Poets for Science

Posters from Poets for Science of poems paired with images. Photo courtesy of pw.org.
Posters from Poets for Science. Photo courtesy of pw.org.

On Saturday, I’m humbled to be a part of the March for Science in Washington, D.C. Most likely I won’t be marching, due to chronic pain, but I will be participating in another, meaningful way. Through serendipitous chance, I was invited to be a part of the poetry teach-ins that are happening during the day. The incredible poet Jane Hirshfield is the mastermind behind the idea — and I am so grateful to be able to work with her and bring her dream to life. Make sure to read Jane’s poem “On the Fifth Day,” which she will be reading at the rally during the March.

Several local poets and staff from Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center will be leading poetry workshops focusing on insects, personifying storms, climate change, data, and more. The workshops will be from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. at the Mall in the Poets for Science tent. Learn more about the pop-up workshops.

My workshop is Writing the Storm. I’m bringing several poems exploring weather, planets, natural disasters, and how they affect our lives. We’ll use phrases from these poems and from Patricia Smith’s poetry personifying Hurricane Katrina as a jumping off point. All are welcome, including parents and children, and no experience is required.

This opportunity is so dear to my heart because most of my poetry, and some of my prose, focuses on science in some way. I’m obsessed with space. I write about my body and medical issues. I explore the potential future in science/speculative fiction. Science and creative writing go hand in hand. Writers draw from the natural world and the rich images in science.

Jane’s work in forming Poets for Science and our teach-ins were featured in an article on Poets&Writers. Read it to learn more about the seven-foot posters of poetry that will be present at the March, as well as how this came to be. The workshops and poems are also traveling the globe and may be translated and held in satellite marches throughout the world, including the March for Science in Marseilles, France!

Join the conversation throughout the day and share your science-related poems with the hashtag #poetsforscience! Excited to see you there!

Interactive maps & timelines: worth a thousand words

This is it. You’re reading the final post for my Online Journalism course.

I may continue to update this blog every so often, when the interactivity or web design strikes me. For the last post, I am highlighting interactive timelines in national and local news.

Timing the Arab Spring protests

Several newspapers and news organizations covered the 2011 Arab Spring protests in the Middle East with interactive timelines. There was of course extensive article, video and television coverage as well.

The difficulty was visually showing many protests, spanning several countries. These protests spread and reverberated off each other. So these timelines worked to clear up locations, dates and people involved.

The Guardian’s Arab Spring interactive timeline is perhaps the most innovative and well-designed. The Guardian staff took a risk by laying out the timeline not in the usual horizontal format, but in a vertical view. Readers essentially move into the protests as they slide the navigation button along several months.

Screenshot of The Guardian’s Arab Spring timeline

This timeline is unique and visually appealing — thus making The Guardian itself stand out.

The countries where protests and political action occurred are listed in bar-graph form at the bottom of the timeline. The lines go up vertically through the page, signifying when and where events took place.

Readers can mouse over specific icons — like the green fist icon that signifies a protest or the yellow button that represents a political move — and more information about that specific event comes up on the left column. Clicking on individual icons brings up articles that were published about the particular protest or action. This allows readers to learn more about specific events and also acts as a way to publicize articles in a visual way.

A major downside is this map is made with Adobe Flash. This means viewers can’t read the code made with Flash, so it is being used less and less for interactives.

PBS Newshour also had an interactive timeline of the protests in the Middle East. The timeline was built using ProPublica’s TimelineSetter, a free online website to create timelines.

This timeline has a lot more white space. It is not necessarily more text-heavy than The Guardian’s version, but the visual aspect of the timeline is not the page’s focus.

The horizontally laid out timeline shows countries where protests occurred in different colors. This timeline is fairly small.

Screenshot of PBS’s Arab Spring timeline

Screenshot of article in timeline

The main aspect of the page is not actually the timeline, but what sprouts from individual events on the timeline. Readers can change what appears on the timeline by clicking the color-coded countries.

Clicking on individual events brings up articles, photos and videos in the white space below the timeline. Readers can view the full articles by clicking on the “read more” button.

This timeline is not as visually appealing or innovative as The Guardian’s, but the information is easy to absorb. If readers want to learn more about individual events, they can easily find a specific event and read more.

