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Visualising White Comments

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Max Gadney | 15:11 UK time, Wednesday, 12 March 2008

I have spent the week fending off the raised eyebrows I get when I explain that I'm going to the annual SND Information Graphics conference, mainly because I am taking it as holiday and paying for myself.

SND is the Society of News Design. It is firmly based in media but with presentations including subjects such as airport design and wayfinding. It is one of the broadest design conferences around and largely bereft of people whose style outweighs their substance.

This has been an interest of mine since I was young and I was fortunate to work with designers who went to the conference when I led the News Online design team before I moved to TV commissioning.

What has this to do with anything?


Well, the BBC Two White season website includes Spectrum: a visualisation of comments from BBC News's Have Your Say (it's on the right hand side of the page).

We commissioned this in order to allow people to explore this complex debate more freely than they might in the conventional text format. As one of the BBC's most popular television services, BBC Two must make subjects like this accessible. But being BBC Two it must do it in a way that encourages discovery and serendipity.

As well as the TV programmes, we decided that the White Season would also be a good place to highlight some material from the archive and quality contributions in Video Nation.

Then the question of what we could do with comments came up.

At first, we were cautious.

I worked at BBC News Online for ten years and during that time became pretty familiar with the ideas and stories that ignite beyond just "interest" (these include immigration, Israel and the Middle East etc). We were determined that we would not show anything incendiary. So everything would need to be premoderated.

Some argue against the BBC doing this, with accusations of censorship. But the reality is that if we premoderate, the public won't miss out on spicy, talk-show, "robust" banter, but will be spared a morass of banal and offensive material.

Having decided that the main debate will be housed in Have Your Say for its editorial robustness, we then attempted to visualise what was happening. Much of the work started at database level. We interrogated past debates on this and similar subjects to assemble hundreds of featured adjectives.

With this list, we cross-referenced comments in HYS to label and segment those coming into the White Season debate. It was then an information and graphic design job to create an interface and functions that worked.

Information Visualisation is an aspect of digital media that is reaching out to mass audiences. The Facebook friend wheel is one well known example. We wanted the users to have more involvement, which is why we have enabled agreement/ disagreement on the user interface. The application display becomes richer the more people use it, as well as giving an overview of the main emotional themes.

One of the purposes was to enable more exploration of the data than normal. We seem to be averaging 30 clicks per user at the moment, so that is pretty good. We also wanted to provide different ways of seeing these data - the "Emotional Detail" is my favourite but there is also something very satisfying about the "Regional" view. We have been iterating this through the week in response to where people are clicking or not, as that kind of responsiveness is important in a temporal experience like this.

We are not the first to do this. BBC News has done some really nice work. The Election graphics and swingometer were a great success with audiences.

First of all, we're trying to get the experience right, balancing the compexity of functionality and data with ease of use. Secondly, we're looking for where this treatment is useful editorially. And like everything that we do, the post project review should help us decide where else we use this type of experience - as should your thoughts and comments on this post.

Max Gadney is Channel Editor, BBC Two & BBC Four, Multi-Platform, BBC Vision


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