Thematic Maps Revisited

A month ago ONS did an excellent job in hosting The Graphical Web 2014 conference in Winchester/UK under the theme “Visual Storytelling”. You should check the summary at the conference website and go from there.

It was a great event to meet people from a variety of backgrounds, e.g. academia, the media and of course NSIs (Statistics Norway, Statistics Austria to name just a few).

All presentations were taped and are currently released as they are processed. Let me take this opportunity to pitch my own presentation of the German Census Map

I guess we’ll be talking about this conference for a while and there are many presentations worth watching already posted. For example Alan Smith from the ONS shows us why learning to programm graphics is a worthwhile endeavour for statisticians who wouldn’t regard themselves as programmers.

His presentation discusses the practicalities of developing that capability in house as a key part of the corporate skills agenda. It borrows heavily from examples and lessons learned from the 7 year lifespan of the ONS Data Visualisation Centre.

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Envy the Data Visualisation Centre? Not any more.

If you follow the ONS Data Visualisation Centre you will be amazed by the fireworks of interactive graphics that they regularly produce. At least I am. Here are just a few recent examples that caught my eye.

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Now who wouldn’t want to install a similar group in their organisation. Apart from the management task at hand (including fighting against or around an established CMS in most cases) people often ask where and how they can get their staff and colleagues up to speed with all the current technology, what are the tools, how do they work and what media partners could be interested in possible collaboration or syndication.

Luckily there are conferences for that and in 2014 the Office for National Statistics (ONS) will be hosting such an event in England that will answer most of those questions. It is the well known Graphical Web Conference and takes place in this top notch venue in Winchester from August 27–30th, 2014. The theme will be “visual storytelling”.

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The Graphical Web focus is on open web technologies such as SVG, CSS, Canvas, WebGL and the respective JavaScript libraries that make dealing with these graphic formats a lot easier. Front and center being D3 the data driven documents library that has become a de-facto standard in the data-visualisation world.

Have a look at the conference website and follow @TheGraphicalWeb on Twitter for the latest updates.

The Graphical Web 2013 Conference

I have long argued for doing data visualizations in-house and even there within the people who know about the subject-matters. Statistical organizations suffer from a lot of friction by outsourcing everything software related and even the arguments with internal IT-departments not always result in timely innovation.

Luckily data visualization on the web has become less than a rocket science and especially the ONS Data Visualisation Center has shown excellent work in this space, that was done in-house by statisticians.

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Therefore I feel it being appropriate to invite the followers of this blog to The Graphical Web 2013 Conference, which takes place October 21.-23. in San Francisco. The conference may be known to you as SVGopen, which it was called until 2012 but the name-change reflects the wider use of different graphical technologies such as Canvas or WebGL. However they all have in common that they are open standards and don’t require any plugins.

Conference submissions are welcome until June 9th and National Statistical Institutions have certainly a lot of material to showcase in this realm. The conference will give you the opportunity to get in contact with developers from your favorite Library (D3), browser vendors and w3c experts. Also expect a lot of representatives from Adobe to attend.

The Graphical Web Conference 2012

Registration for the The Graphical Web Conference (formerly known as SVGopen) in Zürich Switzerland, Sept. 11-14, is now open and speakers as well as abstracts of the planned talks have now been published.

Why is this of importance to the statistical community? Well, the technologies discussed at this conference are the foundation of all current and future data visualisations on the web. Topics range from Thematic Mapping via Math Education to the Visualization of Soccer Statistics.

The Graphical Web is a conference for discussing what is aesthetically possible on the web.

Under this umbrella you’ll meet like minded web developers, may get in contact with browser vendors and will see what the latest tools of the trade from companies big (Adobe, Google, Microsoft) and small will offer.

Finally the conference closes with a day of workhops, of which the Introduction to d3.js, the swiss army knife of all things data visualisation may be especially important. Similarly the Raphaël library and Interactive Charts with Highcharts will be a good opportunity to directly learn from the inventors of these products.

Flash, SVG and a stunning timeline

A timeline is a perfect tool for visualising complex information … and is sometimes quite complex itself. This example from evolutionoftheweb gives both. And it shows interesting details like the evolution of Flash and SVG over time.

Flash

SVG.

The Graphical Web 2012 | SVG Open 2012

There are plenty of conferences on data visualisation to go to and then there are even more on the various technologies and tools that drive the web. So apart from language, budget and travel distance one has to narrow down exactly where additional input is needed.

I would argue that National Statistical Institutes or the readers of this blog by now have spent quite some time on the concepts of disseminating, explaining and visualising their data products and I am also of the opinion that off the shelf solutions are less than ideal. But statisticians are usually well suited to a little programming here and there so they should look into building data driven graphics themselves.

