Aliza Aufrichtig is a graphics and multimedia editor at The New York Times. In addition to covering the coronavirus and elections, she designs and develops stories that demand a bespoke form, often with audio and video. She’s created and maintains several popular websites and tools: Discover Quickly, a way to find new music very, very fast; an e-bike finder for New York City; and a spreadsheet-based period tracker for people with periods who want to own their own data.

Episode Notes

Aliza on Twitter

NYT COVID tracker
NYT: Voices of a Grieving Nation
NYT: How America Lost One Million People
NYT: 1 Million Deaths, 13 Last Messages
NYT: Podcast Voices 
NYT: When a Search Crosses the Line
NYT: How China Spreads its Propaganda Version of Life in Xinjiang

Washington Post: Cut Short
The Daily Podcast
Loud Numbers Podcast 

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Episode #194: Charlie Smart

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Welcome back to the PolicyViz podcast. I am your host, Jon Schwabish. I hope you’re well. I hope the weather is treating you nice, it has gotten hot here in Virginia, and has made umpiring behind the plate of the Little League a little difficult. But anyways, on to the show, as you probably know, if you’re in the data visualization field, there were a number of stories from the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, about the marking of 1 million deaths in the United States from COVID, and there was some conversation about whether, in particular, one of those stories, that included a bunch of dots animating around the screen, whether that was an effective way to get readers to feel the impact of that unfortunate milestone. But later in the week, there were a couple of other stories, and one in particular by Aliza Aufrichtig that used audio from family members of people who had passed away from the virus. And so, I reached out to Aliza to get her take on her story, how she built it, and also this sort of broader body of work that the Times had come out with that week. So we chat about her work, we chat about how she actually built it, where she got the audio files from, and her thoughts generally about how we can use sound to help readers or users or audience members connect with our content. So I’m going to hand it over to this interview with Aliza from the New York Times, and I hope you’ll enjoy it. 

Jon Schwabish: Hi, Aliza. Good morning. How are you? 

Aliza Aufrichtig: Hi Jon. I’m doing well. How are you? 

JS: Doing fine. It’s definitely summertime here in Virginia in the high 90s. 

AA: Yeah, here in Brooklyn as well, it is quite warm. 

JS: What do we have, like, basically a couple of months of like 50 – I don’t know about up there, but down here it was like 50 degrees for a couple of months in April and May, which never happens. 

AA: Yeah, it was very cool for a while, I think I wore my coats for longer than expected. 

JS: Which I don’t mind actually, because everybody complains about the 50 degrees, and then everybody will complain about the 90 degrees, so might as well complain we’re not sweating as far as I’m concerned. Well, anyways, thanks for coming on the show, I’m really excited to chat with you about your piece in The Times and a couple of other pieces in the Times marking this unfortunate anniversary of a million deaths from COVID. So the story that you worked on, that you wrote, Voices of a Grieving Nation came out I think a week or so ago, and was a combination of text and graphs and audio, which I thought was the kind of, for me, the most engaging piece of it. And so, I thought maybe you could just tell folks how you and the folks you work with came up with it, and then how you actually physically did the interviews or recorded the audio, and then, how you actually built the whole thing and put it all together. 

