The future is in our hands

… quite literally, argues former Apple designer Bret Victor in this remarkable and highly recommended post on interaction design.

“Hands do two things,” he writes. “They are two utterly amazing things, and you rely on them every moment of the day, and most Future Interaction Concepts completely ignore both of them. Hands feel things, and hands manipulate things.”

(Emphasis in original) Our hands are finely tuned tools that allow us to feel, shift, grab and shape our surroundings. Swipes and taps on a screen don’t begin to capture the range of actions our hands are capable of, and thus fall short of being truly revolutionary ways to interact with devices. So, take a look at Victor’s post, which isn’t just incredibly smart but also very engaging.

The future of interactive design, or not?

If you’re ready to get your mind blown some more, also check out this article on making text more interactive, also by Victor. Because why shouldn’t we give readers the option to test our assumptions, manipulate and dig into stories on the fly? Especially in political reporting, this could be incredibly useful, allowing readers to test different outcomes and strategies. The best part: This isn’t some crazy vision of the future. This is already possible, we just have to start doing it.

Interactive movie “spotlights” census data

The census is important, but also, let’s face it, it can be pretty dull. That’s why this interactive movie from Australia’s government is so fascinating. Using data from the 2006 census, it builds a narrative around the user, showing how you compare to the rest of Australia.

Even as a non-Aussie, I had fun playing the interactive (It’s called “Spotlight”). It asks where you live and where you’re from – turns out 4.09 percent of Australians also have two German parents. The game is whimsical and uses comparisons to put numbers into perspective. It’s a different approach from the usual census reporting, which often relies heavily on maps. This interactive focuses on the user, not the geography.

via Flowing Data, where a commenter also points out that Australia isn’t quite as small as they make it out to be.

Links of the Day: Telling the story of Middle East revolutions

The popular uprisings across the Middle East pose many challenges to news organizations. Obviously, there’s the challenge of getting and verifying information when regimes are actively hindering journalists’ work. Luckily and incredibly, people across the Middle East are posting to Twitter, Youtube and Facebook, producing a flow of information that requires other decisions from journalists.

Besides that, there is the challenge of presentation: How can we keep readers who may not be familiar with the distinct features of each country or the geography of the region interested this ongoing story, while also telling multiple parallel developments at the same time? Here, online presentations offer an opportunity to bundle a wealth of information and tell it in a way that satisfies both the casual observer and the involved reader.

Mapping the youth

A map is an obvious choice for presentation. The Guardian has created an interactive map of a key component in unrest across the region: the high percentage of people under 30, and the high unemployment rate among them, often despite a good education. A key factor is the map’s simplicity: The team picked only two variables (age and unemployment rate) for each country. Links to country-specific articles give further information, again focused on those two areas.

arab youth map

The Guardian's map on young populations across North Africa and the Arab world.

The Guardian also created a map of Twitter updates from the region.

Following the developments

The New York Times produced a very thorough presentation. Their “country by country look” includes a summary, map, latest Tweets and links to recent Times coverage. While including all this information, the presentation is very clean and immediately leads a user to the information. I like the additional feature of local time shown on a clock – something unusual that offers another connection to the protests.

NYT Egypt overview

The Egypt section of the New York Times' overview page.

Now, both the New York Times and the Guardian are large organizations and have resources dedicated to interactive storytelling. How can smaller newsrooms solve this issue?

Take inspiration from Al Jazeera. While also a large organization and undoubtedly a leader in coverage of the uprisings, Al Jazeera has packaged its content in a way that smaller media could implement as well.

Al Jazeera country logos

Al Jazeera created graphic logos for each country covered, both a navigation and a storytelling tool.

For example, its “Region in Turmoil” page offers a map and short summaries of country-specific developments, with links to coverage of the individual uprisings. In terms of graphics and page building, that approach is easy to duplicate.

Another smart move: Creating logos for the individual revolutions (see picture). “Lybia Uprising” and “Eye on Algeria” are such picture logos. Those pictures serve as navigation tools, but headlines as well. Egypts, for example, was changed to “Egypt: The Revolution” after Mubarak was overthrown. The images used as background give the user additional information about the state of events in each country, all at just a quick glance.

What other noteworthy presentations of Middle Eastern coverage have you seen?

Update, 3/11: The Washington Post’s Cory Haik explains how the Post build their interactive map, and Mark Luckie collected additional country-by-country features for the Post’s new innovations tumblog.

