the kdmcinfo weblog

Where's the data? Thoughts on NPR's population visualization.

If you haven't watched NPR's video on population growth, you should. This motion graphic does a good job of explaining the conditions propelling population growth in easy-to-understand terms.

The visualization is a balance of images, audio and text. The editing is crisp and well paced. Visually it's stunning. Maggie Starbard's cinematography is terrific. Color is used well. Imagery is bright where it displays data and muted where it doesn't.

In many ways it's a model of how to illustrate a concept with video.

Yet I couldn't help but sense that something was missing. Then I realized that it was the data.

The past decade has seen an explosion of data. Journalists have learned to create searchable databases, interactive visualizations and complex maps — or we hired people who could. And that has changed readers' expectations, mine included.

We expect to interact with the content. An interactive exploration of the data in the video would have made NPR's coverage more complete.

So when should data be interactive? Good visualization addresses one or more of these questions:

Does it help explain how a story or an event matters to me?

Will my life or my living change? Will I have to or want to move? Will my area be overcrowded?

Does it prompt outrage or social change?

Who makes up the richest one percent in society? Where are the disparities? Who is most affected? How do my taxes figure into all that? The Brookings Institution provides a good example.

Does it creates a sense of wonder?

Very few of us will fly in space but most of us can visualize how our planets orbit the sun. There is wonder in data. This NY Times piece on Mariano Rivera by Shan Carter is a great example of how data can be wonderful.

Does it entertain?

It takes a special mind to see data as entertainment. But play and experimentation are important parts of the learning process. They frequently comprise the core of a successful interactive data visualization. Example: Budget puzzle: You fix the budget

Would access to the data help you?