AA: Sure. So I think as some background, I have spent more than the last two years as part of the team that creates the coronavirus trackers on the New York Times website. So there’s a group of us, there’s more than 100 people, I know you spoke with Charlie and other person that I work with, and I am part of a sort of smaller subset of that group that creates the graphics for the coronavirus tracker, the charts, the time series, the tables, everything that readers and I come back and check day after day. And so, I had spent a lot of time staring at these charts that I was building, and I know that also, unlike a lot of other visualizations that the Times does, readers spent a lot of time looking at these charts. And I think that that time series of cases and also depths in some ways is like a marker of this era, I think it’s this indelible image of this crisis that we’ve all been living through for the last two plus years. And so, as I’ve been working on it, I think something that we talk about a lot, and that’s important to us is to make sure that these numbers are not just numbers, that every pixel of the chart of a case chart is somebody who got sick, every pixel of the death chart is somebody who died. And you don’t want to forget that, even as you’re getting really deep into the technical details, these are lives that we’re talking about. And so, I had just been broadly thinking about what are ways that we can help make these graphics that are so familiar, perhaps focus more on individual lives. And so, an initial idea that I had was this concept of find yourself on the curb. So for the case curve, I have this idea, oh, what if we do a callout to readers and ask them if you had coronavirus, you’re here, you’re one of the pixels on this chart, like, find yourself and tell us your story; and there was some discussion around that idea, and that was earlier in 2022; and as we were starting to talk about that, it became clear that we were nearing this awful milestone of 1 million people who had died. And so, we started talking about, well, what if we did something like that, some sort of way of really personalizing these graphics, but for depths, and so, as I was sort of starting to have conversations about, oh, how could we maybe do a callout for readers and ask them to find their loved ones on this forum, I learned that The Daily, our podcast, had already done that. And so, yeah, they had put out a callout asking readers who had lost someone to COVID-19 to call in with some sort of memory of the person who died, and I think also, generally, if they had any thoughts about grief and grieving to share those in a voice memo. And so, I connected with The Daily and it was shortly after they had opened it, that they had already received a lot of submissions; and I asked them – they were interested in using them for their own episode, which they did do, and which I thought was really incredible, they used some of the same voice memos that I did. But I was like, what if we did something collaborative, where I could also make use of some of these voice memos, and kind of attach them to the point on the chart, and really use that as a way of not only honoring the lives of the people who died, but also think more broadly about how we make sense, and how we visualize – and how we visualize is talking about visuals, but how do we make sense of such a large number using voices of people. So once we had that initial conversation, we sort of moved forward on this collaboration and the story began to take shape. 

JS: They have a large number of these voice memos that came through, did you have to winnow your way through to find the ones that you thought would work in the story, and how did you do that filtering process? 

AA: So The Daily received more than 200 voice memos, and they were just gutting to listen to… 

JS: Yeah, I was going to say, just on the data prep side, it must just be torture to have to listen to these. 

AA: It was really challenging, but I think it was really important to listen to them, and I wouldn’t say that I listened to every single bit of all of them, but because The Daily had sort of started to go through them, and they had started to organize them, but I listened to a lot of them. And I didn’t really have a clear sense of which ones I wanted to feature, there wasn’t like I was looking for some particular thing, but as I was listening, I sort of started to compose them into moments in time and think about common themes, and I think The Daily did the same. We were working, I don’t know, in sort of different lanes of a similar project, and we were collaborating and they were doing curation, and I was doing curation, and I think for everyone involved in the project, we felt that it was so challenging, but also, I don’t know, it was really important to hear what the readers had to say, and I think informed both of our final products just grappling with the grief of each individual voice. And I think that that is sort of what I would say is like the thesis of the story that I was working on my contribution to this, like, memorializing a million deaths is that when you were looking at such an awful milestone of a million people who’ve died from COVID, there’s really, there’s two numbers that you’re thinking about, there’s a million and then there’s also one, and I think that what audio compared to a lot of other forms is so effective with is that it demands your attention, you can’t listen to a million audio files all at once, you can’t even really listen to three or four or 10 audio files at once. And in a way, it kind of helps make this point that you can’t just consolidate, you can’t just add one and one and one and one and then get to a million, it’s almost impossible to do that math, and I think audio helps make that point. 

JS: Right. I want to come back to your story, but given that you’ve mentioned this idea of the one and the single pixel, I want to talk about a couple of other projects that the Times had put out that same week, so there was a piece that came out a couple of days I think or maybe the day before yours came out, it was entitled how America lost one million people, and it got a lot of attention in the DataViz Twitter world. There’s a big print spread, but online, it started with all these dots, these little dots around the screen, and then as you scroll through, it animated into this curve, as you’ve mentioned, the area chart, and then as you kept scrolling, it animated out into this map. And there was some critique about that saying, all these, again, with all the dots, all the pixels, it still doesn’t help us really grasp the magnitude and the impact of a million deaths. But in retrospect, I think over the next couple of days your piece came out, and then, there was another piece that came out, there was an op-ed that had actual text message exchanges between people who are in the hospital, and their family members, and I just, I wonder – I don’t really know what the question here is, but, I guess, what I’m trying to ask is, should we as the reading public, especially when we hit a milestone like this, should we view these pieces as a body of work as a whole, rather than here’s one, here’s another, here’s another, and sort of pick each one apart? 

