I'm Brian, your current tumblr. My friends call me moneyries.
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Last month we published a package of stories marking the fortieth anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. It had a few moving parts but I’ll just go over some of them briefly here.
How it started
This summer you probably heard the story about the last abortion clinic in Mississippi that was threatened to close due to stricter state laws. Allison Yarrow, who sat across from me at the time, was covering the story and it got us thinking: the line “The Last Abortion Clinic in Mississippi” is attention grabbing, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. That is to say, what you really want to know is how far are people away from their nearest clinic, regardless of state boundaries. One state may have five clinics but if they’re all in the southwest corner of the state and you live in the northeast corner, and your adjoining states have multiple clinics but only at their borders farthest from you, then you’ll have a hard time getting to a clinic, even if you had many in your state. To see where this might be the case and where access to services was compounded by new restrictive provisions (over 150 nationally in the past two years) we made as close to a comprehensive database as possible of every abortion clinic. Our goal was to see what parts of the country were farthest from a clinic. From start to finish, this process took about six months.
Curious about “the process”? Read on.
Our last Wednesday Workshop focused, in part, on ways to get readers more involved in our stories. When news of last week’s awful shooting reached us, we wanted to open up discussion on the role of guns in America. On our Tumblr we asked readers how the shooting should be covered and many requested we steer clear of the politics and instead opt for a genuine discussion on gun control.
Gun control is a complicated issue in this country and nuanced issues can be at odds with the tools of data visualization. That is to say, data visualization and data reporting are often marked by being extremely comprehensive and boiling that comprehensiveness into one easily understandable image, graph, or layout. Doing anything comprehensive on an issue as complex as guns in our society, on deadline no less, would be tricky, and we’re not ones to put data out there that’s misleading or inconclusive.
But the other tool of digital journalism is being able to present a great deal of information in one place, which does work for a nuanced subject. We wanted to engage our readers to tell the story of guns in America in a way that showed the issue’s complexity. We posed the question as “Why do you own a gun?” or “Why don’t you own a gun?” On our site we, we set up two forms that let readers easily complete the sentence “I own a gun because…” or “I don’t own a gun because…” and displayed their responses for readers to sift through.
It’s like the digital equivalent of Man on the Street reporting, where you go and ask people on the street their opinions on an issue in the news and write up their quotes in an article. Let’s call this a Man on the Internet story, or to be gender neutral, Person on the Internet (Internet Vox Pop maybe? I’m open to suggestions).
We published the article Monday evening and less than 24 hours later we have over 900 responses — over 500 from gun owners and over 400 from non-gun owners. We have some thoughts on how the two sides explain their position but, for now, we’ll let you read through and absorb it on your own.
We’re collecting and categorizing the responses, so look for that article on the Beast later in the week.
Under the hood
We used a customized Google Form to handle the response collections. This is a nice tutorial on how to embed Google Forms into your site with custom styles and functionality.
We’ve used custom Google Forms before, on our other shooting project actually, for a newsapp that lets readers put in their address and it finds news accounts of multiple-victim shootings near them. A Google Form then asks what they remember about the incident and collects their responses in a spreadsheet. We published some of the most moving responses that I think is worth a read.
For this project, though, I was running into trouble putting in two custom forms on one page. Since I only had a day to build this, I ended up sequestering the two forms to separate HTMl pages and iframe-ing them into my main page. This was nice because it ensured the two forms didn’t interfere with each other and since the pages were all on the same domain, I didn’t have any cross-origin issues and didn’t loose any functionaity — when you submit one form, that action bubbles up to it the parent frame and grays out the other form.
I originally wanted to do something more animated similar to this seminal piece of crowdsourced dataviz from 2008. I like how its animation gives the project energy but it comes at the cost of not being able to scroll through the responses on your own. After some thinking, I couldn’t figure out a way to have both a sit-back-and-let-the-responses-flow experience and a I-want-to-dive-into-these-responses-and-scroll-through-them-all experience. The latter is obviously the more useful for the reader, so I went with that. The election interactive is also a bit different from this since most of the emotions on each line are of the same category, so it’s not really hiding anything by not letting you scroll. For our project, each response brings its own nuance to the debate so you don’t want to hide any of them. If you have any thoughts on how to improve the presentation, I’m at @mhkeller.
Brian had the great idea that we let this conversation be medium agnostic. So in the story dek we let people know they can continue the conversation on Twitter with the hashtags #IOwnAGunBecause or #IDontOwnAGunBecause. I built some hooks into our Underscore.js templates that let us add selected tweets to our spreadsheet and display them with a Twitter icon and a link to the original tweet. That way we could pull in interesting responses from elsewhere and flag them as such. You can look at the formatHelpers object in app.js to see how it checks for content in the Twitter column and adds the image and link if it finds something.
As I’ve written, I’m a big fan of Miso’s Dataset.js, and that’s what we’re using here to pull the responses in from our Google Form Spreadsheet. Contrary to my previous post, this app does work off of a live Google Doc. I know, blasphemous. For a few workflow reasons we weren’t able to have a script download our spreadsheets and put them on a server like we did for HavingTroubleVoting.com where we had both rate-limiting and privacy issues.
