I had to give some careful thought to today’s weblog before committing it to the electron stream – I wanted to make sure that it was more than a list of nice tools for creating analytical images, and instead provided a framework for educators to develop new digital storytelling approaches incorporating elements such as graphs, charts, diagrams, and maps.
The toolset should not be viewed as a “one solution fits all” dictum, but rather a means to achieve a broad range of expressive explorations in this domain. An essential portion of this process is a workflow designed for all the parts to fit together – a lovely tool for creating graphs is not much good if, when the graphs are brought into the drawing tool for further annotation, they become a horrid pixelated mess. In the tools selected below, I found that PDF on Mac OS X, WMF/EMF on Windows, and SVG on Linux are the preferred file formats to avoid interchange issues.
Those preliminaries taken care of, there are some essential components that I would suggest should be a part of the toolkit:
- a tool for creating tables, the simplest form of analytical images, and one that can provide structure for embedding the results of other tools;
- a general drawing tool, that can both be used for semi-freeform drawing, as well as to edit and touch up the results from other tools;
- a structured drawing tool, oriented towards the creation of diagrams where the parts bear systematic relationships to each other, and where modifications to one part are correspondingly reflected in the other parts;
- a data plotting tool that can produce multiple visualizations of the quantitative relationships among different types of data;
- a map generation and analysis tool that can present the spatialized relationships among different types of data.
Of course, one of these tools can do the job of many – a general drawing tool can in fact substitute for any of the others – but will generally do so clumsily at best. The tools I suggest below are not meant to be the only possible ones – in fact, I will be very happy to hear suggestions others may bring to the table. I chose them for reasonable ease of use, suitability to the task at hand, and free or reasonably low cost (i.e., under fifty dollars academic pricing for any one tool, with free try-before-you-buy periods available for all). Also, this is not intended as an exercise in denying the usefulness of some of the more expensive tools – for instance, one of the best data graphing packages for Windows is well worth the five-hundred-odd dollars it sells for. Instead, the goal is to compile a lean toolkit that still allows for significant exploration of the expressive space outlined in Tufte, Monmonier, and MacEachren.
An Additional General Consideration: for many of these tasks, standard office software suites provide an appropriate point of departure. For those people who lack such a suite, the free OpenOffice is fully comparable to the commercial offerings, and suitable for many of these tasks.
Tables: the standard office software suites are generally adequate to the task of producing expressive and communicative tables – once their presets, generally laden with ugly and unnecessary graphical elements have been overridden, that is. Fortunately, this can be done rather easily in most cases.
General Drawing: while the office suites usually include a minimal set of drawing tools, a dedicated application will tend to provide a more graceful drawing experience. On Mac OS X, iDraw is an inexpensive and elegant tool. For Windows, DrawIt is a surprisingly powerful tool for the price, capable of integrating and exporting to many different file formats. For Linux, the free Sodipodi has a very nice feature set, even though it is strictly limited to SVG for its file import capabilities at this point in time.
Structured Drawing: this is a far less common feature within the office suites – OpenOffice, interestingly enough, is one of the few to include some diagramming features. Fortunately, excellent alternatives are available on all three platforms. For the Mac, OmniGraffle is powerful and easy to use, with very strong integration features with other applications such as outliners and presentation software. On Windows, EDGE Diagrammer has one of the richest feature sets available for software of this type. For Linux, the free Dia provides most of the features of the commercial software packages with a particularly compact and efficient interface.
Data Graphing Tools: as was the case for tables, basic graphing types are reasonably well covered by the office suites. However, the presets are, if possible, even worse than those for tables – many of the defaults could serve as perfect examples of Tufte’s chartjunk. The best results tend to be obtained by turning off unneeded or ill-designed features, and adding any necessary elements in a drawing application. When a range of graphs beyond what most of the suites provide is desired, there exist several options. On Mac OS X, the free trial version of pro Fit is not time limited, and its scope is perfectly well suited to most educational needs. On Windows, Dplot provides a reasonable subset of pro Fit’s capabilities, albeit not for free. For Linux, Grace is currently the most mature interactive graphing program, although its interface can take some getting used to. If an even greater range of options is desired, three free non-interactive programs are available on all three platforms: gnuplot, R, and ploticus. All three of these programs require learning a series of commands for producing graphs, but the range of creative options they provide far exceeds that of the previous programs – ploticus is particularly well suited to developing some of the ideas presented in Tufte’s books.
Map Generation Tools: this is perhaps the trickiest area in terms of both cost and complexity of tools. The best way to start is not with the more complex standalone GIS (Graphical Information Systems) software, but instead by exploring some of the online options. Two free sites stand out in this regard. The first, the David Rumsey Map Collection has over 8800 maps that can be explored online via its specialized GIS software. The richness of this resource cannot be overstated – the maps range from a 1657 map of Osaka, Japan to the 1970 USA National Atlas, and in many cases can be overlaid with contemporary geospatial data. The second, ESRI’s Geography Network allows for the exploration of additional mapping and GIS concepts via the online ArcExplorer application, coupled to a broad range of free data. More adventurous readers may want to try their hand at using a full-blown GIS application, the free cross-platform TNTlite. TNTlite is a very powerful, but quite complex, piece of software; fortunately, the program is accompanied by a generous complement of tutorials that constitute one of the best introductions to GIS I have ever encountered. These tutorials can be digested in small bites, with good rewards at each stage – I would strongly recommend starting at the first one, and progressing through the set.
Thus ends this exploration of a basic toolkit for bringing cognitive art into digital storytelling – if it helps anyone find a new way to tell their stories, please let me know – it would make me feel happy to hear that.