Good infographics can save lives

I recently finished reading The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, a gripping account of a deadly cholera outbreak that struck London in the summer of 1854. Scientists of the time were convinced that cholera was an air-born disease brought on by the appalling sanitary conditions of Victorian-era London. Yes, London was a squalid place and inadequate waste and garbage removal was responsible for the potent smell that permeated the city. However, the root of the problem was not in the air but in the water. The water-born theory was first proposed by Dr. John Snow, based on his observations of the number of victims who were clustered near a particular fresh water pump. Snow was convinced that the pump was infected with the cholera bacteria and that drinking water from the pump was responsible for so many deaths. To help visualize the theory, he drew a black line on a map to indicate where each victim resided at the time of death. The map also pointed out the location of all water pumps in the area. Clearly there was a correlation between the pump and the number of deaths near it. Superstitions die hard, but eventually the map helped sway opinion away from the air-born theory.

It’s thrilling to see how innovative thinking and good information graphics played a heroic role in solving a frightening medical mystery. Yes, good infographics can save lives.

A Ground-breaking Moment

Late in 2012, the New York Times published a multi-media story called Snow Fall, The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek. If you have not yet seen/read the story, we are happy to introduce it to you here. Snow Fall is a ground-breaking moment in multimedia journalism, one of the first articles to illustrate the dynamic possibilities that occur when new media are thoughtfully integrated with the written word. As you scroll through the story, stunning animated graphics, slideshows, and video interviews add clarity to the unfolding drama. My favorite graphic is the vertigo-inducing flyover of the Cascade Mountains with ranges and ridges graphically delineated. What is particularly exciting is that the visuals enhance the story rather than overwhelm it. In fact, the story runs for a whopping 10,000 words, which is well over the copy count of most magazine articles.

I predict that Snow Fall will mark a change in the way we do multimedia storytelling. The possibilities are as vast as the northwestern mountains.