The infographic was among man’s earliest means of communication (think petroglyph), yet after millennia of evolution, this marriage of text and images is only now realizing its full potential as a journalistic tool. The proliferation of data, the ease of access to that data, and the emergence of new ways to carve it up and serve it to overburdened readers have turned yesterday’s static, often redundant graphics into animated, interactive, and dynamic efforts that are one of our most promising strategies for making complex stories digestible.

Much of the experimentation and development of infographic techniques is happening at universities. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Senseable City Laboratory, for example, created Real Time Rome, which uses cell-phone signals to chart the movement of the city’s population throughout the day. UCLA statistician Mark Hansen turned digital technology into art in the lobby of the new New York Times building, through a system that culls the most-used phrases in the news-media databases and flashes them on rows of screens.

Making a cool infographic is one thing. But making one that serves a journalistic purpose requires a pairing of the ability to visualize statistical information with a reporter’s sense of news judgment. Hannah Fairfield, a graphics editor at the Times, is one of this new breed of infographic journalists. Last spring, as the subprime story was blowing up, Fairfield created an infographic that illustrated and explained the concentrations of subprime mortgages and foreclosures around the country. She collected data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources, and separated the numbers into two sets—one that showed subprime mortgages as a percentage of all mortgages in counties throughout the U.S., and another that showed subprime mortgage foreclosures as a percentage of all subprime mortgages in metropolitan areas. She then imported this data into a program called ArcMap, a geographical information system that allows users to create maps to analyze spatial data.

Her foreclosures map showed dark green clusters—the highest concentrations—in Florida, areas of California, and the Rust Belt states of Michigan and Ohio. The same regions were often some of the densest points on Fairfield’s second map, which plotted the subprime mortgages as a percentage of all mortgages. But this second map also showed that in other areas with high numbers of subprime mortgages, such as in Dallas or Memphis, homeowners were more likely to be able to keep up with their mortgage payments.

Fairfield wanted to know what accounted for the different fortunes of these homeowners, so she donned her reporter’s hat and interviewed financial analysts, who explained that the foreclosures in California and Florida were mostly the result of overspeculation, while those in the Rust Belt states were primarily attributable to job losses. Neither factor was predominant in the South.

Fairfield needed to combine these narratives into a single map, since asking readers to toggle back and forth would risk losing them. She made the map three-dimensional, so height could represent the number of subprime foreclosures and color could represent percentages of subprime mortgages. The final map was accompanied by two one-dimensional sidebar maps, one that showed the rise in construction permits issued for housing units from 2004 to 2007, to illustrate the problem of overbuilding, and another that used unemployment rates from December 2007 to illustrate the problem of job losses.

Together, the three maps distilled the causes and effects of a complex and ongoing story into a visual report that could be grasped in seconds. “It’s a visual narrative,” Fairfield says. 

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Sushma Subramanian is a freelance journalist living in New York.