AA: Yeah. So I think for such an enormous story as this one, one million people who died, there are dozens, if not more of ways that you can look at this story, and I think that that’s true for any story, but the larger the story is, the more ways we’re going to cover it and think about it and convey it. And so, I can’t speak to the specific decisions that were made in those other stories, I was aware of the one with the million dots, but I wasn’t involved in it, and the one that was coming out of opinion was separate, and I should note, I think they’re both really fantastic stories that are doing different things. And so, yeah, I think that from my perspective, there’s no one definitive way of telling the story of a million deaths, and I think this has been something that we’ve been grappling with how to tell the story of COVID, since it began. We tell it in our charts that are on the tracker that are reporting the numbers, we tell it in written articles that are coming out every day, we tell it in our live blog, we tell it in stories that include photography, stories that include videos as we’ve hit different milestones like a 100,000, they took over the front page, and there was also an online version that showed its obituaries and people’s names. When we hit 500,000 people who had died, there was a really fantastic video story that one of my teammates put together, and I think from my perspective, there is no way that you can really convey this and say, okay, this is the definitive story, and this is the definitive way, but I think that each story that we’ve published is trying to do something different. I think my story was really trying to convey, in a way, in almost like a meta kind of way, how difficult it is to understand such an enormous loss. I think that as a reader of the story with a million dots, they were looking at different groups of people who are affected, and why, and really helping people understand of this giant number, like, it wasn’t just a million scattered equally around the country, there were very specific groups that were affected, and I think it was important to look at that. I think the opinion story was so emotionally effective, because everyone texts people; if you know somebody who’s sick, you’re texting with them; and so, I think you’re able to identify, and so, I think they’re just, and, you know, my story was thinking about how you listen to people who are grieving and how it’s difficult to consolidate grief, and to sort of package it and wrap your arms around it, and I think they’re just all different ways of looking at something, and I don’t know that. I think they each have their own goal. 

JS: Right. I’m curious how you look at your piece, and the op-ed piece that was the text messaging, because those two, and I know they’re separated, there’s a wall or whatever between the news side and the op-ed side, but I’m curious how you look at those two because they do seem so, I guess, closer in nature because they both have these individual exchanges or responses. 

AA: Yeah, I think they are doing some similar things, I think that they’re both trying to contrast or really look at the complement of one individual loss, one connection with a family member, and then sort of zoom out and look at how that relates to the whole, but I think that the formats, they do different things. I think with audio you can hear the emotion in somebody’s voice, I think there’s a lot of other information that you get from a person that are different from the words. And I think what is so effective about text messages, as I mentioned, is that they’re just the way that people communicate it now, and so, I think you can kind of identify in a way with those. So yeah, I think that there, as I said, there’s many different ways of trying to look at this, and I think that they are doing similar things, but I don’t feel like they’re redundant. 

JS: No, that’s right. What I also found interesting about the text messaging piece was they did such a good job with the design, where it was actually like an image of a phone and you would scroll through the text messages the way you actually would, as opposed to sort of having it like regular text, like, I thought the design was really well done. 

AA: Yeah, absolutely, I thought they did a really fantastic job. 

JS: So I want to come back to your piece. There are going to be some people listening to this who want to know how it was actually built, so you have all these audio files. And for folks who haven’t seen it, and I’ll put a link in the show notes, it’s a chart on the left side, and as you scroll through, there’s the written news story, and then, you have the spots where you can play the audio, which was also very nice that it’s sort of, I don’t know, is there a name for this where is it just closed captioning where it sort of highlighted the text as it moved along, because you could toggle the audio on and off if you wanted to, but the highlighting always sort of occurred? 

