Wikileaks: Stories and Visualisations

  • I've been scanning the reports of the Wikileaks in The Guardian since they started. Some I read, some I look at, but most I simply ignore. Selectivity seems to be an inevitable response in the face of the so-called 'data deluge'.

    The Guardian's stories are just that: stories. It's a cliche, but visualisations are stories too. But what kinds of stories? Joseph Minard's graph of the the advance on Moscow by Napoleon's army - and it's subsequent retreat - artfully combined geography, temperature, and the number of survivors in a classically memorable visualisation of defeat. So what do the Wikileak visualisations look like?

    The answer is, it's early days. As Evelyn Ruppert notes, most content analysis has still to come - except in the form of good old-fashioned story-writing. Transactional analysis has still to get under way too. What we do get is world maps. There's The Guardian's cataloguing map mentioned by Evelyn: a sombre affair with little points of light that we can click on if we want to trace articles of cables from the database. Then there's the blog map from The Guardian, also mentioned by Evelyn. This tells us about the numbers of cables sent from selected capital cities. Much of the surface of the world is covered, in the map, by large blue circles. To a first approximation, the world looks fairly well covered. And then, if we go to Der Spiegel, another of the newspapers channelling stories from the cables, we find a third world map.

    Like The Guardian's first map this is interactive. It expands, and if you click on a city you get to see a time-line graph of the cables, and in some cases you get taken to stories based on those cables. At the same time, it looks very different to either of The Guardian's visualisations.Why? Well Der Spiegel's cartographers have tried to visualise the important of the city in question (in terms of the number of cables) by using circles of different sizes. Big circles are important sources of cables, small circles aren't. The Guardian's blog map has tried to do the same thing, but the effect could scarcely be more different. In the latter the circles are spread out all over the map, and the different regions of the world don't look very different; whereas for Der Spiegel they do. Washington aside, in this way of picturing the story, it's Europe and the Middle East that dominate the map. South and East Asia aren't so prominent, and Africa and Latin America become relatively marginal.

    Maps are devices. Like other forms of data, they are the product of practices which select, simplify, generate, and display particular relations. Evelyn notes that they embed prejudices and concerns, and that they are subject to control. I would add the completely unoriginal observation that they are also generative. That they do things. That they enact relations. With this in mind, it's fascinating to compare and contrast the work of the Der Spiegel cartographers with that of their colleagues at The Guardian. Why are they so different?

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