Category Archives: Information Visualization

Haiti & Avatar – updates.

This post is a bit of a swiss-army knife. Without being too long-winded, I’m going to clarify some misunderstandings, update some figures, talk about Canadian foreign policy, respond to some criticism and remove a rock from a horse’s hoof. To start, then, let’s

Clarify some misunderstandings

I published a post last week comparing Haiti aid per capita to Avatar ticket prices. The post got a lot of attention, and the figures and general concept were cross-posted and re-hashed in many places. Some people seemed to have misunderstood the post, though, and thought that I was comparing the contributions of individual governments to the production costs of Avatar. This is not what I did.

To get my figures for ‘Avatar minutes’ I started with the total aid contribution for a country, and divided it by that country’s population to get a per-capita aid figure. I then calculated how many minutes of Avatar that per-person contribution would pay for, using a ticket price of $8.50 (with a running time of 162 minutes, an ‘Avatar minute’ is about 5.25 cents). So, with Canada’s aid contribution of $5.5M, and a population of 33.3M, the per-person donation is about 3 Avatar minutes. Now, before any of you angry Canadians start frothing at the mouth, let me

Update some figures

Haiti/Avatar Updates

When I published by post last week, I used the data that was then available. Many people commented about my use of the figure $5.5M for Canada, since very shortly after the post it was announced that the Canadian government was drastically increasing their Haiti aid contributions, and at the same time stated that they would match Canadian citizen’s contributions dollar-for-dollar, with no capping amount. I highlighted Canada in my post not to shame the government, but because I live in Canada. Again, I used the data available. I promised at the time to update the figures as more information became available, so, without further ado:

  • Canada: 74 minutes
  • Sweden: 47 minutes
  • Norway: 41 minutes
  • Denmark: 39 minutes
  • Luxembourg: 28 minutes
  • Finland: 27 minutes
  • Guyana: 25 minutes
  • Spain: 19 minutes
  • Estonia: 14 minutes
  • Australia: 12 minutes
  • Ireland: 12 minutes
  • Switzerland: 11 minutes
  • USA: 10 minutes
  • France: 9.5 minutes
  • Germany: 5 minutes
  • Netherlands: 5 minutes
  • Italy: 3 minutes
  • Japan: 1 minute

The contributions pledged by the Canadian government are impressive. But the point of the original post was not to single out any individual country for either congratulation or condemnation. Instead, it was to take the figures and put them into some kind of context.

$130,733,775 is a lot of money. Really. But our measure of amounts always depends on what context we put the numbers in. $130 million is a lot of money when compared to my yearly income. But it’s not that much money compared to the 2010 olympic budget – $1,700 million for a two-week sporting event. It’s just under half of the estimated production costs of Avatar ($280M). It’s less than 4% of Canada’s foreign aid budget.

Comparing Millions

If we add up ALL of the contributions to Haiti Aid, we get an even bigger amount of money – $1.75 billion dollars. A huge amount, to be sure, but again, a number that needs to be looked at in context. $1.75B is just a little bit less than Avatar has made in global ticket sales. It’s about 50% of Canada’s foreign aid budget, and 0.25% of last year’s monstrous US financial bailout. It is, repeating myself from the last paragraph, pretty much exactly what Vancouver is spending on next month’s winter games.

Comparing Billions

All of this mention of Canada and foreign aid may have already have tipped you off that I’d like to

Talk about Canadian Foreign Policy

Canada’s foreign aid budget is $3.45B, or about 0.25% of Canada’s GDP. Compare that to the Danes, who spend 0.83% of their GDP on aid (up this year from 0.82%, despite a record forecast deficit), or to the Swedes who spend about 0.92%. Canadians like to believe that we are a shining example of global citizenry, but largely this is an artifact of the pre-Mulroney governments of the 1970s and 1980s. The Center for Glocal Development ranked Canada 11th in their Commitment to Development Index from 2009, behind countries like Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Ireland, Spain, and Australia.

This index includes factors like aid, trade, investment, and migration. As the report notes, our migration levels of unskilled immigrants from developing countries has changed very little since the 1980s (we rank 11th on the list for migration). 

