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.

New New York

Not quite of the New Earth (and therefore the 15th reincarnation of New York) variety, but, with maps being a key means of defining a city, state, or country, when a map is changed its meaning can also be changed. So, the new MTA map for New York presents some interesting changes summarised in this piece by the New York Times.

current–1998

When you compare the new map to the most recent, a few things stand out. The blue is much brighter—which I think detracts from the purpose of communicating rail routes over land—for starters. Beyond that we see that the boroughs are all larger with the exception of Staten Island. An unfortunate implication is that reducing the prominence of Staten Island on the map will, well reduce the prominence of the island to those who ride the MTA. To be fair, that is likely an acceptable trade-off given what I understand about the demographic, commercial, and cultural scales of importance between Staten Island and the other four boroughs when you factor in the need to display routes and other such transit information.

Another key change is the reduction in the additional information at the bottom of the map. Removing the text—perhaps the bus connection information referenced in the article, but as a non-New Yorker I cannot say for certain—allows one the space to make the boroughs larger. This allows the rail map to be more a map about rails than about bus connections.

All in all, the map appears an improvement. I disagree with some of the colour choice and the drop shadowing of the lines over the map. But for making the map larger and more about being a map, I could live with those changes. On the other hand, I still prefer non-geographic maps for transit maps. And so I shall never quite understand why they dismissed the Vignelli map.

current–1972

Visualising the Olympics

This weekend was pretty busy. We had another earthquake in Latin America—if one includes Haiti as part of Latin America—and the closing of the Olympics. Both have prompted some information graphics that are worth noting and comparing. I am going to leave the New York Times’ explanation of the Chilean earthquake to another post and instead focus here on the Olympics.

I wanted to look at three different visualisations of the Olympics, chiefly centred on the always popular medal count.

First we have CNN, which dedicates an entire special coverage site to the Winter Olympics. The site has the 2.0-esque feel with different boxes providing the user with different types of material: text-based stories, video, access to an interactive map, and a medal count. The map is what first strikes me because of its warning of reds and oranges and yellows. When I clicked to access the map, however, I felt disappointed in what appeared. And then I wonder why I am being warned about the US and Canada.

medal-map

Generally speaking, a lot of the world’s landmass did not participate. And of those that did, not a lot won any medals. The vast emptiness of the grey map does a disservice to those much smaller areas of the world, particularly in northern and eastern Europe, that did win but are difficult to see. And, personally speaking, as a fan of Antarctica, I was disappointed to see they neither contributed athletes nor won any medals.

What does work, however, is the idea of highlighting those nations that competed. Perhaps not everybody knows that not every nation competes. The map could have been better executed or even a more stylised visualisation of percentages of regions that competed. 7 nations on the African continent, by my quick count, did compete, while three or four European countries did not. The point is important to make. The visualisation, however, does not support it as well it could.

The medal count is also quite interesting from CNN. The special coverage site maintains a snapshot of the leader board that links to the Sports Illustrated medal count. From Sports Illustrated, we are provided a simple table-driven display of who won what with little bar charts to highlight the total medal count. By clicking on a country you see the historical details of the country’s performance, again presented as a table with a bar chart for the total medals won in each year. What I find lacking, however is ranking the countries only by total medals. If someone is more interested in the best gold-medal-winning countries, one has to work to find the data.  A simple ability to sort by medal type would be a valuable addition.

medal-count-92

An interesting situation arises, however, when looking at the historical figures. I am no expert on the Olympics. I did not watch any of them this year. Nor have I really watched them in the past. However, I do know that sports are added and subtracted. So, by clicking on Germany, for example, we see six medals won in 1936 versus the 36 in 2002. In 1936, however, I count only 51 medals total. In 2002, I count 234 medals. 12% compared to 15%. It does not seem so drastic an increase when put into context.