Mapping the attacks on the U.S. embassies

Screenshot of Slate’s timeline of attacks on U.S. embassies

A more recent timeline, by Slate, outlines what happened before, during and after violent attacks at the U.S. embassy in Egypt and the U.S. consulate in Libya.

This timeline is very different than The Guardian’s or PBS’. It uses a map view to show where events happened. That is the main focus of the timeline — time is an important aspect, yes, but location is forefront in this timeline.

Readers can click on individual event pins and the stories on the left column shuffle to the specific article about the event. This organization of information mirrors PBS’.

Interactivity differences between local and national news organizations

I’ve noticed a trend after blogging about these examples of interactivity, multimedia, social media and web design. The larger, more national news organizations seem to have more staff that can create in-depth interactive graphics and well-designed websites. The smaller, more local news organizations often did not have interactivity or what they did have was very minimal and basic. This is a generalization, and certainly not true to every news organization.

For example, Slate created a map timeline of attacks at U.S. embassies with free online software called Leaflet, an open-source JavaScript library for interactive maps. PBS also used online software, ProPublica’s TimelineSetter.

Some online interactive graphic tools are:

So even though smaller, more local news organizations may not have a dedicated interactivity staff, they can find ways to provide readers with interactive information.

And that is really what matters. In an age where online software is becoming more affordable and often free, news organizations of all sizes and locations can use these resources to create well-designed, interactive informational graphics and lay out information in interesting ways.

The interactivity playing field is not even, but it may be getting there, one widget and free software program at a time.

Mapping opinions and votes

It’s that time of year again. Leaves of various colors, sweater weather and … politics!

Every major news organization has to have an electoral map for the election. These maps try to explain the complex electoral college system and votes needed to win the presidency. They show through visuals and numbers which and how many states vote certain ways and track trends.

Here are a few different interactive electoral maps:

The New York Times

Screenshot of The New York Times electoral votes map

The New York Times has an entire section on the website dedicated to politics. Their electoral map, called Building a Path to Victory, breaks down information in several ways and graphics.

On the top of the page, there is a horizontal bar graph of sorts, showing how many electoral votes Obama and Romney need to win. The Times lists how many people will most likely vote solidly Obama, solid Romney, how many are leaning Obama or Romney and how many are tossup votes. This breakdown effectively explains the numbers that go into winning the electoral college — and the presidency.

The maps are further broken down, into two ways — geographically and with states sized by number of electoral votes, a sort of boxy U.S. where California, Texas, New York and Florida are the largest boxes, correlating with the number of electoral votes they have. Users can scroll over an individual state and find out how many electoral votes it has and if it leans strongly Republican or Democrat. Scrolling over the geographic view produces the same effect.

Screenshot of Make Your Own Scenarios interactive map

There is also a Make Your Own Scenarios option on the page. But it is in fairly small font and may easily go unnoticed. Users can drag undecided states to vote for Obama or Romney and the electoral votes for the candidates adjust until a checkbox appears next to one candidate — signifying a win. This is quite an interactive graphic and allows users to really get involved with the numbers and information. A user’s scenario can even be shared on social media sites.

There is in-depth information listed below the maps for each state explaining how the state voted in 2008, how it affected President Obama and history of how the state voted.

Screenshot of The New York Times electoral number of votes

There is an incredibly large amount of information on this page and all electoral college maps. But the Times designs it very carefully. The typography is beautiful and easy to look at. For the graphic showing the number of votes a candidate needs to win, the number is the biggest part and the candidate’s name is off to the side in a smaller font, but still the subsequent biggest size because it is important to know which candidate, and then the actual number needed to win is off to the right in the smallest font. The design is calculated. It could easily be a mess, but it’s very clear and nice to look at. That’s typography and graphic design at its finest.

Huffington Post

The Huffington Post’s electoral map can be viewed geographically or as a cartogram — different sized circles signifying how many electoral votes a state has.

Under the map, there is a table that lists pollster outlooks and past results since 2000 state by state.

The Huffington Post’s take on the New York Times’ bar graph is that when the user scrolls over the electoral votes bar the individual state, its electoral votes and its political leaning is shown. The state is also highlighted on the map. Whereas the Times showed the overall numbers, not state by state.

For more information on individual states, users can click on the box that comes up on the bar graph. The HuffPost model is then shown as a line graph on a separate page and results from the latest polls are listed in a table.

