large graphic identifying the key areas of the club. The use of the small multiples in the timeline then allows the graphics to be smaller and thus accompanied by more text. But in the graphics, the Post diverges from the Journal’s direction in the graphic’s design. We find the layout depicted at a lower angle. And instead of a restrained palette, we find warm beiges and ochres depicting the floors and key elements like the bars. The shadows here begin call more attention to themselves than in the previous designs. We also find high levels of detail with the inclusion of bar stools and seat cushions. On the large graphic, the colour and detail, while distracting, still work because of the space. But in the small multiples for the timeline, a simplified version without stools and seats and a toned-down palette could make the graphic easier to understand.

And then somewhere between the approaches of the Journal and the Post we have the Los Angeles Times.

The Los Angeles Times' layout
The Los Angeles Times’ layout

We return to a restrained palette with colour used sparingly to emphasise key parts of the narrative. Detail is limited to the key elements, without any illustrative adornments like furniture. Typographic distinctions, bold vs. italic, delineate the important areas of the club from the remainder of the context. Elements like service alleys, fences, and the patio gate are clearly marked and provide that context of the possible escape routes for patrons attempting to flee the attacker. The graphic then repeats through the timeline, but the subsequent graphics reflect a missed opportunity. Each remains as labelled as this first, and the labels begin to distract from understanding the narrative.

Then we have the Orlando Sentinel’s timeline graphics.

The Orlando Sentinel's layout
The Orlando Sentinel’s layout

Note any similarities in this graphic to the preceding one? The Tribune Publishing Company, to be rebranded as tronc, owns both the Los Angeles Times and the Orlando Sentinel. So my guess would be the graphics departments collaborated or one of them created a shared asset to be used across the Tribune Publishing Company’s—sorry, tronc’s—media platforms. The Sentinel’s version lacks the finer design details of the LA Times’s, for example note how the typographic treatment here lacks the clearer hierarchy present in the LA Times’ version. I doubt the small type size increase would be noticed by the audience, though I could be wrong. But in terms of providing a timeline of events, the Sentinel’s version, which incorporates the above graphic as well as other media, is the most detailed and complete.

Then similar to some extents to the preceding graphics, we have a piece from the Orange County Register.

The Orange County Register's layout
The Orange County Register’s layout

As you can likely tell from the screenshot, this is a graphic where the entire piece is designed as a large graphic file instead of components on the page. It could be because the piece was designed primarily for print and not digital consumption. The layout of the club draws heavily on the BBC’s architectural drawing concept, but here is executed far more awkwardly. Instead of including hallways in the schematic, they are indicated by coloured rectangles. And we also know from the other graphics that almost the entirety of the wall at the graphic’s top supported the club’s main bathrooms. The graphic itself is sourced from The Villages Daily Sun, but the OC Register would have been better served by sourcing a more accurate and more clearly designed graphic for the layout. I should also point out the photograph at the top of the graphic appears to have come directly from the New York Times.

Lastly we have the National Post, which is at the other end of the spectrum.

The National Post's layout
The National Post’s layout

Per the style of the National Post, this graphic is more illustrative in its quality than the others. Like the Orange County Register, the National Post designed an entire graphic instead of smaller components on a webpage. The timeline occupies the left column and numbers correspond to locations in the club. However, I think the graphic could have been made more clear if the roof illustration were removed and a higher angle taken to make the back of the club easier to see.

Different publications included different amounts and types of supplemental context. The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, for example, included additional graphics on mass shootings. Others, like the New York Times, provided links to pieces that examined the context separate from the timeline of events.

Is there a best design among these? Well, design exists to solve problems, and those problems could vary from publication to publication. How soon did the graphics needed to be published? How many people worked on the design? How much information was available when producing the work? Were print considerations necessary?

For me, the Orlando Sentinel’s work, in toto, most clearly presented the narrative. While I quibble with particular elements of the design, again, I would have removed most of the text labels after their first appearance, it provides a balanced amount of detail and broad overviews in a clear fashion. Colour is used to emphasise elements in that moment. The illustration itself does not distract and allows the reader to focus on the story itself.

Credit for the pieces goes to a lot of people.

BBC: BBC graphics department

New York Times: Gregor Aisch, Larry Buchanan, Joe Burgess, Ford Fessenden, Josh Keller, K.K. Rebecca Lai, Iaryna Mykhyalyshyn, Haeyoun Park, Adam Pearce, Yuliya Parshina-Kottas, Sergio Peçanha, Anjali Singhvi, Derek Watkins, and Karen Yourish.

Wall Street Journal: Wall Street Journal graphics department

Washington Post: Weiyi Cai, Emily Chow, Chiqui Esteban, Lazaro Gamio, Chris Ingraham, Laris Karklis, Denise Lu, and Tim Meko.

Los Angeles Times: Eben McCue and Angelica Quintero.

Orlando Sentinel: Gal Tziperman Lotan, Charles Minshew, Mike Lafferty and Andrew Gibson.

Ocean County Register: Ocean County Register graphics staff

National Post: Mike Faille and Dean Tweed.

Not All Charts Are Necessary

I will be trying to do a longer piece on the data visualisations surrounding the shootings in Orlando later this week. But for starters, a simple point through this piece from the BBC—not that they are the only culprits of this. Not all data-driven stories need visualisations. Sometimes a nicely typeset table will do the job better and faster.

Green circles?
Green circles?

An actual table with typographic emphasis on the tables would have been better and clearer than this. Or with a little more time and effort—not that those always exist in a journalism organisation—something more appropriate to the type of data could have been designed.

Credit for the piece goes the BBC graphics department.

Impeaching Rousseff

Who is Rousseff? She is the president of Brazil and both she and her government are currently mired in a corruption scandal. Yesterday a parliamentary committee voted in favour of proceeding with impeachment, the first step in a lengthy process. What is that process? Thankfully, we have a BBC graphic to explain it all.

Brazil's impeachment process
Brazil’s impeachment process

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.