Like many other Canadians I grew up feeling proud about my country and about our role in the world. Unfortunately, the more I look into the actual figures, I realize that we have in many ways failed to maintain these ideals in the last 30 years.

I hope that the Canada’s actions on Haiti mark a change for our government (and not, say, a convenient way to buy some much-needed PR). I would like nothing more than to see Canada return to the role of the good global citizen. In the meantime, I will continue watching the government’s record with a deserved amount of criticality.

Speaking of criticality, let me finish this post by taking a moment to

Respond to some criticism

Jen Stirrup wrote a nicely detailed blog post in response to my Avatar/Haiti piece, in which she argues that the visualization puts beauty in advance of clarity. If we take the images that I used in the post as examples of data visualizations, I can’t help but agree. However, these images weren’t intended to be stand-alone graphics. Instead, they are screenshots of an animated, interactive visualization tool that I built to explore the data. As is very often the case when I work with data, I wrote a little program using Processing which was constructed specifically to deal with this data. I use the term ‘little’ here to emphasize the fact that it was a quick project – from the time that I had the idea to the time when I pressed ‘publish’ last Sunday was about 4 hours.

I would love to develop a workflow to take these interactive visualization tools to a stage where they can be shared more easily – at this point they tend to sit around while I harbour the best intentions to clean up the code enough for a proper release. In the meantime I can say that if you ask nicely, I’m usually willing to share my messy pre-release code. I will also be posting a brief video which might give you a better feel for how the project behaves – which, for the sake of continuity, I’ll title ‘Remove a rock from a horse’s hoof’

Unlucky Haiti (1981-2009)

Unlucky Haiti (1981-2010)

I was very much moved by Maggie Steber’s photo essay in The New York Times, titled ‘No End of Trouble. Ever.

The essay talks about Haiti’s violent history, and of the countries incredible tendency towards misfortune:

“How can nature or God or the fates or the universe do this to a country that has borne far too much sadness? An earthquake has now devastated the capital; claiming lives, hopes and the pitifully small dreams that people have held on to, despite political violence, unimaginable poverty, disease, corruption, dictators and nature’s full force of four hurricanes in a row.”

I built this very quick visualization to explore this topic a little further. Specifically, I wanted to compare Haiti to its Caribbean neighbours to see if the country is indeed as unlucky as it seems.

This visualization compares Haiti to 12 other Caribbean nations. It looks at articles published in the New York Times mentioning those countries between 1981 and 2010, and measures the occurence of specific words in those articles.

The pie charts in each row show the percentage of total articles on each country which contain the words in question. For example, we can see that about 25% of articles published about Haiti mention the word ‘violence’ – twice the frequency of any other country on the list.

Haiti has the highest frequency of the words ‘coup’, ‘violence’, ‘disease’, and ‘strife’. It is second or third in mentions of ‘death’, ‘unrest’ and ‘famine’.

Likely this week’s events will lead to many more mentions of these words. As you’re likely aware, many NGOs small and large are organizing to help Haitians – both through emergency assistance and through long-term rebuilding. If you want to donate, I’d highly recommend considering Architecture for Humanity (for long-term projects) or Partners in Health (for emergency assistance). Both organizations are accepting donations through their websites.

Two Sides of the Same Story: Laskas & Gladwell on CTE & the NFL

Laskas / Gladwell

In October, I read a fascinating article on about head injuries among former NFL players. Written by Jeanne Marie Laskas, the article was a forensic detective story, documenting a little known doctor’s efforts to bring the brain trauma issue to the attention of the medical community, the NFL, and the general public. It is a great read – an in-depth investigative piece with engaging personalities and plenty of intrigue.

A few weeks later, I picked up a copy of The New Yorker on my way home from Pittsburgh. I was surprised to see, on the cover, a promo for an article by Malcolm Gladwell about – you guessed it – brain trauma and the NFL. After having read both articles, I was surprised by how much these two investigative pieces differed. At the time I thought about doing a visualization to investigate, but somehow the idea slipped out of my head.

