Exploring On Being

We’re thrilled to announce the release of a new project in partnership with On Being, the Peabody Award-winning podcast and public radio show that “opens up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?”

We created a discovery tool based on the hundreds of conversations that have taken place over the show’s fourteen-year history. We designed an algorithm that distilled the episodes into a collection of key ideas and phrases, woven together by threads of related thought. Our aim is to allow listeners to explore the show’s archive and discover serendipitous connections between their favorite episodes and ones they may not have heard. Once users have found a topic that interests them, they can read the transcript, stream the full episode, or add it to a playlist and save it for later.

We wanted the visual design of the discovery tool to reflect On Being’s mission of exploring the human condition through conversation, so we created what we call “whispers.” These excerpts from the show’s transcripts fade in and out across the screen, highlighting the key phrases for each episode and giving the impression of overhearing an exchange between two people. Whispers that are most closely related to the current episode appear at the top of the page, so users can dig deep into a single idea or click on different themes to switch topics completely.

We enjoyed working with On Being because we share their sense of curiosity and attention to detail, which matches well with our design and development process. Over the course of a few months, we created several variations of the archive explorer as we worked with the show’s producers to figure out what features would be most useful to devoted followers and new listeners alike. Ultimately, we arrived at a design that combines audio episodes and transcripts with a collection of beautiful images and a focus on the unique threads of conversation that make On Being special. We hope you find something new while exploring more than a decade of thoughts and ideas.

You can check out the project here.

Interactive reports

From trends in civic tech, to monitoring poverty in New York City, to understanding the future of business, we’ve been fielding more inquiries from organizations who want better ways to communicate the data in their research and reports.

Even as they move away from printed reports and into PDF documents shared online or by email, the same questions remain: How do I reach a broader audience? How do I make the data as understandable and transparent as possible? How do we make sure this information is widely shared? No matter how important the information in a report, even a motivated reader will be challenged to find the time to dig into a few dozen pages, given the number of things already competing for their attention. In these projects, we make complex reports more accessible by creating simple interactive diagrams. They first draw attention to the most important aspects of the data for the quickest possible read, but also provide additional controls so that interested users can delve into the report.

In a series of reports monitoring poverty and well-being in New York City, we translated survey data from Columbia University into multiple interactive visualizations for the Robin Hood Foundation. Normally, only a smaller expert audience already familiar with this kind of report would have seen this information. But with the visualization on their site, Robin Hood has been able to expand its audience, engaging more people with vital information on how poverty manifests in New York.

Robin Hood: Poverty Tracker

With this project, as we do with every project, we’re thinking about not just the data, but also key audiences and the context in which they’ll be using the data or interacting with the report. Will they be on a tablet during their morning subway commute? Sitting at their desk later in the day? Glancing at their phone in an elevator between meetings? Given the importance of Robin Hood’s subject matter, how do we share that with the general public? How do we clearly reach previous—and potential—donors? Can the piece help explain the poverty situation to legislators or motivate their constituents? Ultimately, we want to empower the user by making the data more accessible and understandable.

Our process always begins by looking at the data. Through initial sketches or tools, we depict the available data and reveal interesting stories contained within. From there, we work with our clients to align what we see with what matches their understanding of the data, based on their deeper knowledge of the information or subject matter. Frequently, this initial work will reveal new patterns that our client wasn’t aware of, and we’ll work with them to identify a point of interest to be pursued, an anomaly in the data that requires fixing, or simply an unnecessary distraction.

Next we begin to develop the overall narrative and visual structure of the piece. It all comes together as we build the final interactive piece, which makes its way through several rounds of software development, design iterations, and refining with our clients, the domain experts. By designing directly with code, we can refine the interactions and the animations as we go, and work out the kinks in ideas that initially looked promising, but weren’t supported in the final analysis or design of the piece.

A second example of our process is a project commissioned by the Knight Foundation. In conjunction with research they conducted on the evolving civic tech landscape, we created an interactive visualization that allows users to explore over $695 million of investments across 241 organizations. The resulting piece on their site turned their traditional SlideShare approach into something engaging and exploratory. We were pleased to hear a year later that the project has continued to have exceptionally high levels of engagement in terms of number of visitors and time spent on the site.

