9/11 Plus Me

| September 21, 2011

Many news organizations are beginning to feature interactive graphics online to come up with alternative ways of presenting complex data. As part of its Project for 9/11, newspaper USA TODAY launched an interactive graphic on its website called 9/11 Plus Me. Created by a team of editors, web developers and designers, the graphic is a compendium of news data that seeks to comprehensively illustrate the decade-long impact 9/11 has had on the United States from various perspectives.

10 Years of Data

The team, which includes Tory Hargro, Linda Kauss, Paul Overberg (the database editor at USA TODAY), Kate Patterson (supervising photo editor of the USA TODAY news desk), Raul Miller, and Stan Wilson Jr., gathered data about the United States since 9/11/2001 from an assortment of sources including The Associated Press, Getty Images, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, Yahoo!, The Transportation Security Administration, and The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.

The information was then organized into chronologically dated events related to politics, economics, security, and culture in the U.S., which were visualized as clickable plot points on a series of 10 concentric rings–one for each year between 2001-2011. To the left of the circles is a list of specific sub-topics: Key Events, Editor’s Choice, Terrorism/Security, Politics, Economy, Patriotism, Recovery, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sports, and Arts & Entertainment. When clicked on, the concentric circles are recreated containing plot points within that sub-topic. In this manner, events and changes in various aspects of American life that occurred over the past decade are aesthetically laid out in a seemingly simplistic, but very factually detailed manner. The viewer is able to delve into individual events as comprehensively as he or she wants.

Demographic Personalization

The second interesting element of this project’s design is the personalization capability built into it. The “Plus Me” component is actualized through two personal data gathering methods: a short survey viewers can take right on the site that asks for their name, birthdate, and location, or a Facebook log-in option which gathers the same information from a user’s profile. Providing personal demographic information such as your age or location recreates the visualization, which is now called “9/11 plus (insert your name here).”

Three new fields open up on the left-hand column: Security Costs + Me, Lives Lost + Me, and The Towers + Me. Clicking on any of these provides new sets of data, also plotted on concentric circles, such as the lives lost in each 9/11 related location (Iraq War, Afghanistan War, World Trade Center, The Pentagon, and Flight 93). The concentric rings now represent ages of the deceased starting at the viewers age and moving 1 year further with each ring. Each plotted point can be clicked on to reveal the name, age and location of the person who died. Similarly, the other tabs lead to detailed data about post 9/11 grants, or the location of WTC steel for public displays in relation to the viewer’s demographic profile.

Jeff Sonderman, Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute, writes, “It’s the latest example of how news organizations are building personalization into their news apps and online data tools…In some cases, personalization can enrich users’ experience by letting them see what their Facebook friends have done with your news app.” Personalization also makes the process of finding relevant, stirring, or compelling information more accessible by narrowing down large amounts of data. In journalism, particularly surrounding world-changing events just as 9/11, this is especially useful. Sonderman asks us to consider what sort of connections could personal data obtained from Facebook shed light on, “When used right, [Facebook and other social APIs] can help turn a pile of data into relevant insights and shared experiences.”

The Power of Artistic Visualization

The beauty of this visualization is that it epitomizes how much information can be packed into a relatively simplistic design. The interface–simply a series of concentric circles–goes a long way because each element can represent so many kinds of data. Qualitative stories mined by USA TODAY editors are contained in the same space as quantitative statistics, and personal demographic inputs uncover striking findings within one’s own location or generation.

9/11 Plus Me is a aesthetic project at the intersection of art and journalism. It not only organizes overwhelming amounts of information but also paints a decade-long vision of change, and highlight subtle trends in rhetoric and political action in a way that is explorative and elegant.