Until this weekend. I spent a few (okay, more like eight) hours putting together a tool with Processing that would examine some of the similarities and differences between the two articles. The most interesting data ended up coming from word usage analysis (I looked at sentences and phrases as well, but with not much luck). The base interface for the tool is a XY chart of the words – they are positioned vertically by their average position in the articles, and horizontally by which article they occur in more. The words in the centre are shared by both articles. Total usage affects the scale of the words, so we can see quite quickly which words are used most, and in which articles.

By focusing our attention on the big words which lie more or less in the center, we can see what the two articles have in common: brains, football, dementia, and a disease called CTE. What is perhaps more interesting is what lies on the outer edges; the subjects and topics that were covered by one author and not by the other.

Laskas’ article is about Dr. Bennet Omalu, dead NFL players (Mike Webster), Omalu’s colleagues (Dr. Julian Bailes & Bob Fitzsimmons) and the NFL (click on the images to see bigger versions):

Laskas / Gladwell

Gladwell’s article, on the other hand, focuses partly on another scientist, Dr. Ann McKee, the sport of football in general, as well as s central metaphor in his piece – a comparison between football and dogfighting (the bridge between the two is Michael Vick):

Laskas / Gladwell

The gulf between the two main scientific personalities profiled in the articles is interesting. Omalu and McKee are both experts in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) so it makes sense that they each appear in both articles (Omalu was the first to describe the condition; McKee. However, we see when we isolate these names that Laskas references Dr. Omalu almost exclusively (Omalu is mentioned 96 times by Laskas and only 6 times by Gladwell)* – it’s worth noting here that the Laskas article is 11.4% longer than the Gladwell piece – JT:

Laskas / Gladwell

In contrast, Laskas only refers to McKee once (Dr. McKee is mentioned by Gladwell 21 times):

Laskas / Gladwell

What is the relationship between Dr. McKee and Dr. Omalu? McKee is on the advisory board for the Sports Legacy Institute, a group which studies the results of brain trauma on athletes. SLI was founded by four individuals, including Bennet Omalu and the group’s current head, Chris Nowinski, a former professional wrestler. Omalu and the other three founders of SLI have now left the group, but it apparently continues to be a high-profile presence in the CTE field. Laskas writes:

“Indeed, the casual observer who wants to learn more about CTE will be easily led to SLI and the Boston group. There’s an SLI Twitter link, an SLI awards banquet, an SLI Web site with photos of Nowinski and links to videos of him on TV and in the newspapers. Gradually, Omalu’s name slips out of the stories, and Bailes slips out, and Fitzsimmons, and their good fight. As it happens in stories, the telling and retelling simplify and reduce.”

I wonder how much the path of an journalistic piece is affected by who you talk to first? If I had to guess, I’d say Gladwell started with the SLI, whereas Laskas seemed to have began from Dr. Omalu. This single decision could account for many of the differences between the two articles.

Other word-use choices might also give insight into editorial positions. Laskas, for example, uses the term NFL (below, at left) a lot – 57 times to Gladwell’s 11. Gladwell, on the other hand, talks more about the sport in general, using the word ‘football’ (below, at right)  40 times to Laskas’ 23:

Laskas / Gladwell Laskas / Gladwell

According to Laskas, Dr. Omalu has been roundly shunned by the NFL – they have attempted to discredit his research on many occasions (attention that has not been so pointedly focused on Dr. McKee and the SLI). Though both articles are critical of the League, it seems clear both from the article and the data that Laskas and GQ have taken a more severe stance – the addresses the NFL much more often, and with more disdain.

This exercise of quantitatively analyzing a pair of articles may seem like a strange way to spend a weekend, but it helped me to more clearly understand the differences between the two stories and to consider my reactions to each. I uncovered a few things that I hadn’t picked up at first, and at the same time was able to reinforce some of the feelings that I had after reading the two articles.

It was also another opportunity to build a quick, lightweight visualization tool dedicated to a fairly specific topic (though in this case the tool could be used to compare any two bodies of text). This strategy holds a lot of appeal to me and I think deserves attention alongside the generalist approach that we tend to see a lot of on the web and in data visualization. It seems to me that this type of investigative technique could be useful for researchers of various stripes.

