Information Design Watch

January 18, 2012, 11:53 am

SOPA Day

By Henry Woodbury

Wikipedia (English) is blacked out.

Wikipedia (English) Blacked Out

Wikipedia is just one of many. Other sites, including Google, are acknowledging the protest.

Kirby Ferguson explains.

Update: This is off-topic for this blog, but it is important to note that free use is not just about the internet. On Wednesday the Supreme Court failed to overturn a 1994 Congressional act that removes thousands of musical texts from the public domain.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Design, Infographics, Social Media, Technology

January 13, 2012, 12:59 pm

The Cost of Research

By Henry Woodbury

As the rumble between intellectual property and free speech advances into the ring drawn by SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act), Michael B. Eisen draws attention to a fight on the undercard. Eisen, professor of molecular and cell biology, critiques The Research Works Act which, in his words:

…would forbid the N.I.H. [National Institutes of Health] to require, as it now does, that its grantees provide copies of the papers they publish in peer-reviewed journals to the library. If the bill passes, to read the results of federally funded research, most Americans would have to buy access to individual articles at a cost of $15 or $30 apiece. In other words, taxpayers who already paid for the research would have to pay again to read the results.

Supporters of the bill include many traditional publishers of medical research (ironically, one of its sponsors, Darrell Issa, Republican of California, is one of SOPA’s most prominent opponents).

Dynamic Diagrams has a long history of working with scientific publishers going back over 15 years. We worked with major journals like Nature and JAMA to bring them fully online; we’ve also worked with research aggregators such as HighWire and Publishing Technology. We’re well aware of the technology and information management demands required just for online presentation, let alone the physical and specialist costs of creating a print publication. Now consider the editorial investment required to guide content to a publishable state (even if, as Eisen points out, peer review is provided voluntarily, often by researchers at publicly-funded institutions). Just for example, at a tactical level, most journals require an access-controlled transactional web space for authors and editors to exchange drafts.

This is not to take sides in the argument, but to draw attention to the real costs associated with managing and presenting electronic information. These should not be disregarded. At Scientific American, the comments section to Michelle Clement’s call for opposing the bill offers some back-and-forth (hopefully Clement won’t follow through on her threat to delete those comments she doesn’t like), including a link to the Association of American Publisher’s competing point of view.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Scholarly Publishing, Technology

October 14, 2011, 3:52 pm

Goodbye to the King of the Invisible

By Henry Woodbury

Dennis Ritchie has died. Ritchie was the Bell Labs Researcher who invented the C programmer language and teamed with colleague Ken Thompson to build Unix. Fellow Bell Labs alumnus Rob Pike described his contribution this way:

“Pretty much everything on the web uses those two things: C and UNIX. The browsers are written in C. The UNIX kernel — that pretty much the entire Internet runs on — is written in C. Web servers are written in C, and if they’re not, they’re written in Java or C++, which are C derivatives, or Python or Ruby, which are implemented in C. And all of the network hardware running these programs I can almost guarantee were written in C.”

Contrasting Ritchie’s passing with that of the iconic Steve Jobs, MIT’s Martin Rinard says:

“Jobs was the king of the visible, and Ritchie is the king of what is largely invisible…. Ritchie built things that technologists were able to use to build core infrastructure that people don’t necessarily see much anymore, but they use everyday.”

Things like the underlying OS of the MacBook Pro I’m using to write this.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Technology

August 3, 2011, 1:09 pm

A New Chart for Financial Indicators

By Henry Woodbury

The financial numbers generated by the U.S. and worldwide economic crisis have informed many charts and graphs but most are rudimentary. I have hoped to pull some into this blog, but haven’t seen any worth discussing as visual explanations.

Here is an exception. Bill McBride’s Calculated Risk blog offers a set of charts built on an elegantly different model. For example (click through for others):

Real Gross Domestic Product: Percent of Previous Peak (Calculated Risk)

McBride explains:

The … graphs are all constructed as a percent of the peak in each indicator. This shows when the indicator has bottomed – and when the indicator has returned to the level of the previous peak. If the indicator is at a new peak, the value is 100%.

The key mental construct is to remember that as positive indicators trend upward they define a new value for 100%. That is why periods of growth are represented as a plateau.

At The Atlantic, where I saw these graphs, Derek Thompson explains the graphs by simile:

The outcome reveals each recession in the last 50 years as a kind of hanging icicle.

The bigger the icicle, the bigger the problem.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Visual Explanation

June 2, 2011, 7:01 pm

Corn and More Corn

By Henry Woodbury

On the day that the USDA unveiled a nonsensical replacement for its hopelessly-compromised food pyramid, it’s important to understand what kinds of foodstuffs the government actually promotes.

Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International has produced this image of what the White House garden would look like “if it were planted to reflect the relative costs of the main crops subsidized by US taxpayers”:

Kitchen Gardeners International White House Garden Comparison

The data is from the Farm Subsidy Database.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Current Events, Diagrams, Information Design, Maps, Visual Explanation

May 10, 2011, 10:31 am

“The Dynamics of Rumor Creation”

By Henry Woodbury

SocialFlow, a Twitter-marketing-optimization company has created a striking visualization on the tweets that broke the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death:

At SocialFlow we analyzed 14.8 million public Tweets, and bitly links, posted between news about an unplanned presidential address (9:46 p.m. EST) and Obama’s address (11:30 p.m. EST) to see how dynamics of rumor creation played out during those critical hours on Twitter. Out of the dominant information flows observed in the data, we focus on the largest flow, engaging tens of thousands of users, validating speculation around Bin Laden’s death.

Keith Urban Tweet Flow

This jellyfish star chart presents a lot of data, but as best as I can guess, there is no coordinate system. It shows us constellations, not distance nor direction. There is no depth to it.

Still, hubs are interesting. Click through to see zoomed views.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Information Design, Maps, Social Media, Visual Explanation

May 9, 2011, 10:40 pm

Feelings Interactive

By Henry Woodbury

Columbia Journalism Review writes about one of The New York Times recent features:

…a new interactive graph on The New York Times website invites readers to plot their reactions to two questions: How much of a turning point in the war on terror will Bin Laden’s death represent? (significant to insignificant), and What is your emotional response? (positive to negative).

The format is useful for commenters because they can easily click a square and answer two questions at once, and it’s useful for the casual reader, who can measure the feelings of the crowd at a glance. When you first visit the page, you can click on any square to see others’ comments or to plot your own—or, you can just watch for a few minutes, as I did, as random comments slowly float up and fade out from the mosaic.

To me the format is far more interesting than the opinions. The format shapes the aggregate results.

Given quadrants, there is bias toward adhering to a quadrant.

Given edges there is bias toward approaching the edges.

Given existing dots, I strongly suspect there is bias toward clumping.

The Death of a Terrorist: A Turning Point?

Now that I’ve looked at this interactive a few times the other thing that interests me is how it would look as an animation. The Columbia Journalism Review article offers a screen shot taken much earlier than the one above. The patterns are already taking shape.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Cognitive Bias, Current Events, Diagrams, Information Design, Social Media, Visual Explanation

April 9, 2011, 9:56 am

Show Me the Seiverts

By Henry Woodbury

The Fukushima nuclear reactor remains in crisis. One informational challenges for media and scientists in this disaster has been explaining the relative risks of the radiation levels. The Sievert, a unit that attempts to measure the biological effect of an absorbed dose of radiation, is measured in micro-quantities for such things as a dental x-ray which is about one-millionth of a dose that is deadly. While a mathematician may easily compare very small and very large number as powers of 10, this is hardly intuitive to the rest of us.

Randall Munroe, at xkcd, has created one of the more comprehensive attempts to show radiation risk by charting doses in blocks and associating them with specific examples. Depending on color each unit represents one of four values from 0.05 microSeiverts (blue) to 1 Seivert (yellow). A large set of examples in one color becomes a small unit of comparison in the next:

Radiation Dose Chart Sample

The chart reads in a clockwise circle; better would be a horizontal left-to-right for both data and key. Still, it is a grand effort that repays close reading.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Diagrams, Information Design, Visual Explanation

March 30, 2011, 10:38 am

Show Me the Zero

By Henry Woodbury

This is not the most complicated chart in the world of information design. But I like it for a very specific reason. I like it because it has a zero. The gray bar is the $1.5 trillion federal budget deficit. The red, blue, and pink bars are proposed spending cuts. I’ve posted a thumbnail next to the full-size chart to allow comparison in one glance.

Budget Impasse, in Perspective (Washington Post) Budget Impasse, in Perspective (Washington Post)

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Information Design

February 23, 2011, 9:24 am

The Mystery Cupcake

By Henry Woodbury

In my post The Mystery Donut, I demonstrated how the problems of showing linear values with areas compound when the relationship of the values to the areas is visually deceptive.

Here’s a counter example. In this Financial Times visualization, the structural deficit for each country is shown by the area of the circle. The areas are proportional. This is much better than the mystery donut, but still a confection.

While the circles offer an attractive set of elements for the designer to arrange, they also preclude easy comparison. The human mind does not easily interpret differences in relative areas. Nor are the circles on a common axis. A bar chart would do the job just fine. A bar chart would also allow two sets of numbers — the structural deficit and the deficit as a percentage of GDP to be graphed in parallel.

I have one more criticism — this one about the copywriting. The line chart at the bottom shows the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio accelerating off the charts. It is not spiraling.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Diagrams, Information Design

February 13, 2011, 6:03 pm

The Mystery Donut

By Henry Woodbury

The donut below shows that 53% agree and 47% disagree.

It is lucky that we have the numbers because visually we have an enigma. Red dominates the shape in which red is the smaller number. How do we interpret this? Let me count the ways.

  1. We could compare the area of the donut (the blue ring) to the area of the hole (the red circle).
  2. We could compare the area of the donut and the hole to the area of the hole.
  3. We could compare the diameters of both cases above.
  4. We could compare the radii.

In every case, we still have to answer the question: What is the whole?

As it turns out, the visually-most-counterintuitive answer is the answer.

The red circle has a radius of 35 pixels. The blue donut is 5 pixels wide, extending the radius to 40 pixels.

Mystery Donut Annotated

Each radius is a bar on an implicit chart (now we see the whole):

Mystery Donut Charted

The donut is meaningless. All we really have are two linear values:

Mystery Donut Bar Chart

Hell, let’s make it a circle again. I’ll turn the donut into a pie:

Mystery Donut Pie

You can find the source for this exercise on The New York Times. This is only the worst of its problems.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Diagrams, Information Design

January 20, 2011, 11:30 am

Orrery Movie

By Henry Woodbury

A recent news release from the Minnesota Planetarium Society has cast doubt on the assumed alignment of the sun with the astrological constellations. Pshaw, say astrologers, our zodiac isn’t affected.

That’s because Western astrology strictly adheres to the tropical zodiac, which is fixed to seasons. The sidereal zodiac, observed in the East, is the one affixed to constellations, and is thus the one that would change.

In any case, this gives me the opportunity to highlight the digital orrery created by our creative director, Piotr Kaczmarek.

Digital Orrery

Within the application you can view the solar system according to the Copernican (sun-centered) or Tychonian (earth-centered) model. You can rotate the system by clicking and dragging on the outer ring, or let it move automatically by adjusting a slider in the top left. As for the zodiac display in the model, let us assume that it is the tropical zodiac, and thus needs no recalibration.

