Making the Complicated Clear: Interactive Graphics Make Data Visual

Bringing data to life online need not require technically-savvy Web designers. With some easy-to-use free tools, journalists can build interactive graphics for use online, making the complex easier to grasp. Get examples and sources to “do it yourself.”

It’s never been easy to report on climate change or many other environmental topics, for that matter. The issues are not only complicated, they’re often invisible. But journalists have to make them understandable to a general audience. When words and pictures just aren’t enough, consider what graphics can do to make complexity clear especially online.

Simple graphics like maps, charts, and timelines make data visual so it’s easy to digest. That’s true in every medium but online graphics have several advantages. Because online graphics can be interactive, they give users an opportunity to explore the data, not just look at it. Online graphics can also convey much more data than graphics in print or on the air, so users can delve more deeply into a topic.

Take the Las Vegas Sun‘s reporting on water use in the region, a five-part newspaper series that includes online video, background, and links to additional resources. One additional feature is an interactive map showing what parts of the valley used the most residential water. Users can search the entire database to see water use for a specific address and compare their own use with their neighbors.

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As part of a project entitled “Powering a Nation,” student journalists at the University of North Carolina developed two interactive graphics showing how shorelines change in a warming world. A sliding timeline combined with a stylized map allows users to scroll from 1980 to the present to see the how much land has been lost in Manhattan and Newtok, Alaska. The graphic also includes projections into the future.

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The Orlando Sentinel looked at impacts of sea level and severe weather in Florida in a special package, “Rising Seas,” that included several interactive graphics. Users could see how storm intensity had changed over time by clicking on different hurricane categories. A separate animation lets users compare current and predicted sea level in the context of a specific beach profile so they can view the erosion that could occur if the forecasts are right.

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To bring home the impact of last year’s devastating floods in Pakistan, the BBC created “How Big Really?” — a site that lets users see the area affected by the flooding overlaid on a map of their own region. Plugging in a Chicago zip code, for example, shows the flooded area would have stretched from Canada to Arkansas.

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Britain’s Guardian newspaper created an interactive bubble chart showing worldwide emissions of CO2 in 2008. Each bubble represents a country, showing its total emissions, percent change in carbon emissions, and worldwide ranking. Users can see details for each country by clicking on the bubbles.

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MSNBC is one of many news organizations that created an interactive map of last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. MSNBC combined its map with a timeline, letting users drag a slider or play an animation to see how far and fast the oil spread after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Either way, the spread of the spill and the length of time it took to contain were easy to see.

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Bringing data to life online doesn’t always require a staff of technically-savvy Web designers. Thanks to some easy-to-use free tools, almost anyone can build interactive graphics for use online. They may not be as slick as the examples above, but they can still make complex information easier for online users to grasp.

The Chronicle, a small newspaper in Lewis County, Washington, used Dipity to create an interactive timeline about the history of flooding in the region. Dipity is a free tool that makes it simple to add text, images, video and links to a timeline, which can then be embedded on any Web page. Users can choose dates to explore in more detail. Dipity requires users to register, but the basic site is free to use and there’s nothing to download.

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Dozens of sites allow users to create basic maps, including Google Docs, Batchgeo and UMapper. All of them are free and simple to use. A more sophisticated tool, Many Eyes from IBM, can be used to create interactive maps, graphs, other visualizations that are easily embedded into a Web page. You can upload your own data by creating a free account or work with one of the thousands of data sets already available on the site. Of course, it’s critically important for media to verify the validity of the data is before using any of it.

Below is just one example of what Many Eyes can do. This stack graph shows the total fish catch in the North Atlantic from 1950 to 2008 based on data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Users can view all countries or only those that interest them — in this case, Finland, Iceland and Norway.

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Explore more interactive graphics at Interactive Narratives, hosted by the Online News Association, Flowing Data, or the Guardian‘s Data Blog to see how they can help make complex issues clear. Then test out one of the do-it-yourself sites, where you’ll find that building simple interactive graphics from environmental data is easier than you may think. And lots of fun too, while better serving your audiences.

Deborah Potter is a veteran journalist who covered the environment for CBS News and CNN. She now runs NewsLab, and trains journalists worldwide. She is co-author of Advancing the Story: Broadcast Journalism in a Multimedia World and a featured columnist for American Journalism Review.

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5 Responses to Making the Complicated Clear: Interactive Graphics Make Data Visual

  1. Bob Jacobson says:

    A superb article in the spirit of Yale’s own Edward Tufte, author of Envisioning Information and similar masterpieces of graphic representation of reality. The availability of new media intelligently deployed creates the possibility of many new dimensions to representation and meaning. The opportunities for improved human understanding of our and the Earth’s predicament — for really feeling the situation — are challenging and inviting.

  2. Joe Witte says:

    Great article about visualization. How Big is very useful,
    Especially since Americans know so little about the rest of the world. Thanks for gathering all the examples.
    Joe Witte
    NASA and GMU 4C

  3. Harvey Stone says:

    This is excellent! Thank you! I appreciate your gathering these resources and publishing them. It will greatly help to make conceptual material more real.

  4. Karen McKee says:

    Excellent information about applications that both science communicators and scientists should be using to create better, interactive graphics to illustrate their research.

  5. Integrated graphic data helps shorten the time in detecting and correctly identifying critical events. Thanks for the great article.