The BBC also has its own special coverage of the Olympics and has its own charts and tables to support the medal count. The main table they chose to use is interesting to me because it is particularly dark compared to the white and grey aesthetic of CNN and the New York Times (below). It certainly stands out. However, when I say ‘it’ I am referring not to the medal count but to the horizontal bands of dark greys and blacks. Between the dark colours, the small type for the medals, and the large flags to identify the countries, I find the medal count last. And when I find it difficult to sort by anything other than the default. But the default is not the total medal count as with CNN. Instead, it is the gold medal count. An interesting choice.

medal-count

The chart the BBC provides for total medal winnings is also interesting. You can compare across countries, years, and medals. Some of the interface makes it a bit tricky. For several minutes I was trying to figure out which years were which at the outset only to finally realise that I was looking at all years. Perhaps if even all the years were a light weight and then the year selected made bold it would be easier. Or a more noticeable shift in colour.

And then I started trying to discern between countries and was left with three-letter abbreviations for each country. And I could not. Perhaps my inability to figure out which country was which stems from my being an American. But I do like to think that I am pretty good at identifying countries. I thought if I moused over one of the stacked bars the abbreviation would reveal its true meaning to me. But it did not. And so I am left looking at stacks of medals for countries I cannot identify.

The stacked bars are interesting for they are not ideal in comparing medal counts within each country—but the mouseover state provides the required detail. Switching to the country comparison makes it a tad easier, but one must still filter medal by medal. Then aesthetically I do not care for the polished, faux-three-dimensional appearance. Nor do I think most of the bars need to be as wide as they are.

Overall, I like where the BBC was trying to go with lots of cross-comparing and filtering to break down medal counts and historical performance. However, aesthetically, I find too many elements large, bulky and distracting. From large flags and small type to black–grey bands and thick stacked bars, the interface is a tad too cluttered to really allow what the BBC did to show.

medal-comparison

Lastly, I want to look at the New York Times. Like CNN, the Times has created a map of the medal-winning countries in the Olympics, both current and historical. Unlike CNN’s map, however, the map by the Times is not based strictly on geography and each country is represented by a ‘bubble’ whose size corresponds to the number of medals won. I am not particularly keen on bubbles for displaying values. However, by eliminating those parts of the world not participating, the user can instead focus on the results. And those results, while not on a map, are spatially arranged to indicate their regional groupings. For example, the European countries are grouped together and coloured differently from those in North America. Switching tabs quickly reorganises the bubbles into rows ordered by numbers of medals won irrespective of geography.These are interesting design decisions and while I have reservations about using bubbles, the exact figures are provided as one moves his or her mouse over the bubble.

medal-map

For the medal count, we see another table. The numbers are cleanly presented with small flags to the left—and without the bars of Sports Illustrated. Like both CNN and the BBC, one can dive deeper into a nation’s particular results by clicking on that nation. Yet, the experience of clicking into a nation is much smoother with the Times than with the others. No additional pages load and I am not watching my screen jump about to and fro. Instead, the additional information loads in a panel to the right of my click. It is a quick and clean transition that does not leave my frustrated by jumping browser windows.

medal-list

Yet, the additional information loaded is quite text heavy. And with the exception of the headers for each sport, nothing in particular stands out. Not the sport, not the medal won, not the athlete who won the medal. While the quiet type is aesthetically pleasing, it lacks punch. Instead of reading the words gold, silver or bronze—since we are looking at the medals—perhaps just their icons could be used. Perhaps the athlete is in bold. I would just like something to which my eyes can be drawn in the table.

canada-detail

The New York Times effort is brilliant work. Clean and simple design brings out the information—even if such information is presented in the forms of bubbles and such. Tables are rather clean and easy to read. I think their effort a success. Not perfect, as I find the more detailed table insufficient in terms of visual distinction, but still a success.

All of the efforts are significant and worthy of mention. Each has some flaws and each has some strengths. And admittedly, each is more complex and detailed than I have described and commented upon here. But I have to stop somewhere.