UPDATE (April 23, 2011): With the relaunch of our DynamicDiagrams.com web site we have featured the Orrery on its own page where you can view it as an external Flash file or download a Mac or Windows screensaver. I have updated the links in this post to connect to that page.

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Comments (28) | Filed under: Current Events, Information Design, Visual Explanation

December 14, 2010, 2:02 pm

The Borrowed Brand, or How Not to Create a Logo

By Henry Woodbury

While U.S. political organization No Labels talks up a kind of vague newness, its design contractor quite concretely stole its look from the past. John Del Signore at Gothamist reports:

[The group's] slogan is “No Labels. Not Left. Not Right. Forward.” But considering how closely the group’s logo/design … resembles the work of graphic designer Thomas Porostocky, they might want to change the name to No Copyright.

Porostocky’s work, from his More Party Animals web site, is on the left. The now-expunged No Labels design, produced by Dave Warren, is on the right.

More Party Animals vs. No Labels (courtesy Gothamist)

After some ugly hyperventilating, Warren has apologized. An assistant is to blame. The assistant blames clip-art.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Branding, Current Events, Marketing

November 3, 2010, 8:44 am

A Good Year for Maps

By Henry Woodbury

The 2010 U.S. election generated the usual maps (for example, here at CNN and here at the Wall Street Journal), but the New York Times superb multimedia team offers some extras (as well as their own version of the same). In an animated set of maps titled A Historic Shift, they show shifts in voting patterns from 2010, 2008, and 2006. Here are screen shots which capture all of the actual data provided by the animations and allow easier comparison than The Times’ slideshow format:

Almost all congressional districts voted more Republican in this election than in 2008.

The shift reversed the Obama-driven wave of 2008...

... and reversed the movement towards Democrats in 2006 when the Iraq war was a top issue.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Information Design, Maps, Visual Explanation

October 28, 2010, 9:31 am

Digital Camera Obscura

By Henry Woodbury

You walk into a dark room. As your eyes adjust, you realize that an image of the outside world appears on one wall; it is upside down, but in true color and perspective. The lens is a small hole in the opposite wall. The entire room functions as a pinhole camera that contains you as well.

Using the camera obscura artist Abelardo Morell projects images onto found surfaces then photographs them using a very long exposure. Here is the Brooklyn Bridge, taken from a Manhattan rooftop.

Morell created the shot by setting up a heavy dome-like tent on the top of the building with a periscope poking out of the top. The image projects down to the rooftop surface.

“It involves a huge amount of work to create something my daughter could make in Photoshop in two seconds,” Morell says. Morell is showing work this month at New York City galleries Bryce Wolkowitz and Bonni Benrubi.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Creativity, Current Events

October 14, 2010, 11:44 am

Don’t Tweet the Scoop

By Henry Woodbury

I’m going to link you to a Bill Simmons football column at ESPN. Here we go.

If you’ve never encountered the Bill-Simmons-stream-of-consciousness style of sports writing before, you might wonder where I’m going. Ostensibly the column is about how Simmons accidentally tweeted a trade rumor involving wide receiver Randy Moss. And it is. But it also contains a host of interesting observations about how Twitter affects reporters, how a media company like ESPN responds, and the consequences of that interaction.

How does Twitter affect reporters?

Twitter, which exacerbates the demands of immediacy, blurs the line between reporting and postulating, and forces writers to chase too many bum steers.

How does ESPN handle that fact?

We have a rule at ESPN that all breaking news must be filtered through our news desk (not tweeted). That’s why our reporters (Schefter, Stein, Bucher, whoever) tweet things like, “JUST FILED TO ESPN: Timberwolves sign Frederic Weis to $35 million deal.” Even if I wanted to tweet something like the Moss scoop, technically, I couldn’t do it without flagrantly violating company rules.

What are the consequence?

In the Twitter era, we see writers repeatedly toss out nuggets of information without taking full ownership. It’s my least favorite thing about Twitter (because it’s wishy-washy) and one of my favorite things about Twitter (because nonstop conjecture is so much fun for sports fans)…. Call it “pseudo-reporting”: telling your audience that you think something happened or that you heard something happened, and somehow that sentiment becomes actual news.

The other thing Simmons points out: Don’t direct message and tweet at the same time.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Social Media, Sports, Technology

October 6, 2010, 4:44 pm

Place as Idea

By Tim Roy

For New England readers of Information Design Watch, the Worcester Art Museum has a new exhibit opening on October 9, 2010: Place as Idea.

David Maisel, Terminal Mirage #215-9-4, 2003, Chromogenic print, Gift of Edward Osowski in honor of the photographer and the Eliza S. Paine Fund, 2005.102

Its focus will be on the role place plays in visualizing abstract concepts such as time and memory and will feature works by a series of contemporary artists employing a variety of mediums.  Of particular interest is a collection of pieces in which the traditional bounds of photography are challenged as the canonical record of architectural experience.

I plan to visit the exhibit in the coming weeks and will post images and reactions.  It will be on display through February 13, 2011.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Current Events, Language, User Experience

September 30, 2010, 2:21 pm

Austan Goolsbee’s Magic Ruler

By Henry Woodbury

Economist Austan Goolsbee, speaking for the White House, explains the virtue of the president’s tax plan by misrepresenting lines as areas:

“We got a ruler and measured out the size of the tax cut is how big the circle is…”

Aargh. Whatever the merits (or grammar) of the argument, a line is not a circle. A circle is not a goose egg, a term that Goolsbee uses later in the show. And in colloquial terms a goose egg does not mean huge. It means zero.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Information Design, Visual Explanation

September 21, 2010, 10:34 am

The Simple Power of a Graphic

By Matt DeMeis

Most of us know about the 33 miners trapped underground in Chile. I came across this infographic created by Newsweek about the 3″ diameter bore hole that is keeping them alive.

So simple, but so incredibly powerful. I love this kind of thing. With a line drawing, we are given a true window into the unbelievably claustrophobic situation these men are enduring.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Comics, Creativity, Current Events, Diagrams, Illustration, Infographics, Information Design, Visual Explanation

September 3, 2010, 8:55 pm

Requiem for a Signifier

By Henry Woodbury

Kate Howe designed this logo:

Cordoba Initiative Logo

In an article at The Design Observer Group she laments its invisibility in the face of a larger controversy:

I did my best to pack Cordoba Initiative’s symbol with positive significance, but It has failed to convey the group’s peaceful and progressive message. It has just stood for a Logo that identifies a Real Organization…

Howe writes in elegiac tones with real sincerity. But I think she confuses the design of a logo with the use of a logo. In the design process, finding and portraying meaning is the priority. In practice, identification comes first. One of her commenters, Matt, sums it up this way:

Great reminder that a logo (no matter how good it is) does not import value into an organization. Rather, the organization and its values and practices are reflected in the mark. Designers entrust an empty symbol to their clients and it’s the client who fills it with meaning.

Commenter Mathias Burton cuts to the chase:

Branding is at play in the situation and the logo is not the brand.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Branding, Current Events, Marketing

June 15, 2010, 4:53 pm

Boston UPA Conference Review, part 2

By Kirsten Robinson

Here are summaries of two more presentations from the Boston UPA conference that I really enjoyed.

Racing with the Clock: VERY Rapid Design and Testing

Presenter: Will Schroeder of The MathWorks

Summary: Will’s premise is that in design, as in psychotherapy, the most important part of any hour is the last five minutes. So he sought to eliminate the first 45 minutes (an hour of therapy is only 50 minutes, as you may recall from the old Bob Newhart show). Will described a 2-hour design process that allowed a team of 12 people to create three parallel design concepts, review and iterate on them, and usability test them, with a successful outcome. My favorite quote from Will’s talk was, “Brainstorming is so much fun, I’m surprised it’s still legal.” Another key point was the need for show and tell: “You don’t understand [a design] until you explain it.”

The Power of Focus Groups in Design Research

Presenter: Kay Corry Aubrey of Usability Resources

Summary: Focus groups (essentially, group interviews) can be an effective way to gather qualitative data on perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes. Examples of how focus groups can inform the design process include:

  • Learning about your users’ decision making process, needs, and pain points
  • Determining questions for a survey or content for a card sorting exercise
  • Gathering content and feature requirements

Important elements for a successful focus group include careful planning and recruiting the right participants. A skilled focus group moderator must be able to establish trust, ask good questions, listen actively, remain neutral, and manage group dynamics.

This was an excellent overview or refresher, especially for recruiting and moderating.

More info: Kay’s slides are posted on Slideshare.

Will and Kay both deserve kudos for making their slides readable. You’d think that would be expected for a bunch of usability professionals, but at least half of the presenters had slides that were illegible both in the room and in the conference proceedings.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, PowerPoint, Usability, User Experience

June 11, 2010, 4:18 pm

Boston UPA Conference Review, part 1

By Kirsten Robinson

On Wednesday (June 9) I attended the Boston Usability Professionals Association annual conference. I’ll record a few impressions and share some highlights from the presentations.

First of all, the increasing size of the conference (450 attendees, 32 presentations in 4 simultaneous tracks this year) reflects the astounding growth of the usability profession. These are the people who conduct user research, design and evaluate interfaces to ensure they provide an effective, efficient, and satisfying experience for users. Better user experiences increase productivity, reduce costs, and increase market share for companies and organizations that use and sell technology.

I noticed some interesting trends in conference technology and culture. A few years ago, most conference attendees toted their laptops along to take notes and keep in touch with the office or clients via email. This year, I saw very few laptops — instead, nearly everyone had smartphones and similar mobile devices. I even saw an iPad or two, typically with hangers-on eyeballing the device with jealousy or skepticism.

Twitter was a little less visible this year. Last year, a twitter feed displayed conference-related tweets on a large screen for all to see. Arguments ensued (over Twitter, natch) about whether it was rude to tweet during presentations. This year the twitter feeds were no less active (see #upaboston and #miniupa), but they were not projected. Toward the end of the day, it was fun to see the final tweets about dying batteries in the aforementioned mobile devices. I’m happy to report my rollerball pen made it all the way to 6:00 without needing a recharge.

My favorite presentation of the day was Lynn Cherny’s Mining Your Data: An Easy Intro to a Tough Topic. Lynn discussed and demonstrated several methods for analyzing qualitative data — such as the answers to open-ended survey questions — and turning messy text data into numeric data for further analysis. Tools included:

  • Excel’s convert text to columns feature, pivot tables, and sparkline plug-ins
  • R (open source statistics software) for more sophisticated methods such as cluster analysis
  • Linux command line tools (e.g., grep) for manipulating and exploring text data across multiple files
  • Wordles, Many Eyes, and Concordance software for further text analysis

She inspired me to finally learn to use pivot tables — something I’ve been meaning to do for years. What a time-saver. Contact Lynn at Ghostweather for a copy of her presentation.

Watch this space for more presentation summaries.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Usability, User Experience

June 3, 2010, 11:08 am

Visual Bias at Work

By Henry Woodbury

Last week I blogged about a Harvard Business Review article on the inherent biases in visualization. Visual information makes people overconfident of outcomes.

Today the New York Times offers a perfect example. In the debate around U.S. health care overhaul, the president’s budget director Peter Orszag argued that savings could be found by reforming the current system:

Mr Orszag displayed maps produced by Dartmouth researchers that appeared to show where the waste in the system could be found. Beige meant hospitals and regions that offered good, efficient care; chocolate meant bad and inefficient.