The Knight Foundation: Civic Tech
The Knight Foundation: Civic Tech

More recently, Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work conducted a study of digital impact on business, and asked us to create an interactive tool that executives, journalists, and others could mine for information relevant to them. Traditionally, this type of material is released as a white paper, so we were challenged to present that research in a different, compelling, and understandable format for a broader audience. For Cognizant, we focused a lot of attention on how to create a smooth experience for a business leader accustomed to reading traditional reports. When a reader feels confident that they clearly understand the data, they might be encouraged to share what they’re learning and continue to spread the information.

With all pieces that complement a report, the emphasis is on showing more than telling — interactive graphics with brief accompanying text rather than long paragraphs and static charts. How do you visually demonstrate your argument, rather than constructing it from paragraphs of text alone? The best interactive graphics may even replace the white paper or traditional report, but that’s not always (or even usually) the point: more often, we hope to guide the viewer from initial engagement with the data to greater involvement.

Check out all three projects here:

Robin Hood: Poverty Tracker

The Knight Foundation: Civic Tech

Cognizant: The Work Ahead


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Poverty Tracker’s latest update
The emergence of civic tech
Poverty Tracker’s latest update

We’re excited to release the latest update to the Poverty Tracker. The project is a collaboration with the Robin Hood Foundation and Columbia’s Population Research Center that has continued to look at poverty and hardship in New York City over the past three years.

The new landing page design features an updated navigation and rotating carousel of visualization thumbnails.

Building off the longitudinal data from the previous report, the latest edition depicts the total count of those who experience hardship over three years. A single year’s data might suggest that only a small percentage of New Yorkers are facing poverty, but looking over three years shows how almost half the city’s population experienced poverty at some point during that time.

The interactive donut chart represents years spent in hardship across seven demographics in New York City.

This report also takes a look at the different types of “shocks” people are facing—such as losing a job, going through a divorce, or getting arrested—and how that affects the length of time individuals experience hardship.

The ripple chart represents the percentage of people who have experienced shocks and years they spent with disadvantage in New York City.

It’s been a privilege to build on this project with the Robin Hood Foundation and Columbia’s Population Research Center as more data is collected and new reports are added. Since its launch in 2014, the Poverty Tracker site has grown from one report to four, and with that, into an accessible resource that paints a striking picture of poverty in New York City.

You can check out the full site at povertytracker.robinhood.org

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Poverty isn’t Permanent
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Busted in Numbers

Last week we launched a project with ProPublica that investigated the hundreds of innocent people in Houston, Texas, who have been wrongfully convicted for drug crimes since 2003. You can gain some background on the piece, “Busted,” in Elaine’s recent blog post. Like most of our projects, though, much of the story lives in the details.

99% of drug crimes in Harris County, TX, come by way of a guilty plea bargain–a seemingly innocuous fact until you learn that government crime labs proved the innocence of 14% of the wrongfully convicted before their plea bargains were filed. For whatever reason, the prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges simply never saw or checked the evidence, and innocent defendants were convicted regardless.

The picture becomes grimmer when you learn that the official lab tests– which should be administered prior to any plea bargain– cleared the remaining 86% of innocent people weeks, months, and even years after they pleaded guilty for crimes they did not commit. Some have lived with felony convictions for up to thirteen years. 76% of the innocent still do not know, are too afraid, or do not care to clear their records.

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The demographics of those who were wrongfully convicted is, dishearteningly, just as you would expect. About half were under thirty years old at the time their cases were filed. At an age when most are advancing their education, building the foundation of their careers, or starting families– people like Michael J., Georgeana R., or Jharmeel S. have spent more than a quarter of their lives with wrongful felony convictions. They’ve likely had a hard time finding and holding jobs, securing housing, gaining government benefits, and even voting.

60% of the wrongfully convicted are black, though black people make up less than a quarter of the wider Houston population. And in a city split equally among genders, eight in ten of those with wrongful convictions are men. It comes as no surprise that when surveying the city’s wider population, for every one hundred black women between ages 20 and 39, there are only 88 black men. The phenomenon of “missing black men” by no means excludes Houston.

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So, what exactly causes so many to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit? I would argue the answer lies in an overburdened criminal justice system. 1.2 million people in the U.S. are arrested each year for drug possession. Faulty $2 drug field tests only perpetuate the problem, herding completely innocent people into a broken system. In one 2010 study in Las Vegas, one in three tests were found to generate incorrect results. Though the creators of the tests, the National Bureau of Standards, and the Department of Justice have determined that their results “should not be used for evidential purposes,” police departments around the country have been using the unreliable tests to crack down on drugs.

