Saturday, December 20, 2008

Words, Data and the Big Story

I've been doing a fair amount of pondering and research about how data can be utilized in different ways to better communicate. There's this vast amount of information available to us in the world. And yet, it's largely "unreadable" to most everyone. My neighbor has long been fascinated by the visualization of data or concepts. Thanks to him I'm adding books with bulky titles to my reading list.

For my part, I'm mostly interested in the story-end of this data. Let's imagine that you could store tons of data in one central warehouse--population size, export numbers, health and wellness statistics, earnings for employees at non-profits, whatever. And as a media maker, you could draw out this data and use different, set mapping tools to communicate it. For example, check out this site. You've probably seen **maps like this before that can easily demonstrate different world trends, like the world map according to population size, or land mass. But imagine if you can plumb different information stats to demonstrate something else. In honor of Christmas time, check out these two maps:

The first one is a map where territory size shows the proportion of worldwide net exports of toys (in USD) that come from that territory. (**net exports are exports, minus imports. When importas are larger than exports the territory is not shown.) And as you might have guessed on your own, the second map is where territory size represents the proportion of worldwide net import of toys (in USD) from that territory. Starts you thinking, right? The maps on their own tell a story. But let's say you want to go one further and create an even more elaborate narrative for these numbers--perhaps with a (gasp) agenda...

This video comes from the very talented crew at Good Magazine. They take the concepts from the maps above, and blow them out into a specific story about Christmas consumption, and the implication behind the places from which we get our goods. They don't exactly tell you what to think about the amount of Christmas imports from China--but they invite the viewer to be conscious that there's a story behind these numbers. You decide what that story means to you.

I don't claim to be any kind of numbers whiz; statistics...what are those? But as someone interested in telling stories about how our world is shaped--numbers, stats, data are all fundamental to my process. And I see it as a responsibility of media makers to help transform that "unreadable" data, into something intelligible and interesting for the larger audience. I'm trying to imagine right now how to train people who are not professionals to use the data to buoy their own storytelling purposes. If you've seen any interesting visualizations of data out there, please send them my way!

And as an extra bonus for you readers who held on during my hiatus, here's a pretty amazing video using words to tell a story:

More Life 101 videos at

**I found that mapping tool while listening to a presentation given at the TED conference by the head of PRI (Public Radio International), one of the big distributors of public radio programming. The presentation noted the skew of news reporting in the U.S.. The visualization of the data was fundamental in her telling the story that Americans are highly uninformed about international news. Take a look here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Things I like, a list

As the holidays approach, those in the U.S. (and some places around the world) are hunkering down to pour over their family and friends' Christmas lists, Hanukkah lists (Kwanzaa lists?) to pick out "just the right thing." Gift giving isn't as central to the holidays here in México. Most families with grown children don't exchange trinkets at all. And kids, kids can expect one or two minor things under the tree (if there is a tree) on Christmas Eve, at the most. The season seems to be more about meals shared with loved ones, decorating your house, and LONG vacations from work for government employees. It's a refreshing perspective.

So I've got my own suggestion for those of you still tied to your Lists this year. Rather than share with you a slieu of the things that cry out from my greedy shopper bones, I will make you a list of things I enjoy instead. I encourage you all to participate in this kind of list making in 2008 in lieu of a catalog of things you'd like to consume (sorry, waning economy--I don't think a retail surge will save you at this point.)

1. Potato chips doubled over on themselves.
Have you seen this? You reach into the bag and find that most chips are in the shape of disks, or triangles, perhaps. There will be the lone renegade in the handful that got folded over itself pre-frying. These chips are more delicious. It's true. The fold creates a perfect pocket with which to hold spices, salt, or dip (if you're dipping). And I love them! When I pull one out of a bag, it makes me happy.

2. An afternoon shower.
I, like most, take my showers in the morning because they revive me for a day filled with work. But on the rare occasion that my schedule permits me sit around in pajamas in my home office (which happens more now than before), I get to take an afternoon shower. When a shower isn't wasted on a half-conscious brain, nor rushed through whilst preparing to go out for the evening--it's somehow more fun.

I know, an evening shower's just not as fun, is it?

3. The window seat on an airplane.
I prefer a view to leg room. I say this knowing that I'm 5'2", so it's easier for me to enjoy. But I'll wager that there are some tall window seat lovers out there! For me, it's more than merely the view. It's also that the window seat affords me the opportunity to rest my head somewhere when needing to sleep; my own personal space, if only on one side; and distance from the drink cart knocking my elbow. Having a window seat on the plane is like hunkering down into your own little rabbit warren for the duration of the flight. (This also applies to the window seat on the N/R/Q trains on the subway in NY.)

4. A crumbly top.
Any pastry that involves a crumbly top is scrumptious. Eating a cinnamon/butter/brown sugar crumbly top with my blueberry pie the other day made me think, "Why don't we just put crumbly tops on everything? It is so good." And why don't we? I'm trying to figure out if a crumbly top perched on a Turkey Club Sandwich would be gross. I think not. Given the right salty ingredients, I think it could only enhance my experience. So, food inventors, get to it!

5. The feel of my sheets in the morning.
Right as I wake up in the morning, the nerve endings on my skin are kind of prickly. It makes everything I touch feel more of whatever it is. Thus, my lovely soft sheets (thanks, Mom!) feel that much more comfortable and smooth. I peddle my feet around the foot of the bed, moving between the warm spot left by my body heat, and the cooler pockets that went untouched throughout the night. It feels awesome, don't you think? And sometimes, it invites me to spend another 15 minutes supine, semi-conscious.

6. This open source map by Ben Fry.

It's so cool!

I kind of like to imagine what it would be like if every house in America had kids and parents gathering around the tree not sharing gifts, but lists with information about each other. I mean, you can't run out of this stuff. With more years, you just discover more things you enjoy in the world, right? And then your family, on top of knowing something about you, would also be a kind of Things-You-Love guardian. You know? Like they would then be on the lookout for those moments you love. They'd reach into a potato chip bag and just instinctively pass you the ones that are doubled over. It would be great!

So what's on your list?

**and for those still tied to buying something this winter, here are some great ideas for how to do that conscientiously.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Published Sound

A quick update to let you all know that I've just posted a series of my radio pieces to the Public Radio Exchange site. You can listen to some of my past work, from audio tour stops, to feature documentaries there. My most recent update is the series "Llegando de los Pueblos" (Arriving from the Villages)--which is the radio work I've built here in México for my fellowship.

So please go take a look and listen. The México pieces are in Spanish, of course. But I've included English-language transcripts so you can listen and follow along. Don't miss this opportunity to hear my embarrassing gringo accent in Spanish!

Here's the link. Feel free to leave comments/reviews on the site. It helps draw stations and programmers to my work. Thanks!