The maps made reform seem relatively easy to many in Congress, some of whom demanded the administration simply trim the money Medicare pays to hospitals and doctors in the brown zones. The administration promised to seriously consider doing just that. [my emphasis]

Unfortunately, the maps don’t show what they seem to show. While they show cost of care (a very specific kind of care it should be noted), they don’t show quality of care. Nor do the maps show anything about the demographics of the patients being cared for.

The Times compares the Dartmouth map (on the left) to Medicare’s own analysis of hospital quality (on the right) to show the disconnect. However, the Medicare map raises questions of its own. To start with, it shows a suspicious correspondence to U.S. population density.

Health Care Cost vs.  Quality (New York Times)

Perhaps quality of care relates to the proposition that higher population density creates demand for more specialists which leads to better diagnoses. I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of this. Before anyone draws another map, let’s work on better analysis.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Cognitive Bias, Current Events, Information Design, Maps, Scholarly Publishing, Visual Explanation

May 25, 2010, 11:38 am

Saint Ginés Wins MUSE Award

By Henry Woodbury

Dynamic Diagrams and the J. Paul Getty Museum have won a  2010 Silver MUSE award for the Getty-produced video Making a Spanish Polychrome Sculpture. Dynamic Diagrams created the 3D animation that opens the video and shows how the XVII century sculpture was assembled. The Getty integrated this animation with live action footage that shows carving and surface treatment techniques. The effectiveness of this combination was noted by many of the judges:

This is a fine example of technology effectively used to clearly demonstrate an intricate artistic process. It’s the combination of the digital imagery with the live footage of an artist that makes this video exciting and fascinating for all kinds of audiences

The MUSE awards are presented annually by the American Association of Museums’ Media and Technology committee. They recognize “institutions or independent producers which use digital media to enhance the museum experience and engage new audiences.” We are proud to work with The Getty on projects of such scope and distinction.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: 3D Modeling, Art, Current Events, Dynamic Diagrams News, Technology, Visual Explanation

May 19, 2010, 12:52 pm

Explore the Display Cabinet

By Henry Woodbury

Augsburg Display Cabinet at The Getty MuseumOne of the masterworks in The Getty Museum’s newly opened European sculpture and decorative arts galleries is the Augsburg Display Cabinet, a lavishly decorated 17th century cabinet that once would have stored a collector’s curios and precious objects.

The cabinet features many panels and doors beyond those opened for display. To give visitors a look inside the cabinet and help them understand the details of its decoration and construction, The Getty asked Dynamic Diagrams to create an interactive 3D model of the artifact.

Working closely with Getty curators and media professionals, we used a comprehensive set of photographs to build the model and apply surface details. We then coded our application to import text and zoomable images from an external source, allowing Getty staff full control over the descriptions and detail views that accompany the model.  

Our application is presented in the gallery on a touchscreen display, as seen at right in this photo from the Daily News of Los Angeles.

The Getty has also placed the application on its web site allowing you to explore the wonders of the Augsburg Cabinet on your own computer.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: 3D Modeling, Art, Current Events, Dynamic Diagrams News, Visual Explanation

May 11, 2010, 10:46 am

Using Twitter to Keep Up With H1N1

By Lisa Agustin

Whenever a new disease emerges, web sites for the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) become the go-to for the latest on epidemiology and the global implications of a given threat. But “informal surveillance sources” like Internet news sites and direct reports from individuals are becoming increasingly important for identifying early outbreaks of diseases, according to a report in the latest issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.  Such is the case with HealthMap (shown above), an interactive disease-tracker created as part of the Journal’s H1N1 Influenza Center.  So far, the site has collected 87,000 reports (both formal and informal) to monitor the spread of the H1N1 virus.  The wealth of data collected through HealthMap enabled researchers to follow the pandemic’s spread both geographically and across a given timeframe, while enabling new areas of investigation.  For example, the report’s authors compared a country’s lag time between identifying suspected and confirmed cases with its 2007 national gross domestic product.  (A side note: Crowdsourcing for the greater good isn’t new; the Ushahidi platform was initially developed to map both formal and informal reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008, and has since been used to monitor federal elections in Mexico, the spread of H1N1, and relief activity in post-earthquake Haiti.)

There are both pros and cons to using informal sources.  In the case of emerging outbreaks, the advantages relate to the speed with which news reports are broadcast (unusual outbreaks receive intense coverage), and the ability of individual health professionals to pick up weak signals of disease transmission across borders.   However, the difficulty in confirming diagnosis “presents challenges for validation, filtering, and public health interpretation.”  Validating individual sources of information will become a bigger issue with the next version of HealthMap.  While the current version uses individual reports from “reliable” sources (e.g., International Society for Disease Surveillance), work is underway to draw from blogs, Twitter, and Facebook.   As the ability to post and share reports from the ground becomes easier, verification processes will need to be more rigorous without compromising the delivery of timely information.  The maps that solve this challenge will become indispensible.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Maps, Technology

April 29, 2010, 8:08 pm

Blame the Messenger

By Henry Woodbury

The New York Times runs a slam on PowerPoint in the guise of a critique of military effectiveness, featuring the diagram below as an example of PowerPoint gone wild:

Afghan Stability / COIN Dynamics

Clearly something is lost in translation here. This is a high-resolution diagram that should be examined in print. First spotlighted in the media by NBC’s Richard Engel, the diagram actually has its fans as an attempt to visualize “how all things in war – from media bias to ethnic/tribal rivalries – are interconnected and must be taken into consideration.” It contains a lot of information and bears close inspection. Apparently it has made its way into PowerPoint but the real problem, according to Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, lies in the opposite direction:

In General McMaster’s view, PowerPoint’s worst offense is not a chart like the spaghetti graphic … but rigid lists of bullet points (in, say, a presentation on a conflict’s causes) that take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces. “If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise,” General McMaster said.

And yet, the litany of complaints about too much PowerPoint parallels the demand, by leadership, for more information. The job of a staff officer is information. We aren’t talking about a PowerPoint problem. We’re talking about an information overload problem. The spaghetti diagram serves notice.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Diagrams, Infographics, PowerPoint

April 28, 2010, 11:21 am

The Examined Life, by the Numbers

By Lisa Agustin

Gary Wolf offers an in-depth look at how number-crunching is no longer confined to the workplace or the realm of geeky habits, but has become mainstream, thanks to technology (think automated sensors and video) and online tools created specifically for the personal tracking of just about everything, including health, mood, productivity, and location.  Why all the self-interest?  According to Wolf, for some it’s a matter of answering a question, measuring changes, or reaching a goal (that last ten pounds!), but it may also be about reclaiming some piece of ourselves from the “cloud”–that vague, global network to which we entrust what is personal (photos, addresses, random thoughts, etc.):

One of the reasons that self-tracking is spreading widely beyond the technical culture that gave birth to it is that we all have at least an inkling of what’s going on out there in the cloud. Our search history, friend networks and status updates allow us to be analyzed by machines in ways we can’t always anticipate or control. It’s natural that we would want to reclaim some of this power: to look outward to the cloud, as well as inward toward the psyche, in our quest to figure ourselves out.

Read the full story to see links to notable tracking projects– or feel free to start your own.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Technology

April 16, 2010, 1:48 pm

Planes or Volcano?

By Lisa Agustin

Looks like another day of closed airports in Europe, due to the all-encompassing ash cloud from the volcano in Iceland.  In the meantime, author David McCandless ponders the question: What’s emitting the most CO2 per day? (If you’re curious about the data sources, you can check them yourself via Google docs).

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Visual Explanation

April 6, 2010, 11:06 am

The Audience-First News

By Henry Woodbury

Turns out that Rupert Murdoch agrees with me about content:

Speaking on the company’s earnings call, he said “Content isn’t just King, it’s the Emperor of all things electronic.”

At the completely unironic  paidContent.org, John Yemma, Editor of The Christian Science Monitor, picks up the theme, and elaborates:

Yes, people want multimedia. They want games, maps, 30 Rock on Hulu, bootlegged first-run movies from Pirate Bay, and whacked-out amateur videos on YouTube and a dozen other sites. But there’s no evidence that they want, for instance, a thoughtful interactive map/video/database mashup on Afghanistan or global warming on which they can comment. There’s no evidence that users love these things so much that they flock to them, stay around, and convert to a news site’s brand because of cool multimedia.

Yemma differs from Murdoch in his lack of love for paywalls. Instead he advances an updated version of the click-through mantra of 00s:

What we’re learning is that the key to building and keeping traffic is far more prosaic than multimedia and sharing buttons. It rests on overcoming a huge cultural barrier: evolving a serious, experienced, thoughtful newsroom into an audience-first organization. I use the term “evolving” because this is all about the present tense. Trying to understand our current and future audience is a work in progress that will continue for as long as we publish on the web.

How far removed from being “audience-first” is your web presence? It’s worth some thought. And see what Yemma says about Sandra Bullock.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Information Design, User Experience

March 19, 2010, 10:38 am

It’s Tournament Time

By Henry Woodbury

The Mens Division I NCAA Basketball Tournament bracket is one of the most iconic images in U.S. sports. Voila:

NCAA Mens Division I Basketball Tournament, 300 Pixels Wide NCAA Mens Division I Basketball Tournament, 150 Pixels Wide NCAA Mens Division I Basketball Tournament, 75 Pixels Wide

So what can an information designer do with this?

Cliff Kuang at Fast Company looked around the web to find out. His selection for “best designed bracket” goes to NBC Sports:

Why? Because it’s a bonafide [sic] infographic–basically a cheat-sheet that allows anyone with only a passing interest in college basketball to sound smart after about five minutes of studying.

The NBC Bracket is here. It’s interactive, but broken. Hey NBC! Fix that absolute positioning.

Update: It’s fixed now.

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Comments (3) | Filed under: Current Events, Diagrams, Information Design, Sports, Web Interface Design

March 16, 2010, 10:08 am

Tufte Crosses the Delaware

By Henry Woodbury

Information design guru Edward Tufte has been called to serve on the Recovery Independent Advisory Board, an advisory panel to the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. No news yet if the Advisory Board gets a board.

The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board was created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to track stimulus funding and help prevent fraud, waste, and mismanagement.

Tufte writes:

I’m doing this because I like accountability and transparency, and I believe in public service. And it is the complete opposite of everything else I do. Maybe I’ll learn something.

I blogged about problems with data presentation at USASpending.gov, one of the Recovery Board’s web sites back in September. The data handling problems identified then by Seth Grimes appear to be fixed, but the 3D pie chart is still in use. Hopefully its days are numbered.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events

December 10, 2009, 12:47 pm

Tim Burton: “Drawing Helps My Mental Process”

By Lisa Agustin

tim-burton-untitled-sketch-1997

While director Tim Burton is perhaps best known for fantastical movies like Edward Scissorhands and his upcoming version of Alice in Wonderland, his creative output is actually quite broad, and includes paintings, photography, sculpture, and writing.  Burton’s body of work is the focus of a new exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art.  Sketchbooks and drawings figure prominently in the show, and represent not a final product as much as a way to explore and share ideas.  Says Burton:

[Drawing] has always been an important part of my life….I haven’t really shown any of this stuff.  I never considered it art or artwork, mainly because it was not meant to be seen, really.  It was all sort of the process I was doing when I was thinking of ideas or helping my own mental process.  All these kinds of things, whether photographs, or little writings, or sketches, for me, are THE most important part of any project.  I mean, because once I’m doing it, like when I have to communicate with people, it’s not easy for me.  So the important work has to be done in these little private projects.