Technology wise there had been some discussion in previous years, which technology to follow. Flash was big among designers and developing platform specific apps has become chic. But HTML in its latest incarnation (“5”) together with graphical technologies like CSS, Canvas and SVG form the open web, that still has the best to offer in terms of accessibility to the largest amount of users, to search engines and to all the operating systems and devices that may come and go faster than we can plan in a bureaucracy.

The transition to a plug-in free Web is happening today.

Microsoft’s IE Blog

And clearly, Flash is on the way out, as the continuing success of iPad and iPhone demonstrate. Additionally in preparing this year’s launch of Windows 8 and their recent developments in IE9 and IE10 Microsoft promotes “plugin free surfing” and Adobe caters for modern technologies under the HTML5 umbrella with their tools.

Conference Header

This is where the 1st International Conference on Open Web Graphics comes in which is also the 10th International Conference on Scalable Vector Graphics. It’ll take place September 11 to 14, 2012 at ETH Zurich Hönggerberg Campus in Zurich/Switzerland. As the name change suggests it is not limited to SVG anymore, but clearly it is aimed at the open and graphical web and has in the past been the place where numerous developments of data driven graphics have been showcased.

From recent conferences I can tell you to expect a familial atmosphere where you will meet like-minded people from various backgrounds and professions. The browser vendors are there, w3c people, tools companies like Adobe or the open source Inkscape project and developers of JavaScript libraries.

Compared to other conferences SVG open is very affordable and even more so if you do a presentation. Should your office send at least two participants you should think about becoming a Sponsor of the conference which will be even cheaper than buying two standard tickets.

Hope you can copy something from this post to convince your employer and see you in Switzerland, September 11 to 14.

Better Browsers

Disseminating Official Statistics is a content driven task that should be foremost user-centric. However when it comes to data visualisation, some technology choices have to be made. In fact it was recent progress in web technology that made interactive data visualisation on the web possible in the first place.

ONS is known for pushing the boundaries on interactive content in this regard, going so far as to provide some content that has the following attached to it:

Note – requires an SVG-enabled web browser, such as Firefox, Safari or Chrome

Obviously this wasn’t an option for a press release or for tabulated data. On the other hand there are many on the web who would ask what other browser than the aforementioned ones would one dare to use. The reality however in larger organisations with centrally managed PCs is that users are only offered Internet Explorer and as long long as they are stuck on Windows XP will be confined to Versions 6, 7 and 8 of Internet Explorer that will not display these data driven graphs. As has been shown, browser update cycles differ greatly between corporate users and the home.

Many of us may have been able to quietly install Firefox or Opera on their work machine as those browsers don’t require administrative priviledges to install. That however doesn’t mean that this is an allowed or welcome action and there may be other technical restrictions that will prevent you from even doing that. And then there is management or other less technical inclined parts of staff that just don’t want things changed and learn a new icon to click or find their bookmarks in a different location.

Therefore so far the situation was such that either you would forego technical progress and interactive content alltogether (wait until you get WIndows 7 with Internet Explorer 9 deployed in your or your customers’ organisations) or do it only on some parts of your content and attach the above note to it.

However there is a bridging technology available that recently become much more usefull. It is called Google Chrome Frame and is a plug-in for Internet Explorer Versions 6, 7 and 8 that adds the rendering and JavaScript engine of one of the fastest browsers available for interactive content, namely Google’s Chrome Browser. Recent changes are that you no longer need administrative priviledges to install Google Chrome Frame.

After installation nothing happens, which means that all the custom intranet applications of your organisation that rely on the non-standard behaviour of Internet Explorer 7 or 8 (IE) will continue to work as before since the IE behaviour is still fully there. If however you are providing interactive content that greatly benefits or even requires a modern browser you just need to add the following line to the pages in question:

<meta http-equiv="X-UA-Compatible" content="chrome=1">

This means a page with the above meta information will be rendered using the Google Chrome engine inside Internet Explorer if Chrome Frame is installed, thus providing SVG and fast JavaScript capabilities. If this sounds compelling, you might watch the following video from this year’s Google developer conference where the thinking behind Google Chrome Frame was elaborated.

Most of you want to try this out before you can convince your web team to add a meta tag to your web pages, so go check out the Chrome Frame: Developer Guide as well as the Chrome Frame FAQ, where you will also find how you can tweak your registry to deliberatly force the Chrome Frame renderer on pages that don’t yet have the above meta tag added (don’t ask your IT department for help with this).

I am well aware that getting this deployed in an organisation is a tough sell but at least you can guide your users who don’t want to install a new browser to check out your interactive content. If you link to the installer like this

http://www.google.com/chromeframe?redirect=true

users will be redirected to your page of interactive content after the installation. Finally Chrome Frame auto updates itself as well as the Flash plugin that comes with it.