Data Visualization critique

Oct. 30th, 2016

Today, the LA Times published A Web of Campaign contributors. They get all the points for aesthetics, as you pivot around a 3D-feeling modelling of financial connections, all leading back to Samuel Leung and his multi-million dollar development. The story has several components: there’s the tour- which takes you step-by-step through the complex web, with short blurbs accompanying each shift. Then there’s the option to see the data, which is organized  by name of donor, recipient, amount, and description. Then, finally, there’s the news story component.

Immediately when the networked grid appears on the scene, you are hit with the huge, interconnected, and complicated nature of the funding scandal. The visualization communicates something crucial to us implicitly- so much more effectively than words or the list of data could. It also shows us through it’s structure and focus on the one node at the top: Samuel Leung, the bigger point to all of it. Even though as you follow the tour to each of the major nodes, the exact scandal isn’t extremely apparent, one still emphatically gets that something is not right, and that it’s been sneaky through all these complex webs, punctuated with the ever-flowing green lines of money. In this case, the network graphic was extremely appropriate.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have some limitations. While the tour is labelled interactive, and does rely on the user clicking through to engage, it follows a very linear path, the user has relatively little control. During the narrative, you can move around and see the network at different angles, but you can’t user-navigate and click to a random node to see the connections.

The other major thing that comes across, is that those journalists had a hell of a lot of data to sort through and make sense of to connect these now-visualized dots. Even when one clicks over to “See Data”–and there is quite a bit of data–you know that’s not all the data they were working with. They’ve researched and distilled much into the description. But no doubt this is a strategic move, as their point would have been lost if they included too much here; it would have obscured the point.

What strikes me most, as I enjoy and marvel at the visualizations, is that I’m still confused as to what’s going on. I need the context. I need the story. I do need the journalists to explain it to me more. Perhaps this is part of the incentive to actually read the story (which is also full of lovely maps, animations and videos for multimedia), though it also runs the risk of me leaving the animation with little context. All in all, it’s a very compelling illustration of a complex matter, though one that leaves me with more questions.

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