The exhibition runs through April 26, 2010.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Current Events

December 3, 2009, 2:57 pm

Will Better-Looking Money Improve the Economy?

By Lisa Agustin

brixton

With the economic recovery taking longer than expected, is it time for politicians to step aside and give designers a shot at it?  Over the summer, creative strategy consultant Richard Smith sponsored the Dollar ReDe$ign Project, suggesting that rebranding the US Dollar would boost consumer confidence and, as a result, jumpstart the economy. (Check out the winning entry by Kyle R. Thompson.)  But is an image makeover really enough?  After all, it’s less about what the currency looks like and more about what it’s worth.

Better-looking money needs to be part of a well-thought out commerce-based model.  Consider the Brixton Pound out of the UK (pictured above) or the BerkShares, created for the Berkshire region of Massachusetts.  Both are examples of local currencies created to stimulate local economic development.  How it works in a nutshell:  National currency is exchanged for local currency at designated exchange locations.  The consumer can then use the local money at businesses that have agreed to accept it.  Depending on the specific model, there are pre-arranged benefits, like exclusive offers or discounts to users of the local currency.  For example, the BerkShares model has a five-percent discount that is part of the exchange rate (ninety-five cents per BerkShare).  An example of how it works:

One day, you decide to go out for a nice dinner. You go to the bank to purchase BerkShares to spend at a local restaurant. You go in with 95 federal dollars and exchange them for 100 BerkShares. You go to dinner, and the total cost comes to $100. The restaurant accepts BerkShares in full, so you pay entirely in BerkShares. Therefore, you’ve spent 95 federal dollars and received a $100 meal – a five percent discount for you. The owner of the restaurant now has 100 BerkShares. They decide that they need to deposit them for federal dollars and return them to the bank. When they bring them to the bank, the banker deposits the 100 BerkShares you spent on dinner and gives the restaurant $95 federal dollars, the same 95 dollars that you had originally exchanged for BerkShares. The end result? You receive a five percent discount because of the initial exchange, but the same $95 you originally traded for BerkShares all goes to the business where you spent those BerkShares.

Yes, there’s some cool-looking money involved, and yes, it does something for instilling local pride.  But more important, these models demonstrate that design can play a role in solving real problems (like a sluggish economy), and providing tangible benefits to those involved.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Information Design

November 18, 2009, 11:37 am

Geography Awareness Week: November 15-21

By Lisa Agustin

wyoming-map

To kick off this year’s Geography Awareness Week, National Geographic invited all 100 U.S. Senators to draw a map of their home state from memory and to label at least three important places.  Visit the online gallery to see who was up to the challenge (pictured above: map of Wyoming by Sen. Michael Enzi (R)–who knew it was so square?).

For more to do, also check out NG’s My Wonderful World, an online resource for promoting global literacy.  The site includes a number of map-based features, including  Google Earth geo-tours, a blog with a global perspective, and a survey to test your global IQ.

(via Cranston Style)

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Comments (3) | Filed under: Current Events, Maps

November 9, 2009, 11:20 am

Abstract Berlin

By Henry Woodbury

Christoph Niemann has combined history and personal narrative to tell the story of the Berlin Wall, in words and stunningly simple images:

The Berlin Wall was coming down, and I was flabbergasted

Niemann’s iconic images reference specific events and larger ideas. One image shows an East German border guard hurdling barbed wire to escape into the West. Other images remind me of M.C. Escher’s tessellated patterns, reduced to elemental form. Niemann’s underlying theme is the transformation of a city, history as augury and echo.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Current Events, Illustration, Information Design, Visual Explanation

October 15, 2009, 8:23 am

It’s Mysterious in English, Too

By Henry Woodbury

The Wall Street Journal reports that the French are stymied in their attempt to come up with the proper French term for “cloud computing:”

To translate the English term for computing resources that can be accessed on demand on the Internet, a group of French experts had spent 18 months coming up with “informatique en nuage,” which literally means “computing in cloud.”

France’s General Commission of Terminology and Neology — a 17-member group of professors, linguists, scientists and a former ambassador — was gathered in a building overlooking the Louvre to approve the term.

“What? This means nothing to me. I put a ‘cloud’ of milk in my tea!” exclaimed Jean Saint-Geours, a French writer and member of the Terminology Commission.

“Send it back and start again,” ordered Etienne Guyon, a physics professor on the commission.

And so they have.

My brother reports that the Japanese have no such compulsions. By email he writes:

Japanese borrow English terminology with such carefree abandon that at times even I wonder sometimes why they didn’t use the Japanese equivalent. Though there are so many homophones in Japanese that it can be very convenient to have words whose meanings are confined to a specific context. The English “out,” for example, is used widely in sports: an “out” in baseball, a ball that is “out” in tennis, the “out nine” (and “in nine”) of a golf course.

“Cloud computing” in Japanese is “kuroudo konpuutingu”.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Language, Technology

September 8, 2009, 1:02 pm

The Max Baucus Health Care Lobbyist Complex

By Lisa Agustin

The current health care reform debate has presented plenty of opportunities for visual thinkers (and aspiring ones) to clarify the issues and explain possible solutions.  My current favorites have been Dan Roam’s “back of the napkin” series on fixing health care and the flow chart prepared by the office of Congressman John Boehner (R-OH) showing the Democrats’ health care proposal. (Should we assume that the awfulness is on purpose?).

But subtler visualizations grab my attention more for what they imply.  Consider “The Max Baucus Health Care Lobbyist Complex,” which was developed by the Sunlight Foundation, a group whose goal is to “use the power of the Internet to shine a light on the interplay of money, lobbying, influence and government in Washington in ways never before possible.”  The Max Baucus visualization is named for Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), who heads the Senate Finance Committee, which has been singled out by advocates and news organizations as the toughest obstacle for the President’s health care priorities.  The visualization shows the connections from Baucus to five of his staffers-turned-lobbyists to their health care sector clients, which, in some cases, overlap.  Most of the organizations are directly involved in the health care or insurance industries.

baucus-viz-large1

According to the Foundation:

In his many years on the committee, Baucus has amassed a wealth of connections to the health care and insurance industries, often through his ties to former staffers turned lobbyists.  These connections expose how close the many organizations seeking influence on health care reform are to one of the most powerful players in Washington.

Data for the visualization was provided by OpenSecrets.org.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Maps, Visual Explanation

September 4, 2009, 1:12 pm

The Times Goes Google on Us

By Henry Woodbury

I just discovered the New York Times Developer Network.

This resource provides data from The Times to third party developers through content-related APIs:

Our APIs (application programming interfaces) allow you to programmatically access New York Times data for use in your own applications. Our goal is to facilitate a wide range of uses, from custom link lists to complex visualizations. Why just read the news when you can hack it?

Most or all of the APIs respond to a query by returning data in XML or JSON format. Some developers have built custom search engines and topic-specific mashups around this functionality. Others are more interested in the sheer excess of the data — and how it can be visualized.

Artist Jer Thorp is one of the latter. Thorp accesses the Times Article Search API to create visualizations that compare the frequency of key words over time. The image below, for example, compares ’sex’ and ’scandal’ from 1981 – 2008:

NYTimes: Sex & Scandal since 1981

When you zoom in, the visualization reveals branching segments called “org facets”. Thorp writes:

[These are] organizations which were associated with the stories that were found in the keyword search. This is one of the nicest things about the NYTimes API – you can ask for and process all kinds of interesting information past the standard “how many articles?” queries.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Current Events, Information Design, Technology, Visual Explanation, Web Interface Design

August 20, 2009, 2:43 pm

3D Modeling of the Old School

By Henry Woodbury

Big wheel bicycle patented in 1879 by Sylvester Sawyer

This is just one artifact from an exhibit of 18th and 19th century U.S. patent models at Harvard University. The exhibit, Patent Republic, is on the second floor of Harvard’s Science Center and is open weekdays through December 11. Wired.com has an article and slideshow.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: 3D Modeling, Art, Current Events, Prototyping

August 20, 2009, 2:10 pm

Election Day

By Henry Woodbury

Afghan Voting Manual: Your Voice Your Vote

Today is polling day in Afghanistan. One document created to aid the process is Your Vote. Your Voice, a 25-page manual that uses graphic novel techniques to teach “adult learners about  issues, candidates, and appraisal of elected officials’ performance.”

It is printed in Dari and Pashto.

(via Boing Boing)

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Comics, Current Events, Illustration

July 28, 2009, 12:16 pm

“Both stayed close to the mound where the Eagle set down, except for Armstrong’s quick jaunt over to the rim of East Crater to shoot some photos of the outfield.”

By Henry Woodbury

To provide context for the first walks on the moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, NASA provides us with a map of the Sea of Tranquility superimposed over a baseball diamond. The Lunar Module is situated on the pitchers mound with the activity of the astronauts indicated as tan paths. This shows a blob of extensive activity around the module and a number of longer walks by each astronaut.

Apollo 11 Traverse Map on Baseball Diamond

Created by Thomas Schwagmeier from a suggestion by Eric Jones, the map is part of the NASA Apollo 11 Image Library. To really appreciate the details (including a legible key), click through to the full size version.

What looks like the original for the overlay is Schwagmeier’s elegant rendition of the “Traverse Map” — Figure 3-16 from the Apollo 11 Preliminary Science Report. The two maps are shown side-by-side below. As with the baseball overlay, click through to the full size versions to see all the detail.

Apollo 11 Traverse Map by Thomas Schwagmeier Apollo 11 Travers Map, Scientific Report

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Current Events, Infographics, Information Design, Maps, Technology, Visual Explanation

July 3, 2009, 9:39 am

Innovation at Wimbledon

By Henry Woodbury

Britain's Andy Murray serves to Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland under the closed roof on Centre Court, during their match at the Wimbledon tennis championships in London, on June 29. (Kieran Doherty/Reuters)

The most visible innovation is the retractable roof over Centre Court.

But this year’s Wimbledon Championships at the All England Club is also host to several IT innovations, most dramatically a smartphone application that superimposes match data on top of the phone’s video display.

IBM, Wimbledon’s long-term IT partner, developed the “Seer Android” app for the T-Mobile G1 mobile phone:

Pointing a G1 phone at a court, for example, would tell the user the court number, details of the current and previous matches and Twitter comments from experts and players, such as Andy Murray and Roger Federer.

The championship’s first official Twitter feeds are also up and running at @Centre_Court and @Wimbledon.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Current Events, Sports, Technology

April 8, 2009, 11:46 am

Cloud Computing: To Manifesto or not to Manifesto

By Kim Looney

An article on Economist.com, “Clash of the Clouds,” brought to my attention the the recent publishing of a cloud computing manifesto.

What is cloud computing you say? Well, according to the manifesto:

 …cloud computing is really a culmination of many technologies such as grid computing, utility computing, SOA, Web 2.0, and other technologies…”. And it’s key characteristics are “the ability to scale and provision computing power dynamically in a cost efficient way and the ability of the consumer (end user, organization or IT staff) to make the most of that power without having to manage the underlying complexity of the technology.

