2012 in Review: Al Shaw

Smart apps, great interaction choices, real-world effects

The Guardian’s Facebook-enabled gay rights interactive

As we reach the end of 2012, we’ve asked a handful of designers and developers working in news to talk about a few projects and posts they loved—and didn’t work on themselves.

Al Shaw is a news applications developer at ProPublica, where he has brought dozens of investigative and data-centric projects to life.

FiveThirtyEight: Sidebar as App

The FiveThirtyEight sidebar

Project: FiveThirtyEight

As this week’s Snow Fall story/interactive extravaganza shows, the New York Times is fantastic at weaving data and narrative together. One of the best news apps of the year was actually crammed into the sidebar of a blog—FiveThirtyEight. While Nate Silver’s thoughtful posts were required reading during the campaign, the most addicting part of FiveThirtyEight was constantly refreshing the Forecast and “Now-Cast” in the blog’s sidebar. In fact, that’s exactly how I watched election night. The decision to put the FiveThirtyEight “app” right into the blog instead of on its own page really made it the single most important campaign news stop of the day.

Guardian Gay Rights Interactive: Using Facebook in Reverse

Project: Gay rights in the US, state by state

The Guardian’s interactive showing gay rights by state was interesting, and fun to play with, but the real innovation here was its surgical use of Facebook. While most news apps and interactives bolt on “social” by adding tweet and share buttons, the Guardian went the other way—extracting a bit of your personal data to instantly add relevance. The result really sets your perspective on gay rights. The Guardian took this tack again with their “Will your vote make the difference” interactive, again mining your location to show how you fit into the election. Social media goes both ways, and the Guardian’s use of it was masterful.

USA TODAY’s Ghost Factories: Poison in the Ground

Ghost Factories, lead screen

Project: Ghost Factories

USA TODAY’s Ghost Factories investigation was one of the best pieces of news appery this year for a few reasons, the best of which is that they actually got off the Internet and into meatspace, running soil tests that got New York City to close Red Hook’s ball fields because of elevated lead levels. One of my favorite parts of this app is the ability to compare old maps of factories laid on top of Google maps of the current day in many of the locations. There was a lot of excellent mapping work done this year, but not too much georeferencing, and USA TODAY nailed it.

WNYC’s Embeddable Data Bits

A now-typical WNYC app-embed button

Project: Is NYC Better Off Than It Was 4 Years Ago? You Be the Judge

WNYC has stepped up their game in interactive news in 2012, and one of their best ideas was creating a framework to add bits of data to their blogs and let anyone else embed them, YouTube style. Whether it’s charts or maps and other useful tools, such as the Sandy Transit Tracker, I haven’t seen another outlet come up with such a consistent and cohesive way of bundling up data to shuffle around wherever it’s needed.

NPR big board: Embracing Information Density

NPR’s Election Night Big Board

Project The Big Board

This year seems to be the year that data density lost to big photos and infographics, so it’s refreshing that NPR’s election night app jammed everything you need to know into one rectangle, and asks you to hit command-+ to make it bigger! Sometimes the best election maps aren’t maps, and NPR’s big board was the best way to follow the action in one screenful.

Bonus 2011 Mention: The New York Times’ Derek Boogaard Series

A video hovercard from the story

Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer

Yes, this came in at the tail end of 2011, but it so completely changed the way I see long-form narrative on the web, that it deserves a mention. While the Times had been experimenting with “hovercards” as early as their Guantanamo Docket series, the form really came into its own with Boogaard. The idea of adding videos and photos in context inspired me to whip out the photocopier for embedded document annotations, and, this year, embedding an entire news app amid a long-form narrative.



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