Screenshot of Huffington Post recent changes graphic

A unique and helpful feature the Huffington Post offers is an update on recent changes to the map, shown graphically with a state that perhaps was once a tossup that changed to leaning a particular way. The date of the change and state involved is shown.

The Huffington Post also has an option for viewers to make their own map, by clicking on the states and changing the outcome. This is very effective interactivity. It uses people’s opinions as a way to get them involved in the news site.

The Washington Post

The Washington Post’s map is similar to the others. Users can choose to view the data in a geographic map or table, with current data or historical results. Under the map, there are explanations of the tossup states.

The Post delves deeper into data by providing information on the map for each state, including:

  • unemployment
  • income
  • race
  • if the state is urban or not
  • if the state is solid or swing vote
  • voter ID laws and gay marriage portrayal in the news.

A user can click on any of these categories and all states or one state for information. The Post is smart to include this in the electoral map because this is background information that often helps explain why states vote certain ways. The information is not overkill because users can choose to view it or not.

Screenshot of The Post’s information on the race for the House

The Post also provides tables and more information for the race for control of the Senate and House and governors’ race ratings. The other national news organizations did not supply this important information.

The Post also has a unique feature. There are two to three minute videos by “The Fix” to help users understand the complicated electoral map. This is a good way to offer different formats for users to understand. Graphs, tables and numbers are not effective for all. The Post is trying to reach all different kinds of readers.

Personalizing data

Normally numbers don’t do anything for me. Numbers don’t explain clearly — they confuse, and distort and complicate. That’s why I like words. But when numbers are personalized and shown visually, it’s like they’re transformed from abstract values to sentences and paragraphs.

Data for your area

The Washington Post’s Top Secret America uses lots of numbers to illustrate the growth of counterterrorism organizations since the Sept. 11 attacks. But the Post goes a step further to make the data significant — the interactive map shows data specific to the user and his or her location.

Screenshot of Top Secret America

The interactive graphic shows how counterterrorism organizations increased after the Sept. 11 attacks — there are now nearly 4,000 organizations in the U.S. There is a two-minute video that starts playing when the site first loads and viewers can choose to watch or skip the introductory video. The map is a more hands-on approach to information than a text article or video. It allows users to interact with the data.

Viewers can type in their city or zip code and find counterterrorism organizations in their area. They can choose what information will be displayed by choosing organizations pre-9/11 or post-9/11, the jurisdiction — federal, state or local — and the type of organization — law enforcement, emergency management, homeland security, counterterrorism (Joint Terrorism Task Force) and intel.

The interactive map shows where counterterrorism organizations are with a colored circle. If you click the circle, the counterterrorism organizations in that specific zip code come up in the map and the number of these organizations that are new since 9/11 in that zip code.

The number of total counterterrorism offices by state is shown in a bar graph at the bottom of the map. This further explains the data through visuals. Viewers can easily see California has the most offices — 359. They can see how their state compares to the others.

Allowing users to view data sets specific to their location is an important technique. It personalizes data for users and makes it significant — it gives data meaning. Viewers are more interested in what happens and exists around where they live. They don’t care as much about counterterrorism organizations in Michigan if they live in Alaska, but they might be interested to know there are several organizations in their city — it may give them a sense of security. Giving this option is very important for viewers.

This information might be interesting to law enforcement, reporters and everyday citizens because people are more interested in what happens around their home. The map can show only organizations around a user’s home or workplace. This intense personalization mirrors social media websites.

Comparing neighborhoods through visuals

Screenshot of infographic

I’m returning to the Los Angeles Times multimedia project called Mapping L.A. to further explain the impressive interactivity. The project provides crime analysis by neighborhood with graphs, maps and tables of information — lots of numbers. Viewers could easily get lost and bogged down with all this information.

But the Los Angeles Times helps viewers understand the data by employing important techniques to make the data meaningful:

  • personalizing the information — like the Post’s interactive map, users can search their neighborhood or an L.A. county address to find crime in their area
  • breaking down crime into categories — violent or property
  • different types of graphics, like a timeline of crimes listed by date

The project is very inclusive — all for the benefit of the viewer and perhaps in an attempt to prevent crime. Crimes are also listed out by location, type and date and time and information for the police agency that covers the neighborhood is also provided.

By looking at this interactive graphic, at the times and locations that crimes occur, people might change their habits if, for example, they walk around neighborhoods at night and see crimes occur more often at night.

