Numbers Without Context Mean Nothing

Did you know the size of the US Debt is closing in on thirteen trillion dollars?  And now that you know that, does that mean anything to you?  Probably not.  Numbers on such an astro-physical scale have a numbing sameness.

But the, when someone goes on to say that to pay the debt, all 308, 442, 403 Americans would each have to cough up $42, 128.81, well, then it starts to ring home just how in hock we are.

Element 79 Chicago Advertising Dennis Ryan

THAT'S how big the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is...

Context is critical to understanding data.  Which is why I’m a sucker for a good info graphic.  Yesterday, I found a website that showed the size of the oil spill off Louisiana by projecting it over the geography of twelve major US cities.  For some reason, this site skipped Chicago but a link makes it simple to use Google Earth and create your own relative impact map over whatever geography you choose.

What no photo of oil-slicked water and no description of a broken pipe spilling can convey, this graphic can.  Powerfully and memorably.  Even with so vast an impact, the context is personal. And that makes all the difference.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

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A Monday Morning Visual Quiz

roundhouseworkerLook closely at this photograph.  Check out the color, the rich lighting and resolution, those freaking awesome goggles.  How old do you think it is?

Would you guess fifty-seven years?  This portrait of a railroad worker taken in the roundhouse of the old Proviso Yard in Chicago exists as part of an online collection in the Library of Congress.  Originally commissioned by the Farm Security Administration, this rare color photograph from 1942 looks like a movie still from some recent period film–probably because we lack any cultural references to relate to a full color snapshot from that era.  As far as I can tell, WWII was fought in grisly black and white, as opposed to the more visceral jungle green and blood red of the Vietnam War newsreels.  That’s just how we’ve always seen it…

What’s even more remarkable is that this entire archive was the vision of a government official.  Roy Emerson Stryker fought in the Great War and later earned a degree in Economics from Columbia.  When he lectured, he would illustrate his talks with his own photography.  Eventually, his Columbia colleague Rex Tugwell left to head the Resettlement Administration, which evolved into the Farm Security Administration.  Roy followed him there, eventually setting up one of the greatest photographic documentary projects in history.  To effectively communicate the hardships the Depression wreaked upon the American heartland and some of the promise of the New Deal, he sent dozens of photographers out on very specific assignments to bring back images which they would feed the press.  By the end of his project, the American public owned 77,000 published prints and 644 color images.

This economist, this manager, this amateur photographer proved to be one of our nation’s finest curators of artistic documentation.  He could just as easily have chosen to be another anonymous bureaucrat, punching the clock and biding his time until his 6pm highball or his twenty-five year gold watch, but not Roy.  His mind didn’t settle for the mundane but imagined something far more vivid.  And because he bothered to think of it, we have a remarkable trove of images that pack an eye-opening empathy.

Do yourself a favor and spend an hour or two with his work by clicking here.  After all, you own these images too.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

A New Local Network: ChicagoNow.com

The people over at Tribune Media just debuted chicagonow.com:  a new blog network launched two weeks ago after three months in beta as chicagosbestblogs.com.  Aggregating seventy+ blogs that loosely share a Chicago-centric theme, this site aims to attract young, digitally-savvy readers uninterested in their daily paper and fill the widening hole in the Tribune’s demographic mix.

All News (and opinion and jokes and gossip) Is Local

All News (and opinion and jokes and gossip) Is Local

I wish them well, though I’m clearly not in their demographic.  I subscribe to the Trib and until someone comes up with an elegantly-interactive digital crossword, I’ll stay analog.  Moreover, I like the illusion that my news at least postures as objective; the injection of obvious left or right bias in every item both exhausts and depresses me.

ChicagoNow appeals to its nascent audience with a pretty wide variety of News and Opinion, Life and Style, Arts and Entertainment, and Sports blogs–category headings seemingly taken right off their print mastheads.  A quick skim of their content reveals a largely newspaper-like tone, albeit with the amped up personality and opinions of the individual bloggers.  For me, the reading experience was not unlike an evening of Chicago Improv: a few remarkable moments separated by a lot of meandering development.  Then again, the analog version contains a lot of material I skim or ignore as well.

The word ‘community’ appears repeatedly throughout the site’s background pages; something that will prove simultaneously crucial as they pitch potential advertisers and challenging as their biggest potential stumbling block.  The best online communities build organically (for perspective, check out this month’s Wired magazine’s article on Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist).  As Clay Shirky writes, Web 2.0 means we no longer need organizations to organize.  Moreover, the user experience needs to come first and foremost and on that count, ChicagoNow seems to be doing it right.  You don’t need to register to access the content, but it does unlock other features like comments.  The ill-fated, arrived too early, saddled-by-regulatory redtape Bud.tv ultimately collapsed due to those onerous restraints as the hassles to the user outweighed the benefits of the content.

Will ChicagoNow take off and ultimately fill the expanding gap in the Tribune’s audience with new, revenue-generating readers?  It’s too early to say, but as a fan of newspapers, I hope it does.  And if nothing else, good on them for trying.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79