In an overburdened criminal justice system where too many people in power have too little time, many innocent people are falling through the cracks. The points of failure are not isolated acts of misconduct, but reflect the wider systemic failures among judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and crime labs:

  1. National standards recommend defense lawyers handle no more than 150 cases per year. In 2015, more than 35% of court appointed attorneys in Harris County had more than 150 felony cases. One had 985 cases, 446 of which were felonies. Incentivized to solve cases quickly, defense lawyers often work through plea deals rather than advising their clients to wait for official lab results.
  2. Often pressed for bail and intent on getting out of jail, innocent defendants often plead guilty rather than waiting– indefinitely– for lab results to return.
  3. With 1.2 million drug possession arrests each year, backlogged crime labs can take months or years to determine the presence of illicit substances.
  4. Judges should not permit convictions on plea deals where faulty field tests are the sole evidence.
  5. Even when test errors are discovered, defendants, their attorneys, the prosecutors, and judges rarely receive the memo.

In Houston alone, hundreds of lives have been stunted by wrongful convictions for drug crimes. We have yet to count the numbers across the country.

Visit ProPublica to see the full story.

Case Dismissed…or Not

Since 2003, more than 300 innocent people have been wrongfully convicted for drug crimes in Houston, Texas. We partnered with ProPublica on their recent article, “Busted,” that delves into the story of one innocent woman, Amy Albritton, who was arrested in 2010 at a traffic stop. She was pressured to plead guilty for drug possession, and to this day lives with a felony conviction for a crime she did not commit. Amy is just one individual representing the outcome of the systemic failures of the U.S. criminal justice system.

We dove into a dataset containing hundreds of wrongful convictions in Houston over the last decade. We were fascinated by the temporal aspect of the judicial process, so we designed a series of graphics to break down the timeline. We also created graphics that explored the demographic population of the accused.

To clarify the sequence of events for the article, we compiled the information into a timeline of what should happen, punctuated at each step by system failures that did happen. The first point of failure is the chemical field test. The test results are unreliable and are not supposed to be used as evidence in court. Despite the scientific and legal skepticism, police departments nationwide use the tests to arrest and convict individuals.

The field test is one system failure that precedes many others: overworked lawyers and judges, premature plea deals, delayed crime labs, and poor communication between departments. Uninformed about the consequences of a felony conviction, innocent people regularly plead guilty in exchange for a shorter sentence and a criminal conviction.

While grappling with the reality that hundreds of people in Houston alone still live with wrongful convictions, our visualizations feature elements of the data that we found most striking.

+Frequency: Over 300 people were wrongfully convicted in Houston from 2003 to 2015.

+Inaccuracy: 3 in 4 individuals had no drug whatsoever.

+Bias: Young adults, black people, and men are disproportionately convicted.

+Inexperience: Over half of the innocent people pleaded guilty within a week.

+Permanence: 75 percent of innocent people still have a felony conviction.

+Time: The average time that people live with the conviction is 7 years.

As mentioned, time was the most poignant variable from our perspective. The convicted individuals, especially those arrested at a young age, had formative years of their lives stifled by wrongful convictions. With a felony conviction, individuals face restricted government benefits, employment opportunities, housing, and voting rights. For example, Gonzalo S. was arrested in 2004 at age 17, and has now been living with a felony conviction for 40 percent of his life.

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While most of the wrongfully convicted were arrested, accepted a plea deal, and received a sentence before the lab results came back, there were a few cases that deviated from the trend (and to note, this trend is not how the criminal justice system is supposed to work). Twenty people pleaded after their clean labs came back. Some of these cases could be data errors, but they most likely represent cases when no one checked for clean lab results prior to the conviction.

The data also shows how common it is for lab results to come back after the sentencing, but the individual’s record doesn’t get cleared until years (or a decade) later. Sometimes the lab test occurred during incarceration, but no one checked the results. In other cases, results came back after the individual’s release, but the person was hard to locate or afraid to return to the court to have their case dismissed.

The story and the data demonstrate a series of failure points in the criminal justice system. Read the full story and learn about the detectives, lawyers, and reporters who are working to overturn the wrongful convictions.


Founded in 2010 by Ben Fry, Fathom Information Design works with clients to understand complex data through interactive tools and software for mobile devices, the web, and large format installations. Out of its studio in Boston, Fathom partners with Fortune 500s and non-profit organizations across sectors, including health care, education, financial services, media, technology, and consumer products.

How can we help? hello@fathom.info.