All that sounds good, and open standards also sound good for the consumer. But what about providers and associated technology businesses? There are some conspicuous absences on the list of supporters for the manifesto. I don’t know much about standards creation or technology policy-making, but I will be watching for developments on how cloud computing finds its place as a staple in computing technology — and not only so I can represent it visually for a client.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Technology

March 24, 2009, 8:24 am

At Least We Know It’s Being Spent Wisely

By Kirsten Robinson

The folks over at PageTutor have come up with a visualization to show what the huge sums of money being bandied about by banks, insurance companies, Bernie Madoff,  and our government actually look like, using stacks, shopping bags, and pallets of $100 bills.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Visual Explanation

March 4, 2009, 1:19 pm

Visual Explanation of the Credit Crisis

By Kim Looney


The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo

For any of you visual thinkers still struggling to understand how this country got into this current financial mess, take a look at Jonathan Jarvis’s narrated video. I didn’t really start to put the pieces together until the bombs appeared, but then I began to get it. Now we need one for corporate bail-outs!

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Current Events, Visual Explanation

January 16, 2009, 10:39 am

Gerrymander Away

By Henry Woodbury

Computers have arguably made the gerrymandering of U.S. Congressional Districts easier and more egregious. They should be able to make the problem go away. That is, if anyone can figure out an algorithm:

…it is surprisingly hard to define, or at least reduce to a set of rules, what a “gerrymandered district” is. Writing a formula for drawing districts requires us to define how funny-looking is too funny looking. And what is funny, anyway?

“The idea is that circles are the best shape for districts,” said George Washington University’s Daniel Ullman, talking about one school of thought. “Unfortunately, they don’t tessellate well.” This was apparently a joke, because the room burst out laughing. For the rest of the afternoon, the word tessellate never failed to produce giggles. (Tessellate means to tile together, as in an M.C. Escher drawing.)

Mathematicians and lawyers are focused on improving the reapportioning process coming up in less than two years. Another use of their analysis is simpler – to find the worst offenders and shame the politicians that put them in place. Is this too funny looking?

Illinois 4th District

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Current Events, Technology, Visual Explanation

December 29, 2008, 3:20 pm

The Year in Pictures

By Henry Woodbury

Almost every newspaper web site has a mesmerizing show.

The New York Times arranges their collection by category. I prefer the chronological order — and startling juxtapositions — of The Boston Globe’s collection (part 2, part 3).

Sports, politics, war, and disaster predominate, but some of my favorite pictures are those of science and nature, such as this photo from The Boston Globe:

The Chinese Shenzhou-7 manned spaceship

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Current Events, Photography, Sports

December 17, 2008, 11:03 am

Rivermap Visualization by Kerr | Noble

By Lisa Agustin

Rivermap

The recently announced breakup of design studio Kerr | Noble prompted me to revisit some of their work, including “Rivermap” from 1999, in which the meandering contours of the River Thames are depicted using the John Banck’s poem from 1783, “A Description of London.”  The map uses the Caslon font, which was designed at the same time that the poem was written.  Lovely.

See the London Design Museum’s site for an interview with the duo, including samples of their work.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Current Events, Information Design, Maps, Visual Explanation

December 15, 2008, 1:56 pm

Manipulating the Historical Web

By Lisa Agustin

Zoetrope web crawler

You may be familiar with the Internet Archive (a.k.a. the WayBackMachine), an Internet library of 85 billion web pages that lets you search for a specific web site (including ones that are now defunct) to see how it looked on a given date in the past.  But while these historical views are interesting, their usefulness is limited since they only provide single, unconnected snapshots frozen in time.  Enter the Zoetrope web crawler, a system created by Advanced Technologies Lab at Adobe Systems.  With Zoetrope, users will be able to manipulate earlier versions of the web and generate visualizations of web data over time.  “Time lenses” can be used in different regions of a page, to see specifically how data in that section has changed over a specific period of time.  These lenses can even be combined to see the interrelation of data sets, enabling the user to explore cause-and-effect hypotheses (see the Zoetrope demo for an example of this).  Intended for the “casual researcher,” it’s easy to see how data junkies could spend hours with this application. Zoetrope’s creators expect to release the application for free next summer.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Technology, Web Interface Design

November 25, 2008, 12:01 pm

MIT Media Lab Announces Center for Future Storytelling

By Lisa Agustin

The traditional approach to storytelling is at risk, thanks to an attention-deficient lifestyle, and the technologies that feed into it, like text messaging and YouTube.  Now the MIT Media Lab has teamed up with Plymouth Rock Studios, a Massachusetts-based movie studio, to create the Center for Future Storytelling as a way to keep the storytelling process alive by revolutionizing it.  According to the MIT press release:

By applying leading-edge technologies to make stories more interactive, improvisational and social, researchers will seek to transform audiences into active participants in the storytelling process, bridging the real and virtual worlds, and allowing everyone to make their own unique stories with user-generated content on the Web. Center research will also focus on ways to revolutionize imaging and display technologies, including developing next-generation cameras and programmable studios, making movie production more versatile and economic.

The Center is expected to leverage technologies pioneered at the Media Lab, like digital systems that understand people at an emotional level, or cameras capable of capturing the intent of the storyteller.  While the movie-making world is expected to benefit directly from the Center’s research, it will be interesting to see how results might innovate the business world and the approaches companies use to tell their own unique stories.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Current Events, Technology

November 20, 2008, 12:55 pm

Ugly is Timeless

By Henry Woodbury

Jason Fried at 37 Signals offers an appreciation of the Drudge Report:

A couple weeks ago on Twitter I said: “I still maintain the Drudge Report is one of the best designed sites on the web. Has been for years. A few people agreed, but most didn’t. Some thought it was a joke. I wasn’t kidding.”

Fried starts with the site’s “staying power:”

Its generic list of links, black and white monospaced font, and ALL CAPS headlines have survived every trend, every fad, every movement, every era, every design do or don’t. It doesn’t look old and it doesn’t look new — it looks Drudge.

Fried touches on design, branding, production, and content. What is the content of Drudge? Headlines and links. Why is that enough?

The more often you hit his site to go somewhere else the more often you’ll return to go somewhere else again. You visit the Drudge Report more because you leave the Drudge Report more.

Lots of food for thought.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Marketing, User Experience, Web Interface Design

November 12, 2008, 2:00 pm

Crisis Metaphors

By Henry Woodbury

To explain the baffling complexity of the current U.S. and global financial crisis, Marketplace Senior Editor Paddy Hirsch has become a man of metaphors.

Here, he explains CDOs (Collaterized Debt Obligations) as a champagne fountain.

Other videos in this series include The credit crisis as Antarctic expedition, and Margin calls and the financial markets decline with girl scout cookies and barbie dolls as collateral.

Also recommended is Michael Lewis’s old-fashioned personality-based history of the CDO crash. As Hirsch demystifies the transactions that fueled the crisis, Michael Lewis tracks down those responsible. His article is simply titled “The End.”

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Visual Explanation

November 7, 2008, 3:44 pm

Best Business Books of 2008 #5: The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures

By Henry Woodbury

The list is by Jon Foro, a books editor at Amazon.com.

The book is by Dan Roam.

Anyone read it?

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Business, Current Events, Visual Explanation

October 20, 2008, 9:20 am

Celebrate National Design Week

By Lisa Agustin

This week is National Design Week at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.  Cast your vote for the People’s Design Award and, if you happen to be in New York City, enjoy free admission to the museum all week.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Design

October 8, 2008, 12:44 pm

Political Word Clouds in Color

By Henry Woodbury

Using the Wordle platform, blogger Ann Althouse created a pair of word clouds from last night’s Barack Obama – John McCain U.S. presidential debate.

McCain’s cloud:

McCain word cloud

Obama’s cloud:

Obama word cloud

Althouse makes a profound point:

The most interesting words — like “Jell-O” and “corpse” — were only said once and stay off of their clouds. I’d like a program that makes a graphic of all the words that only appear once. They’re especially… important.

From a design perspective, what’s important is that word color, font, and placement don’t mean anything. Wordle allows you to choose your own colors and fonts for your word cloud and provides a gallery of placement options (horizontal, vertical, half and half, etc.). You can randomize all settings or reposition the words using current settings until you like the way they look.

Althouse is a law professor, but she has an art background and often blogs on art, photography, and the media. She clearly went for an aesthetic result in these two clouds. The McCain cloud looks like the “blue chill” palette, but I think the Obama cloud uses a custom palette, one designed to be different but complementary. Not that that means anything.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Color, Current Events, Language, Typography

September 5, 2008, 10:16 am

Political Word Clouds

By Henry Woodbury

McCain Word Cloud

Both The New York Times and the Belmont Club blog have a feature today on the frequency of certain words in recent political speeches in the U.S. presidential race. Richard Fernandez at Belmont Club compares Sarah Palin’s Republican Convention speech to John McCain’s while the Times compares Democrats to Republicans with an additional breakdown of key words by politician.

The word count analysis reveals a few surprises, such as the fact that the Democrats were more likely to mention their opponent’s name than the Republicans. But word count analysis lacks context. If an opponent’s name is not mentioned, it may be because the opponent is better known, or referenced in other ways. It is, perhaps, the combination of words that matters, as indicators of key themes and rhetorical style.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Information Design, Language

September 5, 2008, 8:31 am

Google Chrome Comic Overshadows Product?

By Kirsten Robinson

It seems like everyone’s talking about the Google Chrome announcement — yeah, that’s right, the announcement, maybe more so than Chrome itself! In case your network connection has been down the last couple of days, the announcement is in the form of a comic book illustrated by Scott McCLoud, author of Understanding Comics. Here’s a sample:

Google chrome comic original

And, in the “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” department, the spoofers (warning: adult content) weren’t far behind:

Google Chrome comic spoof

Anyway, it’s the first time I’ve read most of a 38-page product announcement in a long time. Although, I would have put the information with broadest appeal first (about the UI) and the developer-focused information last. And a progress indicator (“page 1 of 38″) wouldn’t hurt.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Comics, Current Events, Illustration, Information Design

September 4, 2008, 10:31 am

There Will Be Visualizations

By Lisa Agustin

Arctic Gold Rush Oil MapGiven the impact of rising fuel prices on, well, nearly everything, it’s not a surprise to see some oil-related visualizations cropping up online.

Portfolio magazine offers a starting point, with an interactive map of gas prices around the world. View the spectrum of prices worldwide, or zoom into a given region to see how individual countries rank (good for putting gas-pump gripes into perspective — I’m glad I don’t live in Turkey).

Other visualizations focus on mapping sources of oil.  The Sierra Club’s campaign to discourage new off-shore drilling includes a map of existing leases in the U.S. The map is a good start, but it could be improved by showing the gap between what’s been drilled and what’s leased but remains untouched (68 million acres, according to SC). Science Daily reported on Durham University’s mapping of disputed Arctic territories and who may lay claim to untapped oil resources (see left).  Showing how the Arctic cap might be divided is no easy task, thanks to a combination of international law and geography.  Take Russian claims (in green), for example:

“Russian demands relate to a complex area of law covered by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS). Under that law, any coastal state can claim territory 200 nautical miles (nm) from their shoreline (Exclusive Economic Zone, EEZ) and exploit the natural resources within that zone. Some coastal states have rights that extend beyond EEZ due to their continental shelf,…the part of a country’s landmass that extends into the sea before dropping into the deep ocean. Under UNCLOS, if a state can prove its rights, it can exploit the resources of the sea and the seabed within its territory. Russia claims that its continental shelf extends along a mountain chain running underneath the Arctic, known as the Lomonosov Ridge. Theoretically, if this was the case, Russia might be able to claim a vast area of territory.”

