Q and A

Could ‘explorable explanations’ help tell a new kind of story?

January 14, 2016

Newsrooms have become increasingly focused on interactive journalism and creative graphics as they look for new ways to progress storytelling in the digital age. Now, they’re  venturing into more advanced techniques, borrowing from tools commonly used in computer modeling and game development.

Take, for example, the “parole simulator,” a collaborative effort from FiveThirtyEight and The Marshall Project, released last year. The two outlets joined forces on a project that explores the fairly dystopian methods of predictive policing. Their piece focused on Pennsylvania, which may become the first state to adopt a sentencing system that would uses big data to predict a defendant’s future criminality when assigning prison time. The simulator demonstrates how predictive policing already plays out during parole hearings, and allows readers to adjust parameters and see how outcomes change based on their choices.



The parole simulator is unique from much of what is found in interactive journalism in that it uses real-world data to project uncertain outcomes based on reader input. One way to refer to this type of work is through the term “explorable explanations,” coined by former Apple designer Bret Victor to describe a genre and philosophy of the internet that encourages active readership.

Nicky Case is both a practitioner and a champion of this philosophy. Case pulls from systems thinking, animation, modeling, game development, computational sociology, and a good dose of nonlinear thinking to create interactive models that float somewhere between journalism and gaming. “I’m a bee,” says Case. “I cross-pollinate fields.” In March, Case will begin a Mozilla Knight Open-News fellowship at PBS Frontline, with the intent of creating simple-to-use tools for journalists who want to experiment with explorable explanations.

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A good example of what can be done with such tools is the much-acclaimed Parable of the Polygons, which Case released a year ago. The “playable post” illustrates how institutional bias can occur even when individuals are well-intentioned. Case’s Parable is based on an economic model described by the game theorist Thomas Schelling in a 1971 paper on segregation, but it’s brought to life in the form of a cute, engaging, playable explanation. Case, together with fellow designer Vi Hart, designed a model that walks readers through the concept, while simultaneously providing a sandbox where readers can test, experiment, and play.



Duy Linh Tu, a professor of digital media at the Columbia Journalism School, says modeling and simulations can be useful in journalism, but it’s important to weigh the resources and expertise they require with the core mission of the field. “Scientists model. Engineers model. Journalists? Not so much,” says Tu. “We contextualize, we analyze. We’re not very predictive, and actually that’s against our DNA in a lot of ways.”

CJR spoke with Case earlier this week about the possibilities and challenges of adapting these various areas of design and development for journalism.


What led you to think about applying your various skills–like gaming and computer modeling–to journalism?

My work is both journalism and education. I don’t really believe there’s a hard line between them. They’re both teaching people about something they should know about. In the broad category of teaching things, the world is full of such complex systems–social systems, economic, political, environmental, technological systems–and right now we don’t have good ways to talk about that.

Most communication is one way, it’s kind of “this is how it is,” a way to transmit information. [Interactives are] the one way we can have a two-way conversation, talk back and forth through a model, through a system, through a playable thing.

Something that my newest work, Simulating the World in Emoji, most focuses on is being able to create your own knowledge, rather than just transmitting knowledge. It is very possible for the player to finds solutions to problems I didn’t even think of, for them to change the rules and challenge my own assumptions and my own thinking; and at the very end they could create their own interactive model of whatever they want.


You’ve championed the term “explorable explanations,” which basically operates under the philosophy that the reader should be an active participant, as opposed to just accepting what the author is stating. But what’s the difference between explorable explanations and other interactives or other game-like embedded features? Is there something unique about this genre?

That’s a darn good question, and I’m trying to figure that out myself. … I think what makes explorable explanations unique is its core philosophy, that it’s not just a static media, transmitting information, telling the viewer/reader what’s what, what’s this, and what to do. Explorable explanations let people reconstruct the idea for themselves.


Where does this fit into journalism?

One thing that would be really great for the future of journalism would be [seeing more] current events tied to context, history. That’s why I don’t see a real difference between journalism and education. …

Public health officials use simulations to combat epidemics in real time. So, for example, if  whatever simulation public health officials already use could be made into a simplified Web version, the next time there’s an outbreak, newsrooms could use it to explain the spread, and explain what people can do to protect themselves.


You recently tweeted about a simulation that the programmer Jonathan Uy created on gun suicides, which lets readers test the effectiveness of a policy that requires gun locks.



What makes this a good example of an explorable explanation?

It’s a way for the reader to see the tradeoffs and the effect of a policy, as opposed to just reading an article that says, ‘Oh, if this number of states does this gunlock policy then this number of lives will be saved.’ That could be true, but it would be just one number, one instance, one case. This simulation gives you every case, from zero percent gunlock usage to 100 percent gunlock usage.


So, simulations show readers that there isn’t one right answer, that by changing the variables, we change the outcome?

This might sound a bit cheesy, but it would be great for us to be global citizens, instead of just having to take politicians’ policy suggestions at face value. This is kind of tomorrowland, utopia bullshit, but [wouldn’t it be great if we had] a direct democracy, where we could like play with these simulations and figure out the policies that we want ourselves, rather than just listening to rhetoric?


Here’s a practical question: Let’s say a newsroom wants to integrate these tools into some of its stories. For those who don’t have a team of coders on staff, what resources exist out there for newsrooms who want to get their feet wet?

I’ll admit, there are basically no non-programmer tools to make Web simulations. That’s the long and short of it. The good news is that those tools do exist, just not for the rest of us. That’s something I want to help with.

Chava Gourarie is a freelance writer based in New York and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @ChavaRisa