That being said, we have been very closely monitoring the app to make sure it doesn’t get rate-limited and it’s been fine so far. I have a few lines commented out in the code that point to where we’d put a local CSV of the responses, so if the app went down, it would be back up in a minute or so. We also made sure not to ask for any identifying information so we had no privacy concerns. Now that we have close to a thousand responses, though, we might switch to local files so that the page loads faster. If we could have set it up to download automatically, however, that would have been our first choice.
One thing I added yesterday evening after we started getting a lot of comments was a way to filter by state. A lot of content can be overwhelming, so the more options you can give readers to drill down to a subset that might be more relevant to them, the more manageable the experience is and hopefully more engaging and memorable.
A defining characteristic of this election cycle was Super PACs and the hundreds of millions of dollars outside groups were spending to influence races. Now that it’s all over, we wanted to see which outside groups spent their money on succssful races and which did not. The result was our interactive Not-So-Super PACs: 2012’s Winners and Losers.
Super PACs abounded this cycle. So instead of trying to document and display all of them, we focused the narrative on how well the biggest spenders and their donors fared. To execute it, we used Center for Responsive Politics anaylsis of FEC data to find how much each PAC had spent so far in each race and then manually went through and coded each race whether the outcome was in line with or against the PAC’s interest. Then we added everything up.
This idea went through a few iterations before settling on what you see above. For a while, we’ve been wanting to use a tower graphic template - one of those vertical scroll layouts with a sticky table of contents - that I built a couple of months ago but it never seems to work out. This time, after thinking about all of the detail we wanted to display we thought bigger.
If you’re trying to visualize money flows, Sankey lines are a go-to. ProPublica did a great one showing overlapping Super PAC expenditures and you see them as flat graphics too. They show direcionality and volume = great for money.
Getting the right data
Money was flowing from donors to PACs and then to races, so we used the JSON structure that D3 lays out for its network layouts (and Sankey) visualizations. You have a list of nodes (People and PACs) and a list of node to node links (X person gave $Y to Z PAC). We were working collaboratively in Google Docs so were able to do some formulas that would print out or data structure in JSON as we were editing the document. Very handy in case you need to correct any numbers or name spellings.
Here’s a link to the interactive version (yes, it’s in the “failures” folder). As you can see, there were too many races to fit on the screen and the dollar amounts in some races were so high that they dwarfed everything else. So showing each race in the Sankey was out.
This led to Sankey Idea #2.
We connected photos of the donors to the PACs, showed the percentage of succesful funds, and then put the races in a table down below. The photos were very useful because you can quickly understand that money is coming from a person and going somewhere. If we just had text, I think, without photos, it would be less clear and have less of a personality. Someone remarked that the lines almost form bodies and arms that reach out to touch Super PACs. It’s interesting to see visualized data combined with photography work out to tell a story like that.
Under the hood
We used Raphael to draw the lines, which was an improvement from D3 since we do indeed support Internet Explorer 8. We tweaked Al Shaw’s Sankey line from Tom Counsell’s Sankey library to make them span vertically instead of left to right. Here’s a jsFiddle of the code to draw the line.
The table uses Isotope.js for its animated sorting, which is snazzy but I also think does help make tabular data more understandable. Instead of clicking on a column header and everything resorts in a flash, you can see how dramatically different rows vary from view to view. It’s also nice because you can do filtering. So without much code you have a filterable, sortable table. It also saves a step of turning the object data into arrays for sorting. I’ve been wanting to add those ascending / descending arrows for a while to our tables so this was a good time for that.
This table will probably become our first stand-alone NewsBeast Labs plugin since we’ve been using it pretty frequently. That’s pretty cool because five months ago we didn’t have any interactive news code and now we’ve done enough projects that we can see what’s worked, what functionality we like and can wrap it all up into something more robust and reusable, which will make our future development that much faster.
Come peak behind the curtain.
Lil’ TNR sneak peek, eh Dirk? Looking good!
Columbia Journalism Review’s July/August cover pays tribute to Newsweek’s 1970 “Women in Revolt” cover.
82 Cover Ideas in 7 Days. Just another week at Newsweek. 1 week and 4 stories to generate covers from: Europe on Fire, Mitt Romney & Mormonism, OBL’s Dr. Betrayed and the Digital 100 Power Index. Along with our own sketches and ideas, we enlisted 6 other agencies/illustrators to churn out some ideas: Dress Code, Timothy Goodman, Ben Wiseman, R. Kikuo Johnson, ILOVEDUST and Carl De Torres. In the end? 82 Cover ideas. Go ahead. Count ‘em.
Huge ups to Art Director Lindsay Ballant who carried most the weight!
Our creative director just published what might be our favorite Newsweek-related post of all time. Gimme this on a poster. Stat! (Related: Follow Dirk’s tumblr!)
We really liked these designs. Great job!
Should we post them?!
Illustrator Jim Stoten drew up ‘Beatles Land’ for our special Beatles issue. It’s like a Where’s Waldo for fans of the Fab Four. WE LOVE IT. How many Beatles songs can you find? By our count, there are 34—from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” to “Dig A Pony.” [View high-res, where you can also see the answers on the right-hand side.]
[ed: This is even more awesome in the commemorative iPad issue, that’s available in the iPad Newsstand, its natural habitat, which is all clicky and digital and full of audio bits of the songs.]
Our website is looking AWESOME today.