The Crisis in Syria

The crisis in Syria now resembles more of a civil war. The UN General Assembly has condemned the conflict and passed a resolution calling for Bashar al-Assad to step aside along with a host of other steps to resolve the conflict. However, nothing can happen until the Security Council agrees on a measure, which is still unlikely given the previous vetoes by China and Russia.

This piece from the Guardian chronologically explains what has been happening—at least as best as can be determined in the not-so-media-friendly country. As this story focuses on dates and places, a map feels natural. The designers have added some crucial details from the backstory about the ethnic complexities of the country and denoted the larger and more important urban centres.

An overview of Syria
An overview of Syria

When one clicks on a date, coloured by what part of the story is taking place, markers with text boxes overlay the original city markers and provide the user information on what happened in that city on that date. Or, if the event is more general, the box appears outside the borders.

Syria on 9 Feb 2012
Syria on 9 Feb 2012

The interface is rather simple, but works in focusing a person in on a time. Unfortunately, since much of this story can be seen through the lens of locale, e.g. the city of Homs has borne the brunt of al-Assad’s wrath, one cannot focus in on a place and then add time. For example, clicking on the marker for Homs and then seeing a chronological list of events that occurred there would also be quite useful.

Another slight improvement would be more clearly signifying the date being viewed. It does appear in the text box, but with the visual prominence of the main navigation at the top, on a few occasions when I was going through the piece, I did forget what date I was on and had brief moments of confusion.

Adding Guided Context to Maps

Maps are cool. They show the geographic distribution of data. And that is fantastic if there is a story in said distribution. But even if there is a story, sometimes given both the scale of the map and the amount of data encoded in the map, how could you possibly expect to find the story? Which little region of the map do you search to find the interesting nuggets?

On Sunday, the New York Times published an interesting solution to that very quandary. The context is an article looking at the anger and resentment felt by some towards government assistance via the social safety net, and yet how these very same people depend upon that safety net through programmes like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, &c. The map, a choropleth, examines several different metrics that comprise government assistance, e.g. Medicaid payments as a percentage of income.

Government benefits overview
Government benefits overview

One can easily toggle through the various metrics at the scale of the entire United States. This is a rather standard feature for such maps. However, in the upper-left corner, the designers placed a ‘guide’ that provides context and stories for each metric. But, not only does the guide provide text to support the map, but it zooms in on specific areas and regions that then support the text and best exemplify the point.

Here we see the map of the whole US for Medicaid, which appears to be scattered pockets of higher percentages. Interesting perhaps, but the user likely has few ideas as to what that visualisation actually means.

Medicaid's broad overview
Medicaid's broad overview

Compare that to the guide’s view of the map, which focuses on the large cities on the East Coast.

Medicaid's eastern core context
Medicaid's eastern core context

Providing context and guiding a reader/user through the stories contained in the map, or at least those deemed interesting by the designers and editors, is an interesting solution to the problem of finding the story in maps such as these. However, by moving away from a strict visualisation of the data, the New York Times and others that try similar avenues introduce human biases in the story-telling that may otherwise be unwanted or distracting.

Credit for the piece goes to Jeremy White, Robert Gebeloff, Ford Fessenden, Archie Tse and Alan McLean.

Comparing the (Display of) Results in Colorado

Mitt Romney lost badly last night. No way around that. But as I watched the results come in through various sources, I noticed two interesting design decisions that made me think; one from the Guardian (the British perspective), and the other from the New York Times.

Using only Colorado as an example, here is the map of county results by the Guardian.

Results map from the Guardian
Results map from the Guardian

Note how the map is presented in 3-D that therefore allows the use of height as another encoded variable, in this case the size of the lead. Now compare that to the map used by the New York Times.

Results map from the New York Times
Results map from the New York Times

Note how this map is flat. So much less cool, right? But try to compare the results in Denver County. When I look at the Times’ map, I see blue; Mitt Romney won. When I look at the Guardian’s map, I see…actually, I can’t. That label is in the way. And then even when I begin to interact with the map, Denver County is hidden by the height of Arapahoe County.