I will be releasing source code for this project as well as compiled applications for Mac, Linux & Windows. In the meantime, here’s a short video of how the interface behaves:

Two Sides of the Same Story: Laskas & Gladwell on CTE & the NFL from blprnt on Vimeo.

Data in Contemporary Art: Brian Jungen


Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery

Last month, Manuel Lima caused a bit of a stir in the data visualization world when he proposed a divide between Information Visualization and Information Art. This kind of phylogenic approach aside, how does data fit into a contemporary art context? To answer this question, it might be helpful to start with an investigation into contemporary artists who use or have used data within their practice. A few months ago, I featured an article on Mark Lombardi, whose data-centric illustrations have found their way into the collections of many major art galleries & museums. This time I’ll move away from 2-d form and look at a piece by Canadian artist Brian Jungen.

Brian Jungen‘s 2001 piece Isolated Depiction of the Passage of Time consists of hundreds of plastic cafeteria trays, stacked neatly on a wooden shipping pallet. As is often the case with Jungen’s work, this piece is more complex than it may at first appear. Start with the wooden pallet, which has been hand-carved from red cedar. Above it, the trays themselves are also carefully considered: the number and colour of the trays correspond to the population of Aboriginal males incarcerated in Canada’s prisons. This block of trays looks solid, but it is in fact a hollow container; in the center a TV plays, showing a looping series of daytime television programs. Finally, the entire work references a historical event, in which an inmate at Ontario’s Millhaven Institution escaped inside a makeshift structure of stacked trays.

I think it’s possible to understand Isolated Depiction of the Passage of Time, at least in part, as a data visualization. In general, Jungen’s practice resolves around disassembly and re-assembly – both key parts of any visualization project – so it is not too much of a surprise to see him treading into this territory. Though some of his later work involves data in more abstract ways (his famous Prototypes for New Understanding were made in a strictly numbered edition corresponding to Michael Jordan’s number; other works involve the construction of new maps from boundary data), Passage of Time remains his most data-centric work.

A major exhibition of Brian Jungen’s work is currently on show at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. An excellent introduction to Jungen’s work can be found on the NMAI’s website, including a brilliant essay by museum curator Paul Chaat Smith.

7 Days of Source Day #6: NYTimes GraphMaker

NYTimes Drug Diptych

Project: NYTimes GraphMaker
Date: Fall, 2009
Language: Processing
Key Concepts: Data vizualization, graphing, NYTimes Article Search API


The New York Times Article Search API gives us access to a mountain of data: more than 2.6 million indexed articles. There must be countless discoveries waiting to be made in this vast pile of information – we just need more people with shovels! With that in mind, I wanted to release a really simple example of using Processing to access word trend information from the Article Search API. Since I made this project in February, the clever folks at the NYT research lab have released an online tool to explore word trends, but I think it’s useful to have the Processing code released for those of us who want to poke around the data in a slightly deeper way. Indeed, I hope this sketch can act as a starting point for people to take some more involved forays into the dataset – it is ripe to be customized and changed and improved.

This is the simplest project I’m sharing in this now multi-week source release. It should be a nice starting point for those of you who have some programming experience but haven’t done too much in the way of data visualization. As always, if you have questions, feel free to send me an e-mail or post in the comments section below.

You can see a whole pile of radial and standard bar graphs that I made with this sketch earlier in the year in this Flickr set.

Getting Started:

You’ll need the toxiclibs core, which you can download here. Put the unzipped library into the ‘libraries’ folder in your sketchbook (if there isn’t one already, create one).

Put the folder ‘NYT_GraphMaker’ into your Processing sketch folder. Open Processing and open the sketch from the File > Sketchbook menu. You’ll find detailed instructions in the header of the main tab (theNYT_GraphMaker.pde file).


It’s starting to get a bit repetitive, but once again this file depends on Karsten Schmidt’s toxiclibs. These libraries are so good they should ship with Processing.



This software is licensed under the CC-GNU GPL version 2.0 or later.