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Current Events, Maps, Visual Explanation

August 25, 2008, 9:55 am

Designing a Better Ballot

By Henry Woodbury

Palm Beach Butterfly Ballot

Debates about voting access often focus on the way votes are tallied: paper vs. electronic; touchscreen vs. optical scan. But a report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law asserts that consistent design and clear instructions are possibly more important than technology:

When it comes to ensuring that votes are accurately recorded and tallied, there is a respectable argument that poor ballot design and confusing instructions have resulted in far more lost votes than software glitches, programming errors, or machine breakdowns. As this report demonstrates, poor ballot design and instructions have caused the loss of tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of votes in nearly every election year.

The report, Better Ballots (PDF), emphatically states the importance of good design — and good design practices, such as usability testing:

Usability testing is the best way to make sure that voters can use the ballot successfully, confident that they actually voted for the candidates and positions they intended to vote for. Usability testing allows election officials to observe individual voters using a ballot — before the electionin order to see where they have problems. This allows election officials to analyze the design and language choices to determine the cause of those problems. They can then redesign and rewrite the ballot to eliminate those problemsbefore the election. Unfortunately, the vast majority of jurisdictions do not conduct usability testing of their ballots before an election. Of course, all ballots will eventually receive a usability teston Election Day. At that point, unfortunately, finding out that a ballot is confusing to voters is most unwelcome news.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Current Events, Information Design, Usability

July 17, 2008, 11:59 am

Wardrobe Infographic of the Week

By Lisa Agustin

Do these pants make me look…like a criminal? They might, if you’re in Flint, MI, where police officers are under orders to arrest anyone whose pants expose underwear and, well, maybe more. (Thanks, CR Blog)

Saggy Pants Infographic

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Comments (3) | Filed under: Current Events, Visual Explanation

July 10, 2008, 9:23 am

“Apparently digitally altered”

By Henry Woodbury

An image that accompanied headlines about Iran’s most recent missile test has been retracted by Agence France-Presse. A fourth missle “[w]as apparently… added in digital retouch to cover a grounded missile that may have failed during the test.”

This raises the question: “Does Iran’s state media use Photoshop?”

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Current Events, Illustration

June 26, 2008, 10:59 am

New York City Waterfalls

By Henry Woodbury

Artist Olafur Eliason’s public art project, New York City Waterfalls, officially opens today.

Waterfall and Brooklyn Bridge

There’s a lengthy write-up on The New York Times City Room blog, while the project’s elegant Flash-based web site provides background information, photos, directions, and this visual explanation (click on “About The Waterfalls” then “How The Waterfalls Work”):

How the Waterfall Works

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Current Events, Design, Visual Explanation

June 17, 2008, 2:38 pm

Because All Politics is Local Politics

By Lisa Agustin

Patchwork Nation US MapIn recent U.S. elections, classifying voter opinion has been reduced to describing a state as “red” (voting Republican) or “blue” (voting Democratic). While this approach gives the final outcome at the state level, it says little about the factors influencing voter decision. The Christian Science Monitor’s Patchwork Nation Project explores what voters care about most during this year’s presidential campaign by slicing the American populace into eleven distinct voter communities (e.g., Monied ‘Burbs vs. Evangelical Epicenters) and examining how each community’s issues may affect residents’ votes. Visitors can follow the campaign in real time through blog posts by local community writers, public messageboards, and an interactive visualization that tracks how many times candidates visited each type of community (a particularly interesting feature when it came to following the Democratic primaries).

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Maps, Visual Explanation

June 4, 2008, 12:37 pm

Olympic Medals: Small is Beautiful

By Lisa Agustin

With the Beijing Olympics just around the corner, the Economist’s Daily Chart presents a different way of considering wins per country. Using the 2004 Athens Olympics as an example, the typical approach is to show the total number of medals won by each country. As one might expect, the bigger “superpower” countries make up the top ten. But slicing the data a different way — in this case, medals per million citizens — puts the Bahamas in first place. It’s an interesting take; an added plus would have been some reference to total populace for each of these smaller countries to put it all in perspective.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Current Events, Sports, Visual Explanation

May 5, 2008, 2:05 pm

Harvard Business Review Discovers “Emerging Science of Visualization”

By Mac McBurney

Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas, the two best-known creators of IBM Research’s Many Eyes, brief business execs on the benefits of collaborative information visualization.

Our research has found that the compelling presentation of data through visualization’s advanced techniques generates a surprising volume of impassioned conversations. Viewers ask questions, make comments, and suggest theories for why there’s a downward trend here or a data cluster there. That level of engagement could foster the kind of grassroots innovation CEOs dream of.

The article is available in the May 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review and for free online (at least for now):

You’ll also find Viégas and Wattenberg in MoMA’s Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition.

Finally, for even more info-vis star-watching, Viégas and two other designers will join John Maeda (an info design rockstar if ever there was one) later this month for IN/VISIBLE: Graphic Data Revealed. From the event’s blurb:

The visual ethics required in information graphics increase the designer’s burden from faithful executor to editorial arbiter. How do design choices affect the integrity of the data being portrayed?

If you see me there, say hello: http://www.aigany.org/events/details/08FD/

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Books and Articles, Business, Current Events, Design, Information Design, Scholarly Publishing, Visual Explanation

May 2, 2008, 10:02 am

A New (Old) Subway Map

By Henry Woodbury

The New York Times City Room blog reports that Men’s Vogue will publish an updated version of Massimo Vignelli’s iconic 1972 subway map:

With its 45- and 90-degree angles and one color per subway line, the 1972 subway map by Massimo Vignelli was divorced from the cityscape, devoid of street or neighborhood names. It was criticized because its water was not blue and its parks were not green. Paul Goldberger called it “a stunningly handsome abstraction” that “bears little relation to the city itself.”

New:

New York City Subway Map by Massimo Vignelli, Revised

Old:

New York City Subway Map by Massimo Vignelli, Original

Part of a continuing series:

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Art, Current Events, Design, Maps, Visual Explanation

March 18, 2008, 9:32 pm

User Experience: Crash Test Version

By Henry Woodbury

One exhibit at the New York Auto show is a car like this:

Crash-tested Ford Taurus

The point is to show off the Ford Taurus’s five star crash rating. What makes this interesting as information design is that it’s literally a) a car crash and b) interactive:

Show goers will be allowed to sit in the post-crash Taurus to see what a crash test dummy sees after a 35-mph meet up with an offset concrete barrier.

It is easy to forget in the online world, but the best user experience is being there.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Information Design, Marketing, User Experience

March 11, 2008, 9:58 pm

MOMA’s Design and the Elastic Mind

By Lisa Agustin

universcaleAt NY’s Museum of Modern Art, the Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition “focuses on designers’ ability to grasp momentous changes in technology, science, and social mores, changes that will demand or reflect major adjustments in human behavior, and convert them into objects and systems that people understand and use.” The online exhibition features 300 examples of design innovation in several categories, among them Thinkering (“productive tinkering”), Super Nature (technologies based on biological systems), and Extreme Visualization, which includes universcale, a Flash site describing the size of objects in the universe using an “infinite yardstick” extending from a femtometer to a light-year.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Creativity, Current Events, Design, User Experience

March 10, 2008, 9:00 am

What Does “Capable” Mean in Redmond?

By Henry Woodbury

Today’s number one most emailed article from the The New York Times home page is about operating systems, of all things. Specifically, it is about users who upgraded to Windows Vista and “got burned.” Users like Mike Nash, a Microsoft Vice President, and Jon Shirley, a Microsoft board member.

These stories come from Microsoft internal emails, acquired in a class action law suit. At the heart of the dispute is disagreement about the meaning of the word “capable.”

Originally Microsoft planned to label Windows XP PCs with sufficient hardware and graphics power to eventually run Vista as “Vista Ready.” To avoid hurting sales of lower-end computers, Microsoft created a new classification, “Vista Capable.” This supposedly “signal[ed] that no promises are made about which version of Vista will actually work.”

An internal Dell report exposes the folly of this idea: “Customers did not understand what ‘Capable’ meant….”

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Technology

December 26, 2007, 2:00 pm

Proton Therapy

By Henry Woodbury

The New York Times explains proton radiation therapy with a superb visual explanation. In addition to describing how the technology works, the visualization tells a second story — why proton therapy is so expensive.

Proton therapy visualization

One thing the Times doesn’t do (at least in the online version) is present the visualization on the same page as the photograph that accompanies the article.

A proton therapy treatment room at at Loma Linda Medical Center

Presented together, both visual explanation and photograph gain in impact. Compare the size of the human figure and nozzle in each image. Then look at the photograph and imagine all the superstructure you do not see.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Visual Explanation

December 19, 2007, 9:34 am

The Visceral Timeline

By Henry Woodbury

The opening credits of The Kingdom race through a century of Saudi Arabian history using a mixture of archival video, photographs, and animated text and diagrams.

The Kingdom Opening Credits

It’s a narrative aimed at setting the stage for the movie. So what’s been left out?

(via GoodExperience)

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Current Events, Visual Explanation

October 16, 2007, 3:53 pm

(T)AXI

By Henry Woodbury

For those interested in logo design, the New York Times City Room blog is offering an extended design revew of the city’s new taxi logo.

New York City Taxi Logo

The first post describes the design process and features the comments of designers Michael Bierut and Michael Rock; additional posts provide additional designer and reader responses. From the second installment, here’s the take of designer Sam Potts:

The central T is obviously a reference to the subway — too obviously if you ask me — but that is strategically a mistake, as the T.L.C. is separate from the M.T.A. Why equate them visually?

To have the “NYC” touch is, to me, poor craftsmanship, especially with such a blocky typeface. Additionally, as this goes whizzing by, clumped-together letters just get clumpier.

Having said that, my first reaction to this was, “There’s a logo for the taxis?” In fact, the logo is a secondary element in the branding of the taxis — I imagine very few notice the logo but everyone knows what the yellow signifies. I’d even say that the Crown Vic is a more powerful brand identifier (in the parlance) than whatever logo they had or adopted.

Both Potts and fellow designer Oscar Bjarnason note the ill-conceived reference to the city subway logo, a legendary brand we have mentioned before.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Branding, Current Events, Design, Marketing

September 5, 2007, 10:21 am

Maps, Labels, Politics

By Henry Woodbury

The disputed territory of KashmirThe Economist‘s Asia section offers a cautionary tale in the drawing of maps:

Almost any cartographic representation of the continent [Asia] is bound to upset some individual reader or government. Alas, we use maps not to portray the world as it ought to be, or even as we would like it to be, but as it is.

Cartographers, like information designers, seek to visualize accurate data. But what if the data is contentious? Read to the end to find the easy way out.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Maps

August 30, 2007, 10:50 am

Dance Notation Bureau Rebounds

By Henry Woodbury

Satyric Festival Song NotationAfter flirting with insolvency in 2005, the Dance Notation Bureau has new funding and a broader mission, including the digitization of its entire collection of “scores, films, videotapes, photographs, programs and posters.”

Students of visual explanation may be familiar with the concept of dance scoring through the works of Edward Tufte. The Dance Notation Bureau uses Labanotation, a particularly specialized system:

Rudolf van Laban, a Hungarian-born choreographer and dance theorist, developed his system of notation in the 1920s. (Systems have existed since the 15th century, but Labanotation and Benesh notation, developed in Britain in the 1950s, are the two types most used today.) Like music notation it uses graphic symbols on a staff. But the extreme complexity and detail needed to represent timing, direction, impulse and dynamics make it the province of very few specialists.