But what about the size of the lead? I cannot see that encoded in the New York Times map. No, one cannot. However, they added a toggle function to change the data displayed on the map—though the utility of that view can be left for another discussion.

And now to a minor point about comparing the totals.

Again, a look at the Guardian’s presentation.

Results table from the Guardian
Results table from the Guardian

And now the New York Times. Numbers are numbers and faces are faces. But look at the graphic element representing the percentage. With the Guardian, I can just barely discern that the size of the circles for Santorum and Romney are not the same. And the same goes for Gingrich and Paul. But when I look at the Times’ presentation, I see a simple bar chart that more clearly shows the relationships between the results.

Results table from the New York Times
Results table from the New York Times

So interesting design decisions lead to one view that I find far more successful in showing the data: the New York Times.

Replacing the Bay Bridge for the Long Term

Bridges are vital parts of infrastructure networks connecting two separate pieces of territory, but often they can be choke points. Damage to a bridge can result to isolation at worst and at best long, circuitous reroutes that add significant time to travel. In the San Francisco area authorities are building a new bridge to replace the current Bay Bridge. But as everyone knows, buildings and infrastructure in that area can be significantly damaged during earthquakes. And the area is waiting for the ‘Big One’ that shall come some day or another.

So how to build a new bridge for the long-term that will also survive a major earthquake? The New York Times explains it in an interactive piece accompanying an article. The interactive piece includes an animation with voiceover explaining the details of the design, with diagrams illustrating the components placed next to the video player. At the bottom, anchoring the piece (pun intended), is a photo-illustration of the new bridge’s design.

Diagram explaining the Bay Bridge replacement
Diagram explaining the Bay Bridge replacement

Credit for the piece goes to Mika Gröndahl and Xaquín G.V.

Punxsutawney Phil’s Day in the Sun

Groundhog Day. It’s Punxsutawney Phil’s day in the sun. Or not. Depends upon the year.

Anyway, the Philadelphia Inquirer did a small piece about the history of this famous little groundhog from remote northwestern Pennsylvania.

The Past Prognostications of Punxsutawney Phil (Alliterate that.)
The Past Prognostications of Punxsutawney Phil (Alliterate that.)

Credit for the piece goes to Cynthia Greer.

Florida Primary

The Republican primaries…they’re still going on…on the long inevitable road to Romney’s coronation. Next up is Florida, always an interesting state to watch. There are a lot of people there with a whole host of interesting demographic slices. Perhaps one of the most interesting ones, at least to the media, is the Hispanic vote. Other things to look at in Florida include the burst housing bubble and rather high unemployment.

The New York Times published a graphic with a few maps and charts trying to paint the landscape of the Florida primary battle. These two selections below show which Republican primary candidates won which counties in 2008 as well as the size of the Hispanic population registered Republican.

Florida primary landscape
Florida primary landscape

Credit for the piece goes to Haeyoun Park.

Fresh Water Bulge in the Arctic Ocean

The BBC has an article on a discovery of a growing bulge of fresh water in the Arctic Ocean. The top of the article includes a large set of graphics that explains the story below and links to an animation. The animation depicts the growth of the Arctic ice sheet from the pressure beneath and plots the height of the ice.

The fresh water bulge in the Arctic Ocean
The fresh water bulge in the Arctic Ocean

How the Costa Concordia Sank

The Costa Concordia sank nearly a week ago, but the questions of exactly how and why she sank will likely linger for much longer.

The BBC has had extensive coverage of the story, including this page that details what is known about how and why the cruise ship sank.

How She Sank
How She Sank

School’s Out For Ever

While on holiday, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced a sweeping series of school closures and consolidations in an effort to create a smaller and more sustainable school system. As I spent my earlier years of education in the parochial system I had more than a passing interest in the story.

The Philadelphia Inquirer mapped out the changes, a cropping of which is below. As one can easily see, the bulk of the cuts came in the city itself and the suburbs in Montgomery County. The more distant, read wealthier, suburbs fared much better. Chester County, for example had a total of only two closings. Bucks only five.

Cropping of the School Closures in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia
Cropping of the School Closures in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia

Credit for the map goes to John Duchneskie and Cynthia Greer.