This week’s Loose Wire column in WSJ is about visualizing news. Researching the column I had a chance to interview Marcos Weskamp, the guy behind the very cool newsmap, who is setting up a studio specializing in interface design and information visualization for the web called B2 inc (no website available yet).
Here’s an edited transcript of our chat:
Jeremy: what are you doing in japan at the moment?
marcos weskamp: well Ive just moved back here. I’m setting up a small interaction design office.
Jeremy: i see… why japan?
marcos weskamp: I had been living here for around 7 years before. I’m originally from argentina, I came under a scholarhip from the japanese government to study graphic design. When I finished I stayed working and so I was until november last year when I moved to italy to do a graduate program in interaction design.
Jeremy: ah i see. could you quickly update me on newsmap? why you did it, what you think it offers over other interfaces, whether you have plans to develop it further, etc?
marcos weskamp: sure
marcos weskamp: newsmap was basically born after I saw googlenews. Again, I’m from argentina, so my mother tongue is spanish, I speak english since I was 5 and I’ve learned to read and write japanese when I moved here.
marcos weskamp: so when it comes to reading the news, the web is my main source of information and I often read online newspapers in spanish, english or japanese, sometimes reading about the same story in several languages, trying to find what are the nuances that differ from each point of view
marcos weskamp: when googlenews came up I was dazzled, it was impressive. not only they agregated news from thousands of newspapers online, but also – this is the most impressive part – whenever they find the same story in several newspapers, no matter how different the actual text that makes the story is, they group them all under one single cluster
marcos weskamp: so if there’s 300 newspapers reporting about, say “Insurgent attacks in Irak” they’ll file them all under one group and tell you: theres 1357 articles related to this story now
marcos weskamp: now that particular number was what most interested me. that means if I sumed up the total number of articles, and started making percentages, I could somehow see, which stories where the ones that the media was mostly paying attention to
marcos weskamp: now, in googlenews, today you have a total of 22 countries
marcos weskamp: inside each of them you’ll find 7 categories: world, national, business, sci/tech, sports, enternatinment and health
marcos weskamp: so when I thought about visualizaing all of the articles inside googlenews, I came into treemaps
marcos weskamp: treemaps is a visual layout algorithm developed by Proffessor Ben Shneiderman from the University of Maryland
marcos weskamp: Treemaps are used to create space constrained visualizations of quantitative hyerarchical data. Shneiderman originally thought about treemaps to visualize the content of his hard disk. If you think about it In your hard disk you have folders that have folders that have folders that have files
marcos weskamp: that structure is hyerarchical, and those files have a quantitative value; the k size of each of them
marcos weskamp: through a treemap then he could easilly find which where the files or folders that where taking the most space in is hard disk
Jeremy: (i’ve played with a couple such programs, like spacemonger…)
marcos weskamp: in the same way, in googlenews you have countries, that have sections, that have articles. the quantitative value is the ammount of related articles for each news story
marcos weskamp: so I then thought about visualizing the all the content of googlenews in one screen, using a treemap.
marcos weskamp: though I never thought newsmap would replace google news, I simply made it so that I could see, in a quick glance, which where the most important stories at the moment, and also be able then to compare how much attention media in each country gives to each news story
marcos weskamp: what I also found later was well how do different countries look at news. for example if you go to the US, you’ll see that most of the times, the US gives more importance to national news than international news
marcos weskamp: all other countries mostly report about international news
marcos weskamp: except italy where you’ll find that sports news always takes the most space;)
marcos weskamp: in a way you can see how much we are all Biased through US centric media
Jeremy: do you plan to develop it further?
marcos weskamp: yes, definitivelly. I’m working on it:)
Jeremy: what kind of plans do you have?
marcos weskamp: well, I have to add all countries now present in the agreggator. from a data perspective that’s no problem. it only means there’s more html to process (I’m not using the google api)
marcos weskamp: but in the front end I need to change the interface a little bit, and also it’s tough to display asian characters cleanly in flash without a hughe download. I’m looking into alternatives now. there will be other features like being able to reverse the treemap, so that you can find which stories where burried by the big news.
marcos weskamp: there’s also a java version in the works which allows me to display the actual shift of the news throughout the whole week. but well I hope you’ll see it when I publish it sometime later
Jeremy: do you see this kind of thing hitting the big time? replacing the way people view their news online ?
marcos weskamp: not really. again I never pretended to replace the aggregator. this is simply a visualization that gives you a different perspective of what’s inside googlenews.
marcos weskamp: I like to think about it as a complement to googlenews;)