Viewers can also see trends of crime with this infographic — if crime has increased or decreased in the last few years and in what neighborhoods. And the categories allow viewers to focus on violent or property crime, so they can see if a specific type of crime is prevalent in their neighborhood versus others. This may affect where people choose to live or buy a home.

Breaking down numbers and showing them through representations, graphics and maps is a more effective way of showing data. Both the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post succeed in interactive projects that inform viewers.

Environmental journalist encourages political activism in climate change issues

Marlena Chertock

MARCH 10, 2011

Elizabeth Kolbert, a journalist for The New Yorker, spoke at Elon University on Thursday, March 10, 2011 about the future of food and climate change. She encouraged students and others to become politically active in this issue. Photo courtesy of The New Yorker.

Environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert described climate change, the future of the world’s food availability and encouraged students and others to become involved in this issue in a speech Thursday, March 10 at 7:30 p.m. in McCrary Theatre.

Kolbert, who works on The New Yorker, defined climate change as anthropogenic, or human-induced. Carbon emissions, people not taking actions to reverse or lessen the problem and other human actions are contributing to climate change, according to Kolbert.

“The climate change problem can be overwhelming,” Kolbert said. “It’s very big, it’s global.”

But she also believes we have an obligation to do something about it, she said.

“What is it going to take to convince Americans to take this problem seriously?” Kolbert said. “Are we going to wait until there simply isn’t enough to eat?”

People should care about climate change and the future of food, according to Kolbert.

“What is it going to take to convince Americans to take this problem seriously? Are we going to wait until there simply isn’t enough to eat?”

“Do they like to eat?” she said. “If their answer is yes, they should care about climate change.”

Agriculture is intimately tied to climate, according to Kolbert. Food can’t be grown where the temperatures are too hot or cold. Food prices are rising worldwide, she said.

“Probably some parts of the world will be helped, farming will get better and some will suffer,” Kolbert said. “People want to know more specific than that, what places will be affected. But science can only give approximations.”

Kolbert showed many scientific and data models that predict and offer approximations.

“Some of what I’m about to tell you could be wrong,” she said, referring to science’s subjectivity to change. “Some predictions could be wrong.”

Kolbert also explained that the arguments people sometimes use against climate change or global warming don’t hold up in science. People often want to debunk science or throw out the scientific evidence for climate change, she said.

“The argument can’t be a certain drought or flood was caused by global warming,” she said. “But people can say this is what you would expect in a warming world, these types of droughts and floods around the world.”

People can’t rely on their regional or personal experiences of the weather and average temperatures to reflect what’s happening globally, Kolbert said. If it’s a really cold, bitter winter in one person’s region and he questions global warming, that doesn’t hold true for the rest of the data collected from around the world, Kolbert said.

People have to look at large data sets, she said.

“It’s a lot easier to say there’s not a problem.”

The data will show that 2010 was one of the warmest years to record, Kolbert said. All of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred in the last 12 years.

“It’s a lot easier to say there’s not a problem,” Kolbert said.

But she encouraged people to get politically involved in this issue that isn’t going away.

People are not taking their opinions and voices to the next step, they are not getting involved politically and need to be, according to Kolbert.

She spoke against putting the blame on others and making someone else figure out how to deal with the issue.

“I’m stepping out of my role as a journalist,” she said. “But into the role as a fellow inhabitant of the planet, as a mother.”

Allowing global warming and climate change to continue, without doing anything to prevent it, is not acceptable and doesn’t seem rational, according to Kolbert.

“I encourage all of you not just to throw up your hands, but to get involved,” she said. “On a personal, university and national level.”

Opinions don’t amount to anything unless a concerted, national effort is taken, she said.

“Until privileged Americans start taking action, I don’t see why anyone else on the planet would or should,” she said.

The U.S. is a major and perhaps the number one contributor to the problem, according to Kolbert. She showed a chart that listed the U.S. as the top contributor of carbon dioxide emissions.

The planet will not snap into a new routine, Kolbert said. If greenhouse gas levels continue to rise, the climate will keep changing and never reach a new equilibrium.

“I am not a farmer,” Kolbert said. “But I think if you talk to some people who are, they’ll say if you don’t get to predictability, agriculture is very hard.”


Elizabeth Kolbert talks about not relying on personal experiences with weather and temperatures to make opinions about global warming