Links of the Day: Interactive Stories done right

Two interactive stories caught my attention this week. Both tackle a complex issue (poverty and mismanagement of public funds, respectively). The interactive presentation, however, makes those big topics tangible. Users can explore the connections between public officials and developers, or try to stay afloat for one month faced with the stresses of unemployment.


This interactive game was developed by Durham, NC, -based advertising agency McKinney in collaboration with the Urban Ministries of Durham. “Titled ‘Spent,’ the interactive choose-your-own-adventure simulation takes users through a month of making financial decisions while trying to not go broke or ask a friend for help. I didn’t make it through the month – can you?,” asked Tracy Boyer of Innovative Interactivity.


A screenshot from the "Spent" simulation. The user is faced with decisions that aren't easy.

The game approach works very well here. It is fun to play at the beginning, but I quickly realized the tough choices many Americans face, backed up by statistics shown throughout. Clicking “I can’t do this” takes the user to a screen asking to get involved or donate to the Urban Ministries of Durham, a way to turn interactivity into action.

Web of Deals

Heather Billings, journalism grad student at Arizona State University, recommended this piece on her Twitter feed.
[blackbirdpie url="!/hbillings/status/40873360762077184"]

“Web of Deals” is a project compiled over 16 months by (Oregon) Statesman Journal reporter Tracy Loew, who “pored through hundreds of documents to make the connections that formed the basis of this story and online project,” according to the site. I love how the Statesman Journal took this classic investigative piece – mismanagement at the Willamette Educational Service District – and told it in powerful online formats.

Check out the “web of connections,” for example. The wheel rearranges to center around the person/ entity a user selects. A control panel at the top lets you isolate personal, professional and business connections, and on the bottom right panel, you can view documents related to your search.

web of connections

The "web of connections" lets users explore links between figures and entities.

The power of interactive storytelling lies in givins users control of their experience. These two examples also make large amounts of information accessible. According to a McKinney employee, users spend an average of eight minutes on the site (via Innovative Interactivity). I’m going to venture to say that they may not have spent that much time reading a 2,000 word story about poverty in North Carolina.

I like that the Statesman Journal put the documents Loew used online through document cloud, about which I’ve written before. The interactive presentation of people connected with educational services in Willamette shows visually how widespread and intertwined the network is.

More on the mobile on the rise, and what that means for interactive journalists

Mobile Internet use via smartphones and tablet computers is on the rise, and it’s challenging news organizations and journalists to think anew about how they can best reach and engage their audience (see my post from Thursday here).

More proof of that comes from a recent study Morgan Stanley analysts, who predict that mobile Internet use will outgrow desktop use by 2015. Other finds include increasing popularity of “cloud computing” and social web.

Journalists and designers, therefore, have to pay increasing attention to designing their content for use on mobile devices. There, touchscreen interfaces dominate compared to the mouse-led ones on desktops and laptops. Especially for interactive elements, that poses a challenge. In choosing what to learn, aspiring interactive journalists now don’t just have to worry about the whole Flash vs. HTML5 debate, but also about how their newly designed graphics will translate to mobile devices.

To that end, Jeremy Rue has written a great post on the skirmish between Flash and HTML5, posing the question: “What should journalists learn next?”

Not such an easy question, the UC Berkely j-school teacher says.

I’m not really sure how to teach HTML5 to journalists. This is because HTML5 is not what everyone thinks it is. All of the cool stuff that HTML5 can do is really being done by a programming language called JavaScript.

Teaching that to a not mathematically inclined person (i.e. 99 percent of journos) is a challenge. Help, he says, comes in the form of jQuery, a JavaScript library that makes writing the code a bit easier. A group of people are already working on adapting that framework for mobile devices. Considering the trend, that’s good news.

Hat tip to Medill prof Matt Mansfield, who not only celebrated World Statistics Day with me but also alerted me to Rue’s post.

Links of the Day: Two wonderful interactives

The UK government just finished its spending review, announcing steep budget cuts over the next years. In the Guardian infographic, you can set your own cuts and see how they compare to the proposed ones.

Comprehensive spending review: you make the cuts

A great feature on climate change comes from the Council on Foreign Relations. In its Global Governance Monitor, the Council presents a wealth of information on climate change and climate policy – from international bodies and agreements to how the science evolved over the last century.

Global Governance Monitor