Farewell to the Space Shuttle

As most of us know, the final space shuttle mission lifted off on Friday. Appropriately, the New York Times created an infographic for the news stories accompanying the mission that details the history of the entire shuttle program’s flights. If you are a space-y kind of guy like me, it’s worth a look.


Year of the Tornado

2011 appears to be the year of the tornado, with killer tornados roaming from Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and small towns in the deep South now to Joplin, Missouri. The latter now holds the record for being the most deadly, 117 confirmed deaths, in US-recorded history.

The New York Times, in its coverage of the aftermath—and the potential for more destruction with the forecasted weather—has mapped, charted, and animated data from the National Weather Service (NWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to illustrate the totality of the devastation witnessed this year.

The piece makes use of a map to illustrate where tornados struck and then their subsequent track, relevant geographic data, and that matches that with known fatalities using the always popular area of a circle datapoints. I am less keen on these for their cross-comparable nature, but here, in this instance, that is less the focus than the overall number of deaths and their locations. Then we also have the dataset over time with the noted caveats that, one, only in 2011 are deaths linked to counties rather than tornados as in all years past and, two, that as our ability to detect and record tornados has increased, we have more data with which to work. In short, it is not necessarily true that 1953 had less tornados than 2011.

Screenshot Detailing 2011 Tornados
Screenshot Detailing 2011 Tornados

Given the severity of the current year, and this outbreak in particular, the New York Times also created a smaller, but by no means lesser, piece to highlight just those tornados striking the Southeast. This piece maps the tornados by touchdown, date, and time. Omitted is data on fatalities or damage. However, this piece complements the larger, broader view of the above by breaking down the 2011 year, thus far, into increments of days. This is a great complementary piece that, by being separate from the first piece, allows each to shine in its own respective area.

The Outbreak of 27 April
The Outbreak of 27 April

Credit to this second piece goes to Archie Tse, Matt Ericson, and Alan McLean.

(Insert 1/1000 Airplane Jokes Here)

Airlines merge. (As do many other companies, but those companies are not the focus of this post.) And often the mergers are complex. Lamentably, one cannot simply merge logos and be done. Here is looking at you, UAL Corporation (United Air Lines) + Continental Airlines Inc.= United Continental Holdings Co.—not that I particularly care for the United Continental logo mashup, I miss the Saul Bass logo for United.

Unfortunately there are things to worry about like getting planes to fly, not crash into each other, not to mention ticketing, unions, general technology…one hopefully gets the idea.

But for those of you who do not, an article in the New York Times about the merger of Delta and Northwest includes a graphic about the master guide to the whole process. Note the use of sticky pad paper. Each piece represents one project, with projects containing as many as a thousand separate tasks.

Merger Process Wall
Merger Process Wall

Royal Wedding Genealogy

If you have not heard, somebody in Britain is getting married…and of course that means explorations of royal blood lines and, well, non-royal bloodlines. So the BBC put together a small piece on Kate Middleton’s ancestry. So for those of you with any interest in charting family lines, here you go. The piece has some interactive features, clicking on the folks with little cameras provides a brief bio or story and a photo—though not necessarily of the individual.

Kate Middleton Ancestry
Kate Middleton Ancestry

Credit to the BBC.

iPads on eBay

This post comes to us from eBay via cnet. Ebay does a wonderful thing, it fills in the gaps in the marketplace. If you live in, say, the Netherlands, and want something that is available only in the United States, chances are you might find somebody willing to sell it to you from the US.

Among those things that people want are iPad 2s. So here eBay has put together an infographic about their sales of iPad 2s from US sellers to foreign buyers.

sales of iPad 2s abroad
sales of iPad 2s abroad

I must admit to being a bit underwhelmed here. Maps are great and all, but here this map adds nothing to the story except that I can now identify where Poland is. It’s an island country north of Belgium. Or is that France? Wait, what is this lonely sticker-tag for the United Kingdom out in the Atlantic? The data encoded in the map is already present in the datagraphic, if you look to the bar chart of iPad shapes in the lower left quadrant.