The debate about the usefulness of the visual tool is interesting. Dance notator Sandra Aberkalns contrasts the “nuance and depth” of a score to the “dancer’s interpretation” presented in video or photographs. Some choreographers have doubts:

“The notation is based on an agreed-upon form of moving, which I believe is misleading,” Mark Morris said after his “All Fours” was staged from a score at Ohio State University last year. “It’s nearly impossible to accurately communicate dynamics and phrasing, although I grudgingly admit that it was a far better tool than I had anticipated.”

The Dance Notation Bureau web site is here.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Visual Explanation

August 5, 2007, 5:57 pm

Around the Bases — 500 Times

By Henry Woodbury

I’ve often been critical of New York Times interactive graphics, but this one works for me, a chart of home runs by age for the 22 Major League Baseball players who have hit 500 or more. Hank Aaron’s line in bold red is the default. A mouse rollover on any other line highlights it and identifies the player responsible.

Paths to the Top of the Home Run Charts

For followers of baseball, the most statistically-minded of sports fans, each line on the chart tells a story: the injuries that cut down the output of Mickey Mantle; the lost years of Ted William’s career when he served in WWII; the late start of Mike Schmidt; the early decline of Jimmie Foxx; the extraordinary consistency of Hank Aaron.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Sports, Visual Explanation

August 1, 2007, 2:07 pm

2007 IDEA Awards Announced

By Lisa Agustin

Eclipse 500 Instrument PanelThis year’s International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) show was the latest evidence that design is a discipline that involves more than just aesthetics. Awards were won for service innovation in banking, creating broad corporate and brand strategies, bolstering sustainability via electric cars, and remaking hammers and wrenches in new, better forms. (Shown at left: The instrument panel for the Eclipse 500 jet, whose design team created a user interface that is considered more intuitive, less cluttered, less fatiguing and more motion efficient.) Run by the Industrial Designers Society of America and sponsored by BusinessWeek, the competition boasted a highly international contingent (20 countries total), as well as an increase in the number of student-developed submissions. One particular trend was the rise in environmentally-friendly design, which included some unlikely product categories (green sportscar, anyone?)

A slide show of entrants:
http://images.businessweek.com/ss/07/07/0720_IDEA/index_01.htm

A highlights walkthrough by BW’s Bruce Nussbaum:
http://images.businessweek.com/ss/07/07/0723_idea_awards/index_01.htm

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Design, User Experience

July 24, 2007, 9:59 am

Visualizing Network Dynamics

By Lisa Agustin

Wikipedia Power Struggle

The submissions from this year’s Visualizing Network Dynamics competition (part of the larger NetSci07 meeting) represent an intriguing collection of the different ways to represent the complex structures of dynamic networks. A mix of both movies and still visualizations covering a wide range of subjects, including citation pathways in BioMed Central, ideological alliances on the Supreme Court, and editing patterns on Wikipedia (above), the entrants all set about to map real world networks that are dynamically evolving over time in response to their usage. This year’s winner was Aaron Koblin’s Flight Patterns Movie, an animation of North American flight travel paths based on aircraft data collected by the Federal Aviation Administration. Set to music, this hypnotic visualization offers insights on multiple levels, including the environmental. According to one of the competition’s judges: “In an age of climatic crisis and carbon footprints, the [patterns] are rhetorically powerful as ecological visualizations showing the almost absurd degree of mobility in the USA.”

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Current Events, Information Design, Visual Explanation

July 16, 2007, 11:31 am

All Fundraising is Local

By Henry Woodbury

The New York Times provides an interactive visualization of U.S. presidential campaign fundraising. Click on a candidate to see their activity. Click on a time series at the bottom to watch fundraising over the last six months.

Barack Obama's Campaign Finances

The results are not surprising. Every candidate raises a lot of money in their home state: Hillary Clinton and Rudy Guiliani in New York, Barack Obama in Illinois, Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.

But Mitt Romney does better in Utah than Massachusetts and draws well in Michigan, reflecting, I assume, his religious and family connections. Meanwhile Clinton leads all fundraising across the country, but Obama does significantly better in Denver. Denver?

The visualization does not explain. Designed to fit the narrative of fundraising as horse race, it has no revelatory power. What demographics apply to the numbers? How does local fundraising compare on a per-capita basis? What accounts for high points in the time-series data? Is the spike for most candidates at the end of March an artifact of reporting requirements or something else? You can either backfill your own research or wait for the next feature story.

Update: Some editing, addition of an image, and a full rewrite of the last paragraph on July 19, 2007 at 1:00 pm

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Visual Explanation

May 4, 2007, 9:20 am

Visual Tool at the Gonzales Hearing

By Lisa Agustin

During last month’s hearing on the U.S. Attorneys firing scandal, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales just couldn’t seem to produce the proof needed to convince the Senate Judiciary Committee that the dismissals were anything but politically motivated. In contrast, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) managed to put together some convincing evidence in the form of a chart detailing the protocol for contact between the Bush White House and the Department of Justice.  According to Slate magazine’s Dahlia Lithwick:

One of the finest moments comes when Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of R.I., busts out a big, big chart. Which happens after almost everyone has gone home. The chart compares the Clinton protocol for appropriate contacts between the White House and the DoJ on pending criminal cases with the Bush protocol. According to Whitehouse, the Clinton protocol authorized just four folks at the White House to chat with three folks at Justice. The chart had four boxes talking to three boxes. Out comes the Bush protocol, and now 417 different people at the White House have contacts about pending criminal cases with 30-some people at Justice. You can just see zillions of small boxes nattering back and forth. It seems that just about everyone in the White House, including the guys in the mailroom, had a vote on ongoing criminal matters.

See Senator Whitehouse’s presentation of the chart on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iibnQfK-2ho

Bush Protocol Chart

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Visual Explanation

April 24, 2007, 9:48 am

The Reasoning of “I’m Hot”

By Henry Woodbury

Rob Harvilla in the Village Voice has a brilliant send-up of the breakout rap single “I’m Hot” and pseudo-scientific reasoning all in one music review. Consider this “proof” by Venn chart:

Mims is hot because he’s fly. But it raises the question: Does being hot guarantee one’s being fly? “You ain’t ’cause you not” would seem to clear that up:

Fig. 2. Not.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Visual Explanation

February 7, 2007, 2:28 pm

Web 2.0 at the World Economic Forum

By Lisa Agustin

WEF panelIs Web 2.0 just another tech buzzword or Something Bigger? “The Impact of Web 2.0 and Emerging Social Network Models,” a session at this year’s World Economic Forum, was the latest venue for the ongoing debate. The panel consisted of major players (Microsoft and Nike), those on the cusp of the revolution (YouTube and Flickr), and even a government representative (Commissioner of the Information Society and Media, European Commission, Brussels) who shared insights for what’s next online. Panelists agreed that the next phase of the Web is one that leverages the power of community, even if it’s too early to tell what the business implications of this empowerment may be. Overall, the session didn’t reveal earth-shattering predictions so much as discuss changes that are already underway:

  • Content delivery modes will continue to converge;
  • Delivery of content and advertising will be more closely linked to create a customized, personalized experience;
  • An interactive, participatory user experience will replace the traditional one-way message or broadcast model;
  • Social networks will continue to exert their influence in determining relevant and must-see content;
  • The collective intelligence (“the wisdom of crowds”) will help companies identify new opportunities for products and experiences.

Interestingly, talk of ad revenue and business models led to a brief discussion on what Web 2.0 may mean for useful user metrics in the future. “Page views are dead,” stated Flickr founder Caterina Fake. “On a social networking site, connections, the amount of messages, and time spent on a site is what’s important. But the [overall] measure of usefulness is still to be developed.” Whatever Web 2.0 finally turns out to be, Nike CEO Mark Parker urged that companies and other organizations will be at risk if they don’t “embrace this empowerment and understand what it means.”

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Business, Current Events

January 25, 2007, 12:54 pm

What is in a Name? The New Apple

By Lisa Agustin

Apple logoOn January 9, Apple launched its latest must-have, the iPhone, along with Apple TV, a device for delivering video content downloaded from Apple’s iTunes service to consumers’ television sets. The same day, the company announced a name change from Apple Computer to Apple, signalling a strategic shift that focuses less on personal computers and more on consumer electronics.

The latest issue of Knowledge@Wharton considers the question of whether Apple’s new strategy will succeed, and how well it will do when competing alongside Samsung, Sony, and Microsoft in the quest to dominate the digital living room. Apple’s talent for design will most certainly be a plus in this regard — not only in terms of the cool-looking hardware it’s known for, but also its ability to make technology user-friendly:

Apple’s design skills go beyond new gadgets to encompass softare design. One of Apple’s real design feats was making it easy for consumers to buy music legally wtihout excessive digital rights managment [DRM] software.  [According to Wharton professor Eric Clemons:] “Apple’s iPod and iTunes store are quite tightly coordinated to make theft of content of illicit transfer of content cumbersome.  It’s surprisingly easy for consumers to forget why there are restrictions and where the restrictions came from.”

Ironically, this “tight coordination” may also be a stumbling block for Apple:

…Consumers could eventually chafe at Apple’s attempts to vertically integrate is products–and thereby lock customers in– instead of working with other devices. Vertical integration refers to efforts to own multiple parts of a product chain. For instance, Apple operates its iTunes music sales channel, controls the [DRM] software and sells the devices to play content…It’s unclear whether this vertical strategy will ultimately win out with consumers, who may demand support for multiple standards.

While digital convergence has yet to be achieved, from a consumer’s perspective it will be interesting to see the range of products that are sure to emerge while the battle to rule the digital living room wages on.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Design

January 23, 2007, 6:29 pm

Politically Convenient Misunderstanding

By Mac McBurney

Aircraft noise in your neighborhood could increase by almost 1000 percent! Are you scared yet?

Before: decibels. After: sones.Call it the politics of ear.

Late last year, a map of suburban Philadelphia — using data from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — became a hot topic among citizens and candidates for local office. The map estimates how “noise levels” would change if the FAA approves new flight patterns in the area. Zip Code areas are color-coded on a scale from negative 56% to 925% increase. Not surprisingly, citizens were concerned and politicians made much of the dramatic statistic. What does 925% more noise sound like? Perish the thought!

No one questions the underlying FAA data change in decibels. The issue here is not accuracy, but validity. It turns out that the decibel is not a valid measure of the sensation you or I would call noise. Noisiness is mostly in your head, as much a function of perception as physics.

The student newspaper at Swarthmore College makes the confusion clear:

While the decibel is used to measure the relative difference in power or intensity, the sone is the unit of loudness as perceived by a person with normal hearing. Some people who examined the maps provided by the Delaware County Planning Department erroneously interpreted the projected increase in decibels as equivalent to a linear increase in noise level.

A Swarthmore engineering professor brought the misinterpretation to light a few weeks before election day, but the sensational misinterpretation had already spread far and wide. Plus, “1000 percent” just sounds so much more electable than, well, the truth. When did the map makers finally correct the error? Two days after the county election.

