Data visualisation and storytelling

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Why data visualisation needs a play button

Audio can enrich visual storytelling and bridge the gap between the exploration and explanation of data. You can now make audio-driven visualisations, or “Talkies”, without coding. Click play to learn more!

Look at the play button on the visualisation below. What do you expect to happen when you click it? Perhaps you assume a video will play, allowing you to “lean back” and watch a pre-defined narrative, as opposed to an interactive graphic where you “lean in” to find your own stories? If so, you’d be half-right. You will get a lean-back story, but it’s not a video and the content is interactive and explorable.

Example Talkie by Katie Riley

Make a Talkie now »

So what is this exactly? Conceptually, you could call it an “interactive presentation that gives itself” (an absentation?). Technically, you might say it’s “a series of code events synchronised with timecodes in an audio file”. At Flourish HQ we like the name “Talkies”. But whatever you call them, the idea is to combine clear narrative and interactivity: to break down the distinction between data explanation and data exploration.

As Alberto Cairo put it when reviewing our early hand-made audio-driven visualisations:

“Should we explain the data, perhaps through a narration, or should we let readers explore the data at will? … if your graphic is a digital and interactive one, why shouldn’t you combine narration with exploration?”

Until now, the main barrier to this combination has been that making Talkies by hand is difficult and fiddly for coders and impossible for anyone else. But today we’ve released a new feature in Flourish that enables anyone to make audio-driven charts and maps quickly and easily. We hope you’ll agree that this opens up an interesting new format for data storytelling.

The backstory

We first experimented with Talkies long before Flourish existed, in our days as a bespoke visualisation studio. In fact, my co-founder Robin Houston came up with the concept for our very first project, the Carbon Map, back in 2012.

We were grappling with how to make our fancy interactive map comprehensible to new viewers. Would they understand that the countries were sized to reflect data points? Would they bother reading the text descriptions of the various metrics? Would they notice the shading dropdown, and if so would they discover any interesting combinations of shading and sizing?

I suggested we make a video explaining how the map works and showing some interesting views. But Robin (as usual) had a more interesting idea: upload just a voiceover and synchronise this with different map views using code. There were lots of potential benefits: faster to load and higher resolution than a video; interactive rather than static; responsive rather than fixed aspect ratio; and a much nicer user experience than having a separate explainer video. We could even translate the story into different languages just by switching out the audio file and timecodes! Here’s what we ended up with:

The result was published on The Guardian and generated a lot of positive feedback. The analytics were interesting too. Almost 100% of users clicked the play button, and most of those watched the full 90-second introduction. Then some people clicked away (often assuming they had watched a regular video!) while others stayed for ages digging into the data.

We realised we’d stumbled onto something quite interesting and explored the new format in a bunch of other projects over the next few years. Better Or Worse? showed a data presentation with a built-in voting system to see how users interpreted the story, while In Flight added a voiceover to a map showing real-time data to create a kind of “live video”. (The data is no longer live, sadly, as the feed was turned off.) Digital Divide used a Talkie to explain a complex scatter plot, drawing inspiration from Hans Rosling’s TED talks, while First World War was a multilingual documentary that combined video and audio in the Talkie. You can find many more examples on the Kiln website.

Along the way we created talkie.js, an open-source library to encourage other developers to add voiceovers to their own interactives. But what we really wanted to do was create a tool that allowed non-technical users to create their own Talkies. Enter Flourish.

Talkies in Flourish

When we set out to build Flourish a few years ago, the idea was to make a visualisation tool that allowed people to go beyond basic charts and maps and to create genuine narrative-driven stories, complete with animations between views and advanced visualisations and maps. Talkies were always part of the plan, but we couldn’t do everything at once, so in the first version of Flourish stories the only way to move between “slides” was using the next and back buttons. Animations: check. Rich visualisation: getting there. Audio: one day!

Finally, as of today, you can add an audio file to any Flourish story to create a Talkie. Here’s how it works:

  • Create a Flourish story with as many slides as you like
  • Under “Audio/autoplay” choose “Enabled”
  • Upload your voiceover as an MP3 file
  • Set durations for each slide to line up the visuals with the audio
  • Hit “Publish to share or embed”

Another option is to skip the audio upload step to make an “autoplay” story that silently progresses through the slides at specified times, optionally looping at the end. This can be handy, for example, when using a Flourish data story on a big screen at an event.

Tips

A few lessons from our experience making voiceover-led visualisations:

  • Short is sweet. Try to keep the voiceover to one or two minutes. You can leave the detail in the interactive for the user to explore.
  • Keep things moving! If nothing changes on the screen for more than a few seconds, a Talkie can feel visually boring or even broken. So in general it works best to minimise the words per slide, unless you have long animations.
  • You can add “normal” slides as well as visualisation to your Talkie by clicking “Add slide” and then “Basic slide”.
  • Add some (public-domain) music behind your voiceover before uploading for a more fun and professional feel.

We’re really excited about this new feature and can’t wait to see – and hear! – what you create.

Make a Talkie now »