But the bar charts do confuse me, I very rarely like using symbols of things for measuring precise numbers of things when those symbols of things represent a number of things more than just one thing. (And that is about as confused as I feel.) And then on another level, I have to strain for a moment to figure out what these three-letter identifiers are. As it just so happens, there is a standardised set of country abbreviations in both two and three letters. When I see UNK, I immediately think Unknown. And RSS makes me think of RSS feeds. Neither connects me to the United Kingdom or Russia.

In the bottom right is the breakdown of sales by model type. Here, where the treatment is simpler we see more success at clearly communicating the information. Could it be more succinct and a touch better organised, yes. But, in all, this is clear and effective. Ergo, it works.

Interestingly, cnet also posted the previous year’s infographic by eBay for sales of the first iPad.

sales of the iPad abroad
sales of iPads abroad

Very loosely (and quickly), I think it is more successful and tells more data. The data on the map, like this year’s, need not be communicated by a map, that much is true—why are the countries two shades of blue, I have no idea if that encodes data. However, the same data is also duplicated in the chart in the lower left quadrant, but here far more succinctly and far more accurately than by weird symbols of the iPad. Last year’s infographic is missing the breakdown by model type, however, instead of those six datapoints, here we have a timeline of iPad sales that, it is safe to say, references more than six datapoints.

In a sense, eBay took a step backwards in their infographics. A pity, because one imagines that if they have the sales data for time periods, they probably have other sets of data that would make for an interesting and richer piece.

Credit to the designers at eBay and cnet for posting the article.

A (Multiethnic) Apple Falls Not Far From The Tree

One of my interests is genealogy/family history. While everyone is certainly more than the sum of their parts, that sum of parts is the history that led to your existence. And I find that notion fascinating.

When looking around the New York Times, I came across this interactive piece about complicated family histories. I am unaware of the exact impetus behind the project, but it probably has something to do with the unfolding US Census results and the increasing number of mixed marriages and thus genealogies. But I cannot say for certain.

Lou Diamond Phillips Genealogy
Lou Diamond Phillips Genealogy

The design of the piece is an interesting decision. Instead of a complicated and unwieldy diagram with lots of details, the designers chose to focus merely on photographs, when available, and little, coloured leaves to denote the ethnicity of each individual. This works to a degree in communicating simple ethnic ancestries, however, when one begins to have shades of light blue to distinguish between disparate ethnicities, one can begin to see a flaw in the system.

From an interactive perspective, I certainly think one of the more interesting bits is the inclusion, at least here in Lou Diamond Phillips’ tree, is the inclusion of the audio story as recounted by an individual. It brings a level of human connection that is always lost in diagrams. (Although these diagrams do have softer, curvier lines than most ergo they are more human. No?)

As someone interested in genealogy, the details are a bit light—but that was not likely the main intent of the piece. Beyond that, there are privacy issues with which to contend. But, if you wish, the New York Times does allow you to upload your own tree and even audio—to 10 megabytes. Perhaps in the future I shall upload a simple version of mine.

All in all, an interesting piece.

The Candidate Says Tweet Tweet

Yesterday, the New York Times released this interactive piece to look at the popularity of particular candidates in that seemingly ubiquitous world of Twitter. Perhaps it was inevitable that the Times or somebody else would create something like this. Regardless, it is out there and I have to say, I am left confused.

A cropping of the interactive piece.
A cropping of the interactive piece.

No, not by the how it works. I understand that more activity makes for larger bubbles. (Although at this point I shall refrain from my usual diatribe on bubbles.) And if you click on a particular bubble/candidate, the vector and colour of the little bubbles describes the type of activity. Understand? Check.

But why are the bubbles placed where they are on the screen?

Perhaps the rationale is explained somewhere…but I have yet to find it. And after sitting down with a colleague yesterday, the two of us could not quite figure it out. Vaguely one gets the impression of representing actual geography—except for things like Delaware being in the bottom corner. Perhaps the bubbles’ centre points are randomly generated? They do not appear to be on separate loads of the Flash piece.

And so I am left with the thought that the bubbles are a needless distraction and, in fact, lead to greater confusion. What if, for example, the candidates were not bubbles but bars? The bars would create a visual rhythm as they grow and shrink and each could be clickable. One could sort the bars by some sort of a hierarchy: alphabetic, geographic, political, &c. You could even still click on a bar for more detailed views and perhaps do some other neat things.

I am just left scratching my head on this one.

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.

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