Wanted: an interactive explanimation

The one thing that has always fascinated me most about online media – first as a journalist, now as a researcher – is the evolution of new, digital genres. Interactive infographics are one example, explanimations an other. The last term is a contraction from animation and explanation and is used for… well, animations that explain something. The concept has been around for a while (think about the Did You Know video’s) but it was not before I saw a presentation by In60Second, a Dutch company that specializes in explanimations, that I came to think about it as a genre. For me the archetype explanimaton is The Crisis of Credit Visualized by Jonathan Jarvis, but there are much more examples. I kind of collect them, so be sure to post your own favorites in the comments.

The thing I like about explanimations is their persuasive power. They often use voice over, music and sound effects to grab your attention. Their strong pace keeps you involved. At the same time, that’s also their disadvantage: they are classic, linear stories that don’t let you dig deeper to understand better. That, of course, is one of the main characteristics of interactive explanations like this older example about Dutch biofuel plant Ecoson or this recent one about the pros and cons of a school reform in Germany.

The holy adage of the infographic community reads “Show, don’t tell”, I know. But sometimes I wonder if it is possible to have the best of both worlds: the engaging power of explanimations, and the in-depth features offered by interactivity. So if you know a nice example, please let me know!

BONUS: an explanimation that doesn’t explain anything at all except the creativity of the designers:

From the skin to the bone

It’s like the equivalent of Google Earth for the human physique: The Body Browser. Google Labs now offers the possibility to explore a female body in 3 dimensions. A very nice illustration of the power of interactivity: you can peel back all layers from the skin to the bone. It’s also a powerful showcase for WebGL, a technology that allows 3D rendering in the browser without the need for plugins. To try the Body Browser you need one of the latest builds of Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Or you can just watch this video for a first impression.

Cool stuff from the lab

It may sound like some obscure location where the US military conducts experiments but the DoD Lab actually is a very interesting Dutch website about open data, visualization, and journalism. It offers a extensive list of links to Dutch and international data sources and showcases some nice examples of Dutch infographics you won’t find on other English blogs. But international work is featured as well, like this interactive by The New York Times that puts the spotlight on some products that really come out of the Lab of that other DoD: the Department of Defense.

The New York Times adores sliders

A month ago I wrote about the visual coverage of the US midterm elections by the New York Times. In this fascinating presentation, graphics editor Amanda Cox – AKA the Queen of InfoVis – explains some of the reasoning behind these and other Times interactives. She may be not an overwhelming speaker as Hans Rosling but here story is at least as interesting. There’s a lot of absorbing stuff in the 55 minute video, but my favorite quote starts around 11’17” when she is talking about this interactive map:

We sort of adore sliders. I think sliders are the best user interface element ever in terms of a journalist. Because there’s this kind of cheap way of having a story in it. There’s a beginning and a middle and an end to the slider, so there’s this narrative structure.

Catching up with the story

Having been very busy with teaching and trying to finish the first chapter of my dissertation, I’ve neglected this blog for a while. So it’s time for some catching up. And although you’ve probably seen it on all the other blogs about visualization, the trailer of The Joy of Stats should not be missing here. In this BBC documentary Hans Rosling once again will demonstrate his enormous enthusiasm about the revealing powers of visualized statistics. According to some critics the slick, minority report-like visuals are a poor and unnecessary substitute for Roslings original TED-talks, the snippet shows again that the real power of interactivity and visualization is revealed in combination with a strong narration.

Slick sites with sad stories

Two impressive map mashups were released this week. The Magnum Foundation unveiled a website for its Emergency Fund. It showcases the work of photographers who document social issues worldwide. The site is not quite finished. A lot of information is ‘forthcoming’ and the interface – an interactive worldmap – sometimes seems to acts on its own. But the stories that are already online definitely are worth a visit.

Products of Slavery also features a clickable worldmap. The site contains a visual inventory of more than 122 products that are produced in over 58 countries using child or forced labor. The same data is also accessible in an interactive graph and can be ordered by country or by product. Clicking on a product reveals more information and links to more sources. Just like on the Magnum site, the slick interface reveals rather sad stories.

Mandatory reading

I really wish I could have attended the workshop on Telling Stories with Data that was part of this years VisWeek. But Salt Lake City is a long way from Amsterdam when you have to pay for your own ticket. Fortunately FlowingData offers a rich summary of its content, including a list of issues that need further attention by both researchers and designers of interactive data stories:

  • reconciling the open-ended nature of interactive visualizations with the fixed paths of traditional storytelling
  • identifying specific interaction techniques in visualization systems that assist with storytelling
  • applying methods from film and other time-based media to visualization design
  • identifying potential characters, events, and plot in a dataset and revealing them to an audience

The post is recommended for everyone who is interested in a combination of datavisualization and interactive storytelling. For the students that participate in the tutorial on datajournalism that started last friday, it’s mandatory.

Election day: a feast of interactivity

From a European perspective the midterm elections held today in the United States are a feast of democracy. Voters elect new members for the House of Representatives and the Senate and all kinds of local representatives. Furthermore they are able to give their opinion on several ballot measures, initiatives, and propositions.

Election day is also a feast of interactivity. As always The New York Times is leading, with interactive election maps for the House and Senate, a visualization of political tweets and an overview of states where Tea Party candidates are running.

But of course others show their best too. Good visualizes how the political climate has changed over time while Forbes concentrates on billionaires’ favorite politicians. Pressure groups also have discovered the power of infographics. Oil Change International reveals how energy companies attempt to suspend the California Global Warming Act by funding Proposition 23. A nice example of the power of zoom, except for the counterintuitive slider. Less interactive but much funnier is this explanimation that promotes the legalization and taxing of cannabis in that same state:

Revealing answers instead of data

Last week I wrote about interactive modalities (clicking, hovering, dragging, etc.) and their functions. Probably the most important function of interactivity in infographics is hiding or revealing information, especially in case of multidimensional data.

But hiding information can also detach data from meaning as Kaiser Fung clearly demonstrates in Detached in time and space, a blogpost about a donut chart by Reuters on corporate sentiment in Asia. Fung also has some noteworthy suggestions to improve the graphic:

A better way to organize the chart is to start with the types of questions that the reader is likely to want to answer. Clicking on each question (say, compare ratings across industries within a country) would reveal one of the above collections of charts.

In short: try to reveal answers instead of data.

The powers of zoom

One part of my thesis is about the anatomy of an interactive infographic. Obviously the most important feature of an interactive is the way it enables users to manipulate the visualization. Using interactive modalities like typing, clicking and dragging they can hide, reveal, add or filter information.

Or they can zoom. In 1968 Ray and Charles Eames enlightened the world with a brilliant short film that first zooms out to the edges of the universe and then zooms back in to the inside of an atom. Cary and Michael Huang did something similar in an interactive that gives you the opportunity to zoom the universe. The University of Utah used the same idea (and a much more talented designer) on this great site about genetics.