A conversation with Gabriel Dance and Shan Carter about interactive graphics at the New York Times

Last November the New York Times ran an interactive visualization of one of the Republican debates that absolutely wowed me. On this week’s Interviews with Innovators show I spoke with two of its creators, Gabriel Dance and Shan Carter, about that project, and about some of their other work including the stunning Faces of the Dead in Iraq. It’s a great overview of how and why the NYTimes has been raising the level of its game — and therefore of everyone’s game — in the realm of interactive data display.

There’s an odd little Web 2.0 backstory about how we arranged this interview. When I cited the credits for the debate visualizer in my blog post, I had a hunch that my use of those names would appear on the creators’ radar screens. And sure enough, I heard back from Gabriel Dance. When I didn’t find any contact info for him on his website, I went hunting around and eventually found him on Facebook.

We then began an on-again, off-again dialogue that lasted for a couple of months, until we eventually settled on a time for the interview. At one point I tried to steer the discussion away from Facebook and into regular email, but for some reason that didn’t happen, so we wound up doing all the communication in Facebook.

When we finally got together for the interview, Gabriel mentioned that he’d never been involved in such a long Facebook email thread. Me neither. Somehow we got stuck in a loop where each of us thought the other preferred to communicate only in Facebook. I was glad to know that this wasn’t some kind of Gen-Y thing, and that we both thought it was a weird glitch.

The other delightful thing about this interview is the audio quality. Gabriel and Shan called me from the Times’ tape synch facility, so their half of the call was professionally recorded, then I merged their track with my locally recorded track. Nice!

6 Comments

  1. it was a pleasure finally getting to chat with you jon. it was also a pleasure finally getting out of that facebook thread ;)

    thanks for taking the time.
    g

  2. Coincidental with finding the NYTimes interactive presentation of Clinton/Obama supporters by Shan Carter (Boy, when things slip off the front page they really disappear! baratunde captured a video of it for his blog.) I was reading this at arstechnica: “The interactive web’s other big benefit: it boosts PR“.

    They make an interesting point: generally interactivity adds to a site’s cred, but not always. Certain types of interactivity seem to have no effect, and apparently too much of a good thing sours user experience. Not simple stuff!

    With so much talk about the power of XMPP (Marshall Kirkpatrick’s “Could Instant Messaging (XMPP) Power the Future of Online Communication?” at RWW is a good example) I’m thinking along another line: what functions are really peripheral and which are core?
    I love widgets, and I’m plum tickled to farm out such as the forum-like functions provided by six groups (http://groundplane.sixgroups.com/ becomes a toolbar at the top of http://groundplane.org … pretty slick!) and yet, and yet, I bet I’m not alone in drawing a line at comments; I think both coComment and DisQus are real slick, but I don’t want comments on my site extracted by an external service.

    There’s something quantum happening there … “tightly coupled” and “loosely coupled” are certainly not binary, and yet there’s a continuum of some sort along which they stand as poles.
    And I think the same applies with interactivity: there’s packaging — fun stuff that makes information entertaining — and then there’s … what?

    I don’t think we’ve grappled with the heavy-lifting aspects of interactive information. Not yet.
    We’ve been doing scientific visualization for quite a long time. It’s been a decade since I gave my talk to the psych department at the local U, and that was just on the power of VRML (Long live Cosmo Player!). Science has been putting it to work, heavy work, for many years. But in the public space?

    Maybe we’re too distracted by the fun of it all, browsing and light grazing.
    Or maybe we haven’t attended to the fact that knowledge is a social construct because we haven’t yet dared to demand that experts relinquish their monopoly on decision-making.

    Strang loops indeed!

  3. During the podcast, one of the guests mentions how hard it is to transcribe and time code a video. There is at least one free service on the web that provides free transcriptions, fully time coded to the stream, and that is Everyzing. Originally built as an advertising platform, it allows searches into audio and video material for specific words and phrases, and then allows the media to be played starting just before that word or phrase.

    At http://search.everyzing.com/, I searched for “Jon Udell” and got all your IT conversations podcasts, fully transcribed and time coded, including the transcript of this show with Dance & Carter. Clicking around and choosing “Full Text”, as it starts to play notice that *every word* is a hyperlink to a time code.

    This interview has more than the usual transcription errors, I guess because the guests are being very conversational. There are so many possible uses of this system, but one application is worth mentioning. I am studying Spanish, and Everyzing supports Spanish podcasts, too:

    http://search.everyzing.com/index.jsp?il=es

    Say I like computers, so I type in “computadora” and I can listen to lots of podcasts about IT. Since each word is a hyperlink, I can listen over and over to the pronunciation of the speaker, and the transcription is a great help, even with some errors, for understanding what is being said.

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