AA: Yeah, I’m not sure I should come up with a snappy name for that effect. It’s something that I have been developing and used on a number of different stories, at least, like a year or two, I think the first time that I used that, let’s call it karaoke or closed caption, it was actually on a story that I was collaborating on about podcast voices, which is actually for this conversation, and it was sort of trying to illustrate podcasts use and the way that different people speak on podcasts, and there were these illustrations like a spiral of a voice or very sparse. I’ll send you a link to it, and the idea that as you’re hitting each word, it highlights, and I think it’s very effective, because I think that when you’re coming to an article, you don’t usually expect that it’s going to have an audio component. And so, I think we need to – we obviously want to do our best to entice readers to turn on their sound, because we’re adding audio because we think that there’s something that audio can uniquely do for the story, but we also know that readers, not everyone, you might not be in a situation where you can’t turn on sound when you’re reading the New York Times. And so, how do you make the experience at least somewhat satisfying without sound, and maybe also use that as a way of enticing people to turn on their sound. So yeah, that’s definitely been a format that I’ve been exploring for a while, and so, it was interesting to try it out again here. 

JS: So I want to get to the technical piece, because I’m sure people are like, oh, I want to add sound to my piece. So tactically, how was this built? 

AA: Yeah. Sure. So it uses a JavaScript framework called Svelte, which is something that was created by a former colleague of mine, both at The Guardian and The New York Times, Rich Harris, and it’s a great framework for people who are interested in JavaScript, I think it’s particularly well suited to building the sort of interactive web pages that we build in news, which is not coincidental, because Rich was building it to support his work in news. So that’s the underlying framework, and then, in terms of the audio, it’s just using HTML5 audio, so there’s no library, it’s just using what you have on available on any webpage, on the modern web. And you can really do a lot with that, you can play one file, you can play multiple files, you can adjust the volume; and even though, I think the composition of playing multiple video files at once, it looks complicated, under the hood, it’s actually fairly straightforward. I mean, it’s fairly straightforward if you’re familiar with web development and [inaudible 00:19:47]. I think there’s nothing more frustrating than someone saying, oh, it’s easy, and you have no idea what to do, but I think if you’re the sort of person who is familiar with building websites and is comfortable with JavaScript, I think working with audio is very accessible. 

JS: Yeah, I already kind of know the answer to this question, but I want to ask anyway. So sound in DataViz, sort of, sonification are kind of a, somewhat of a hot topic, seems to kind of ebb and flow a little bit in the field, I mean, I already can guess your affinity for sound and using audio, since you have at least these two projects that we talked about, but I’m curious how you foresee sound being used maybe more regularly in the field and to communicate data, not just these huge milestone type pieces, but more regularly.

AA: Yeah, I think that it’s funny, I don’t think a lot of what I do is like DataViz, even though I think maybe in this case, it arguably could be, but I think more in terms of what is the best way to communicate this particular story, and I think, as I was mentioning before, the barrier to experiencing audio is there, it can be difficult, it’s a more challenging experience for the reader. And so, I think when you’re using audio, or using video, which is also something that I have been working with a lot over the last few years, you have a good reason for doing it. And so, it’s hard for me to say, oh yeah, we should just do more stuff with audio, but I think if there are stories that are enriched by readers hearing something, then I think it’s certainly worth doing. It’s like, I think the power of audio, it’s sort of a double edged sword, in that it demands your attention, like, I think related to this million deaths story, you can’t just skim it, you can’t just kind of move your eyes around the page and take it in, we’re not, you know, readers have been trained to sort of understand visuals over the last 10-20 years, which, it’s not like they naturally knew how to do that, but it’s something people have been working on, and I think we don’t have a good way of taking in a lot of audio. And so, I think what are the stories that would benefit, I think it adds emotion, it really helps humanize stories to hear things, and also, I think music and media and culture journalism, I think, also really benefits from audio. I’ve worked on a lot of stories with our culture desk that involved music, and so, of course, if you’re working on a story that is about sounds, is about music, then it’s great if you can allow readers to hear it too. I’ve worked on this series that we call Before & After, where we look at a classic album, and as you go through, we describe for each song of the album its influences on the songs that influenced. And it’s one thing to just be able to read a journalist telling you what this, like, what this particular song took from something before, but it’s another thing to be able to hear it and say, oh okay, that guitar pattern and the song from the 1930s, which I can now hear, I can hear it now in this song from the 1960s. So we did it for Maggot Brain. We did that series for My Chemical Romance, while I was working on that, I turned into a giant My Chemical Romance fan, I’d never even heard it before that. I was like, this is amazing. We did it for B-52s, it’s a fun series. 

