Amanda Cox on The New York Times’ Graphics Evolution: “The Future Has an Ancient Heart”


Amanda Cox of The New York Times’ Graphics department explains in a talk given at the Eyeo Festival, the philosophy behind the transformation undergone by the newspaper’s data visualisation techniques. Describing The Times' extraordinary attempt to bring raw data into palpable, coherent being, she outlines an approach characterised by a combination of formats such as graphics, audio and animation, which in turn are augmented by interactivity.

Cox's main point, illustrated by her quote of Carlo Levi's travel book title, The Future Has An Ancient Heart, is that the success of the newspaper's graphics stems from a tradition of constant reuse, review, re-adaptation, and renewal of previous data visualisation ideas. Referring to a multimedia piece in The Times combining transcripts, original audio recordings, an interactive map and a timeline in order to trace the events on the morning of 9/11, she demonstrates how concepts and techniques, used to illustrate past news items, are reused here in a new combination, culminating in a chilling, succinct portrayal of two fateful hours: 

"So obviously, the audio by itself is crazy powerful, but when you take [it in] combination [with] the scrolling, which I think makes it feel immediate, and the map, even though we all know, obviously, how that story ended, it’s riveting, in a way that the pieces wouldn’t be on their own. So this is a great example of where ideas come from, how you paste ideas from certain types of projects into different projects", resulting in a synergetic mix.

Playing with these tools and mashing-up ideas, Cox and her team wish to offer readers the ability to access several layers of meaning by presenting data in a visual format. This access to new, meaningful content through visuals is, ultimately, the main goal. Big, overwhelming graphics fail if all they do is to simply render a technically impressive, visually pleasing illustration of the article, without adding to the readers' understanding of the subject, a belief leading her to conclude with a plea:

"What if instead of praising big [data], we start praising substantial data?" 

Amanda Cox at the Eyeo Festival 2012