Local parent and partisan Daddy Democrat gives it the sniff test:

Given that [candidate] Tom Gannon had essentially staked his entire re-election bid on his stance on the FAA…he needed that data to be overwhelmingly bad. Rep. Gannon continued to claim that the potential noise increase would be upwards of 1000% — even in the final days before the election. Even though the error had been pointed out weeks before. It just doesn’t get people worked up into sufficient lather if you say that there might be 10-90% increases in noise levels. 90% is not 1000%, even though it may be damned loud.

I don’t want more planes flying over my head. And I expect my representatives to protect our local interests to the fullest extent possible. But I also don’t like flouting the truth about data.

Check out the revised maps on the Delaware County site. If the decibels and sones maps don’t quench your thirst for confusing information design, don’t miss the one called “Percentage Increase/Decrease in Population Already Highly Annoyed by Aircraft Noise.”

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Information Design, Maps, Visual Explanation

December 14, 2006, 3:04 pm

Google Wins Patent for Search Results Interface Design

By Lisa Agustin

Those wishing to emulate the Google search results interface may need to think twice: this week the company won a patent for “the ornamental design for a graphical user interface.”

Interestingly, the patent is specifically a “design” patent, which means it covers only the invention’s appearance, rather than a “utility” patent, which covers the functions an invention performs. From an information design perspective, this notion of patenting a “look and feel” begs the question: when is imitating a design a form of flattery and when is it infringement? It depends, according to Phillip Mann, a Seattle-based patent attorney interviewed by CNET:

Google’s competitors need not worry about falling prey to costly lawsuits yet. That’s because it’s typically not easy for patent holders to win suits against alleged infringers of their designs, Mann said. Generally, the legal standard is that the accused infringer would have to employ a design that is “substantially the same” as the patent holder’s.

While it’s easy to guess why Google pursued protection of its design approach, obtaining a patent seems counter to the notion of what the Web is about– sharing and refining ideas, code, etc..  It will be interesting to see what effect (if any) this new protection has–not just on search engine interfaces, but on approaches to interface design in general.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Design, Web Interface Design

November 8, 2006, 10:49 am

A Pair of U.S. Mid-Term Election Maps

By Henry Woodbury

Here’s CNN’s take on the Virginia Senate Race:

CNN's map of the 2006 Virginia Senate Race

What’s interesting: Color gradation makes it easy to see each candidate’s regional strengths. In effect, since “Other” did not make a showing, the full gradation is from saturated blue (DEM) through white (tie) to saturated red (GOP). The key could be redesigned to demonstrate this.

What’s missing: Names of cities. Ability to compare the separate “Webb Strength” and “Allen Strength” maps in tandem.

Here’s the New York Times take on the House of Representative races, nation-wide:

New York Times map of the 2006 U.S. House of Representatives races

What’s interesting: The geographical map first displayed morphs to present each congressional district as an equal unit. Click on any state to see the district numbers.

What’s missing: Ability to toggle back to a geographical view.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Maps, Visual Explanation

November 1, 2006, 3:15 pm

The One Page Powerpoint of Iraq

By Henry Woodbury

To track the situtation in Iraq, the United States Central Command turns to visual explanation. A slide shown in a recent classified briefing includes a one-dimensional heat map — what the New York Times calls a “color-coded bar chart” — to present an “Index of Civil Conflict”:

Iraq: Indications and Warnings of Civil Conflict

Befitting the news angle, reporter Michael R. Gordon focuses on the indicators that inform the index. From an information design angle, the most interesting part of the graphic is the gray arrow labeled “Last Week.” All it would take to create a two-dimensional line chart out of this graphic is to add a time axis and fill in the historical data.  To create a truly multivariate information graphic, the indicators could be indexed to the map, assuming a coherent algorithm for doing so exists. Of course all that information is classified.

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/01/world/middleeast/01military.html (free registration required)

Update: On my first go, above, I missed an obvious extra variable that should be integrated into the index: geography. Where a time series would illuminate trends, a heat chart overlaid on the map of the country would identify trouble spots. Add in the geographic location of the indicators and you could start seeing holes in the data.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Visual Explanation

October 31, 2006, 2:07 pm

Computer Culture

By Henry Woodbury

Computers may still be binary calculating machines, but their social impact is profound. According to a New York Times report on the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board “2016″ symposium, computers have become so integrated into scientific and popular culture as to drive qualitative changes in how people interact — and how social scientiest can study them:

The new social-and-technology networks that can be studied include e-mail patterns, buying recommendations on commercial Web sites like Amazon, messages and postings on community sites like MySpace and Facebook, and the diffusion of news, opinions, fads, urban myths, products and services over the Internet. Why do some online communities thrive, while others decline and perish? What forces or characteristics determine success? Can they be captured in a computing algorithm?

Don’t miss the “a Web Site as a Living Organism” diagram linked to the article. The format is a fairly typical node map, but adroit display of multiple properties of each node makes for an engaging graphic.

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/31/science/31essa.html (free registration required)

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Current Events, Technology, Visual Explanation

October 4, 2006, 3:53 pm

Visual History

By Henry Woodbury

The Maps of War Web site currently features an animated map of the Middle East that asks and answers the question “Who has conquered the Middle East over the course of world events? See 5,000 years of history in 90 seconds…”

Roman Empire replacing Greek and Macedonian Empire

In its final sequence, the entire history is replayed in very fast time with the cities of Jerusalem and Baghdad as anchor points. The replay evokes a theme: impermanence, instability, an unknown future.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Current Events, Maps, Visual Explanation

September 11, 2006, 3:48 pm

Wikipedia Will Not Restrict Content

By Henry Woodbury

The Chinese government has blocked access to Wikipedia since last October. Founder Jimmy Wales has declared that Wikipedia will not compromise its standards and called for other Internet companies to follow suit:

Wales said censorship was ‘antithetical to the philosophy of Wikipedia. We occupy a position in the culture that I wish Google would take up, which is that we stand for the freedom for information, and for us to compromise I think would send very much the wrong signal: that there’s no one left on the planet who’s willing to say “You know what? We’re not going to give up.”‘

Good for Wales.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Technology

August 21, 2006, 9:59 am

Politics Plays on YouTube

By Henry Woodbury

Digital video and a place to publish it means political gaffes don’t fade away. Instead, they show up on YouTube for endless replay. In addition to capturing the unscripted errors of politicians, partisans can piece together candidate quips with other images and post their own mini-biopics — supportive or not.

The debate among political analysts is whether Internet video will make public figures even more preprogrammed, or whether it will encourage them to loosen up, show their personalities, and communicate more directly.

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January 13, 2006, 10:23 am

Is it Illegal to Annoy on the Internet?

By d/D

News.com correspondent Declan McCullagh has caused a stir among bloggers and free speech advocates with his report of a new U.S. law that makes it a crime to “annoy” other individuals via an anonymous email or Web post:

“Buried deep in the new law is Sec. 113, an innocuously titled bit called ‘Preventing Cyberstalking.’ It rewrites existing telephone harassment law to prohibit anyone from using the Internet ‘without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy.’”

McCullagh worries that the law “could imperil much of Usenet” and be used against whistle blowers.

http://news.com.com/Create+an+e-annoyance%2C+go+to+jail/2010-1028_3-6022491.html?tag=newsmap

Looking to the legal experts, opinion is divided. Professor Orin Kerr asserts that the law is actually just an extension of a long-standing ban on telephone harassment, which takes constitutional speech protection as a given. What is affected is not speech laws, but the definition of “telecommunications device:”

“Now I suppose you can criticize Congress for being lazy. They haven’t rewritten the old 1934 statute in light of the modern First Amendment, and that has resulted in a criminal statute that looks much broader than it actually is.”

http://www.volokh.com/archives/archive_2006_01_08-2006_01_14.shtml#1136873535

However, First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh points out that extending old laws to new technologies can have unexpected consequences:

“How is this different from traditional telephone harassment law? The trouble is that the change extends traditional telephone harassment law from a basically one-to-one medium (phone calls) to include a one-to-many medium (Web sites). This is a big change.”

http://volokh.com/archives/archive_2006_01_08-2006_01_14.shtml#1136923654

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August 11, 2005, 12:42 pm

One Spammer Down…

By d/D

Joint lawsuits filed by Microsoft and New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer have resulted in a $7 million settlement from a business responsible for more than 38 spam million messages a year. Score at least this one for Microsoft:

“We have now proven that we can take one of the most profitable spammers in the world and separate him from his money.” Brad Smith, Microsoft chief counsel

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/4137352.stm

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Technology

May 11, 2005, 1:26 pm

Election Maps, BBC Version

By d/D

The BBC visualizes the recent parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom with this interactive map:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/vote2005/flash_map/html/map05.stm

One elegant feature of this tool is its ability to pan and zoom to a constituency by name as well as geography. What it lacks is a separate layer for indexing the results to demographic data or past results.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Maps, Visual Explanation

November 10, 2004, 3:08 pm

Election Wrap

By d/D

Following up on our link to Professor Sam Wang’s U.S. Electoral College map in our October 13 issue, here is a set of interesting post-election maps. Created by Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman of the University of Michigan, each geographical map of state or county results is paired with a map that is distorted to reflect population:

“…on such a map, the state of Rhode Island, with its 1.1 million inhabitants, would appear about twice the size of Wyoming, which has half a million, even though Wyoming has 60 times the acreage of Rhode Island.”

http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/

One map that Gastner, Shalizi and Newman manipulate is Princeton Unversity Professor Robert Vanderbei’s “purple” map that shows the full continuum of percentage-based results. The patterns that result indicate interesting correlations between geography and demographics as well as a more complex view of the vote:

http://www.princeton.edu/%7Ervdb/JAVA/election2004/

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Maps, Visual Explanation

October 13, 2004, 3:18 pm

Wikipedia Publishes One Millionth Article

By d/D

In a press release, The Wikimedia foundation announces the publication of the one millionth article in its free, open-content, online encyclopedia.

“Wikipedia is created entirely by volunteers who contribute, update, and revise articles in a collaborative process…. Contributors build upon each other’s changes and flawed edits are quickly repaired. ‘Everything is peer-reviewed in real time,’ said [Wikipedia founder Jimmy] Wales.”

http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/PR-1mil-US

The English version of Wikipedia is at:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events

October 10, 2004, 3:26 pm

Political Geography

By d/D

In recognition of the upcoming U.S. Presidential election, we link to the Electoral College map on Princeton University Professor Sam Wang’s Electoral College Meta-Analysis Web site. The map resizes each U.S. state to correspond to its share of electoral votes; it is arguably “truer” to its data than geographically-based projections. The map is also interactive; individual states can be assigned to one of the two candidates (or neither) to show different possible electoral outcomes.

http://synapse.princeton.edu/~sam/pollcalc.html#EVmap (click on static map to see interactive map in a popup window)

The University of Virginia Library offers a collection of more traditional electoral maps (1860 to 1996):

http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/collections/stats/elections/maps/

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Maps, Visual Explanation

August 11, 2004, 3:41 pm

“Do not touch the blue E!”

By d/D

For the first time since beating out Netscape, Internet Explorer is losing marketshare:

“No one is forecasting the demise of Internet Explorer, but the most recent data from WebSideStory show that of visits to Web sites the firm tracks, the number made using Explorer declined 1.3 percent from early June to mid-July. At the same time, use of other browsers – Firefox and Opera in particular – rose.”

The key impetus for ordinary users to seek out a different browser appears to be dissatisfaction with pop-up advertisements. Download speed and security concerns also play a role.

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/12/technology/circuits/12brow.html (free registration required)

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Technology