JS: That’s a good series. 

AA: And I think there have been other stories about bird sounds, or there was a really fantastic one that some of my colleagues did about subway chimes in different cities, and so, when you’re talking about something you can hear, you want to hear it. 

JS: Right. So how does that play then into the print side of the newspaper, or does it not – I mean, it must be a tough balance. 

AA: Yeah, it is. I think that for this story about a million deaths, it really, like, I couldn’t imagine what a print version of this would look like. There is no print version, because it’s both dealing with the animation through time of a chart and how it changes over time, and how, whether you have a 1000 deaths or a million deaths, it still fits in the same space, and I think that using the web is an effective way to show that, and then, of course, it also deals with audio and the uniqueness of that form. And so, I basically went into this being like, I don’t think there will be a print version, but it ended up that, I thought that the print package that was put out, where they took over the whole front page, and there were a lot of other stories, we did end up using the quotes that I had selected and just sort of listing them on the back page there. So the final page of that word, it’s mostly the same stories that ended up in my story, and so, that was one way of elevating the voices of the readers who had called in. But it wasn’t really the same article, it wasn’t making this point about representation, but it was still including it in a way. 

JS: Right. But it’s interesting, because it spans then, I mean, I know there’s more than just kind of the three things in my head right now, print, online, and podcast, but it spans all three of those, and kind of does a nice job of linking all those different ways to reach an audience, just in a subtle way, right? I mean, probably no one really realizes that until right now, that you and [inaudible 00:25:46] heard he same quote, yeah.

AA: Yeah, I did sort of see the story I was working on existing in some space between the other ones in a way, because it is integrating The Daily podcast and the data and the individual stories that we report all the time, we try to elevate those stories as much as we can. But yeah, I think it’s hard to really, if you’re really trying to push the web to tell stories in a unique way, it can be hard to then say, okay, well, how do we put this in print. And I personally, don’t know anything about print design, I haven’t worked on that. I know there are some colleagues of mine who do both and are really fantastic at both. And so, for example, those Before & After music’s stories, they do end up in the paper, but there’s obviously no audio element which is [inaudible 00:26:42]. 

JS: Right, yeah, just pressing on paper doesn’t really play. 

AA: Yeah.

JS: Well, Aliza, these are great, the story was great. Thanks so much for taking time out of your day and chatting about it. I’ll put on the episode notes for folks who want to check all these out, I’ll put them down there, so you can take a look, as well as some of the other pieces that we talked about, the Before & After, the podcast voices, and the subway chimes, I’ll put all those. So thanks so much for coming on the show, it was really great chatting with you and thanks. 

AA: Okay. Thanks, Jon. 

Thanks everyone for tuning into this week’s episode of the show. I hope you enjoyed that, I hope you learned a little bit. There are a lot of links in the show notes to this week’s episode. So go over there, do some clicking, do some reading, and, of course, do some listening. If you would like to help support the show, please rate and review it on your favorite podcast provider. You can also support the show financially through Patreon, or you can also head over to my new Winno community, which is a text messaging app where I send out about two or three times a week some data visualization strategies, tips, examples, and also have some cool giveaways going on right now through the month of June and July. So I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode, only one more left in this season of the show. So until next time, this has been the PolicyViz podcast, thanks so much for listening. 

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