On the web: data visualisation: howbigreally.com

Something we get asked for fairly regularly in the news library is a size comparison – some journalists like to be able to equate a distance or area in a story to a recognisable place in the UK (recent examples include a piece on nature reserves “covering an area the size of the west Midlands” and a reference to British manoeuvres in Sangin, Afghanistan “to capture an area the size of the Isle of Wight”).

There is a questionmark over the validity of such comparisons – how much value does it really add to a story, and how many people have a strong enough grasp of geography to be able to visualise even UK areas? But they show no sign of dropping out of use.

A new online tool developed by the BBC could help media librarians, journalists and readers to draw more relevant, and useful, comparisons in future. BBC Dimensions, found at howbigreally.com, takes a template of a newsworthy event (for example the area afffected by the floods in Pakistan, the Twin Towers or the BP oil spill) and lays it over a Google map at a location of your choice.

Dimensions is a prototype and it has its limits – you can’t create a new template so the event you’re covering has to be listed already; you can’t play with the shape of the template so you need a reasonable amount of spacial awareness to be able to compare it to specific areas like counties or countries; and, perhaps most worryingly, the disclaimer at the bottom states, “We make no guarantee as to its accuracy, reliability or performance” – but it is a pretty good starting point for queries of comparison, and it’s a nifty way of using data visualisation to add value to a news story.

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