Monday, May 17, 2010

Tulsa Library: Bastion of Censorship Online

The Tulsa City library system has a shameful system of online censorship. 

I do not support internet censorship of any form, but I do accept that libraries may want to filter potentially visually offensive materials to protect other library patrons from inadvertent viewing. 

However, the Tulsa library wifi (which, by the way presents an invalid self-signed security certificate) takes censorship to an extreme level which I haven’t experienced anywhere else.

Examples of blocked sites:

  • Craigslist
  • Boing Boing
  • (!) (presumably to disallow one from changing the SafeSearch filter from ‘strict’)censorship

Libraries should be leaders of information provision, not home to the most restrictive forms of censorship.  I hope that this policy is a sign of the puritanical culture here, not a sign of things to come at libraries everywhere.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Visualizing the Gulf Oil Spill

In order to help emergency response and the public to understand the extent of the current Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster, several visualization researchers and designers have published useful visualizations.

NASA’s Aqua satellite supplied this image of the Gulf Coast oil slick resulting from the explosion & sinking of the Deepwater Horizon platform.  It was captured with the “MODIS” (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) instrument, and shows the oil as it follows the gulf currents across the region.

[click for original NASA posting and high resolution image]

NASA explains why a conventional photograph would not allow us to see the oil spill as clearly as this MODIS image:

“The oil slick may be particularly obvious because it is occurring in the sunglint area, where the mirror-like reflection of the Sun off the water gives the Gulf of Mexico a washed-out look. Oil slicks are notoriously difficult to spot in natural-color (photo-like) satellite imagery because a thin sheen of oil only slightly darkens the already dark blue background of the ocean. Under unique viewing conditions, oil slicks can become visible in photo-like images, but usually, radar imagery is needed to clearly see a spill from space.”

CNN presents an interactive timeline of the oil slick movements, as does the NY Times. The NY Times animation includes narrative of events directly on the map, as well as the use of dotted borders to encode uncertainty when showing predictions of spill extent. Both could be improved with visual encodings indicating sensitive geographical regions, such as bird sanctuaries, oyster beds, tourist beaches, etc.  However, it is impressive how quickly the media are able to provide useful visualizations to the public – the flexibility of the medium will allow these designs to be improved as the story develops.

CNN Animation: broad context, few narrations

NY Times Animation: closer context, annotations and prediction

Critique of Culture Colours

David McCandless has published a book of visualizations called "Information is Beautiful".  The visualization that is used on the cover of the book is a graphic of colour connotations across cultures:

[original post at]

First, let me say that this visualization, along with many in the book, is quite visually engaging.  The data is interesting, and it would make a beautiful poster.  That said, from an InfoVis point of view, I think there are issues with this design.

Most importantly, the rings are, due to the geometry, different sizes.  This means that the slices of each annulus get progressively smaller as you move to the centre.  So, the colours of western society are given more visual presence than those of South America. 

The location and dual nature of the legend means that to read this graphic a lot of back and forth referencing is needed. Also, it's difficult without at least faint gridlines to determine which ring each colour block is on.  This is especially true for blocks in isolation, such as the red block in radial 12.

I personally might have visualized this using a small multiples diagram -- one for each word, perhaps with a single vertical slice for each region.


It would not be as compact, but I think it would be clearer.  Of course, this is just a five minute idea and I'm sure it has lots of problems too.  His graphic is clearly designed as a poster, and as such, it works well and would look nicer than my idea hanging on the wall.