Motion graphic critique: 250,000,000 people

The motion graphic I chose to critique is from an investigative piece in the NY Times, “China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities.” The graphic itself can be seen here.

The piece and the graphic are about the Chinese government’s breathtakingly ambitious plan to migrate 250 million Chinese citizens from rural areas and farmlands into newly developed high rise cities over a span of 12-15 years.  The government’s reasoning seems to be based on trying to revitalize the Chinese economy by concentrating population areas and creating new mega-cities which will both be more productive, as well as creating new large consumer markets, as well as to wean farmers off from self-subsistence and the country off exports.  It is a massive and incredibly complex plan that is unprecedented.  While Western developed nations went through these migration changes to produce the economies they have today (going from rural, agrarian economies to industrialized efficient ones), those changes took place over centuries – not over the 12-15 years that China’s Communist Party is proposing.

The proposal is causing a lot of consternation among both economists and human rights watch groups, who are accusing the government of trying to “warehouse” its population into small easy to manage areas, as well as taking their homes and livelihoods away as farmlands are razed and converted into urban centers.

The graphic itself illustrates how large the migration is by showing how many major world cities would need to be counted to even reach 250 million people.  It passes over every major urban area in the United States and most of the major urban areas around the world – including New York, LA, London, and Tokyo.  It adds to the story by showing what a gargantuan undertaking a forced migration of 250 million people really is.  While China is known as the largest nation by population on the planet, and 250 million people wouldn’t seem too much in the scope of China’s population, once you compare it to how many major cities that equates to – and just how many people would be displaced under this policy – the scope is almost unbelievable.

I like graphics like this that gives a sense of size with comparison, as it visually tells a story that words are not as effective with at times.


Video Story Critique: How Wolves Change Rivers

The video story I am critiquing is called “How Wolves Change Rivers,” a video produced by Steve and Chris Agnos, brothers behind a environmental media group called “Sustainable Human,” which makes video stories that help educate and explain the role of humans in the environment.   The video itself is actually a mix of separate pieces edited into a single form.  It has been viewed over 21 million times on YouTube.

The narration is done by environmental writer and activist George Monbiot, who gave a TED talk about the ways humans have and can restore the environment restoring animals into the habitats they were once wiped out of.   Monbiot’s primary example (and what the video is about) is how the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone, where they went almost extinct, created a massive butterfly effect in Yellowstone’s ecosystem – eventually leading to a monumental physical change in the very way the rivers flowed.  The video is B-roll footage from different videos shot in Yellowstone, including time lapse videos and nature videos, with images and video synchronized with Monbiot’s narration.  The music is a creative commons ambient piece that ties it all in together and gives the whole video an ethereal feel.

The story starts off with how the introduction of wolves led to both a reduction and migration of deer away from river banks and other areas they once frequented, and nearly wiped vegetation out of.  This led to trees almost quintupling in height in some areas, and vegetation growing, which invited songbirds and small mammals, which also led to the influx of beavers, and other animals and carnivores that had been driven out.  The regrowth of trees also strengthened the banks of rivers and reduced soil erosion, leading to more established river and stream routes and tributaries, creating entire new ecosystems on their own.

It’s an amazing journey that the video takes us in a few short minutes.  The TED talk itself was not done justice without these visuals, and Sustainable Human, to their credit, added to the story rather than distracted from it as many mashups tend to do.  The only slight is that the audio echoes, as the TED talk was obviously done to a large theater, but aside from that it works as a narration.  The editing is top notch, with every sequence being relevant to what is being spoken.  The chill one feels when hearing the wolves howl add to the amazing effect the entire video and audio experience has.  It’s a hopeful, educational look at environmentalism that many videos in the same genre aren’t as effective at.  It also makes me want to get better at video editing and mixing so I could try producing something like it in the future.

Audio Story Critique: Petty Tyrant

The audio story I chose to critique is an episode of NPR’s This American Life titled “Petty Tyrant.”  The episode can be listend to here:

The episode is about the rise and fall of Steve Raucci, a maintenance man who eventually became the head supervisor of all maintenance departments in the Schenectady, New York public school system.  During a career spanning 36 years, he started out as a laborer and ending up becoming the head man in charge of the district’s 21 school buildings (as well as wielding influence in local politics).  Ira Glass did the intro, and Sarah Koenig (who now does Serial) narrated the story.

The story is told in three parts. The prologue starts with an anecdote of one of the more milder eccentricities that Raucci had – his obsession with keeping energy costs down.

The first act describes his “rise,” and goes on to interview former co-workers and people who knew Steve who described his ‘reign of terror’ as he rose up the ranks of the bureaucracy.  The stories get increasingly disturbing, including instances of extreme sexual harassment and physical threats.  It also describes how Steve became untouchable as he became more and more vital to the workings of the maintenance department, which allowed him to retain his position despite numerous complaints.

The second act describes his “fall,” as he his actions to thwart opposition become increasingly manic and, eventually, violent.  Eventually, he winds up going so far as splashing red paint on homes and planting homemade bombs across the region, targeting people who he didn’t like or who got in his way.  While nobody got injured, he cause a lot of damage and terrified everyone involved, even catching the attention of the FBI.

He eventually gets busted after law enforcement put a wire on one of his friends, who manages to record Raucci bragging about his numerous terrorist acts.  Raucci wound up getting arrested and charged with 26 felonies including arson and terrorism, and after a trial that saw the dozens of people he terrorized testify against him, he was convicted to 23 years to life in prison.

What made Steve Raucci remarkable, and terrifying, was his hyper-Machiavellian pursuit and maintenance of power, as well as how people above him turned a blind eye – either because they needed him or because they were also afraid of him.  He bullied everyone who worked under him, made crude and not-so-veiled threats to anyone who challenged his authority, handed out punishments and reassignments to people he didn’t like, and exploited his power to help his friends and anyone who could help him move up the ranks.  While the story of a maintenance man in a public school system didn’t seem interesting at the beginning, the longer it went on, the crazier it got.  It astounded me how a man could get away with so much without being challenged by anyone in this day and age.

The key to what made this audio story great was how it was self-aware about the relative dullness of the initial premise, but works that to its advantage – by building up the character of Steve Raucci incrementally, until the listener becomes absolutely fascinated with him and is eager to know what happens next.  It’s a slow burn that ends with a literal bang, and rocks a region after his full story comes out in the open after 36 years.

I loved this story, and it is one of the big reasons why I love This American Life.  Bringing stories that would probably never reach the light of day in many parts of the country, and producing them into slick, amazing shows.

Data Mapping/Visualization Critique: German Unification

I found the project “German Unification: A Nation Divided” as part of’s list of best online storytelling and journalism presentations of 2014.  The project dived into data to find out how divided East and West Germany are 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The most interesting aspect of the project is what variables the creators used to find the differences – including economic disparity, gun ownership, travel destinations, average age, and most interestingly (to me), language.  Shown in the graphic below – the names used for “stapler” in different parts of Germany.


What makes these visualizations so interesting – and the entire point of the project – is showing how these differences divide exactly along where the Inner German border once was, showing how each region incubated its own culture and social trends during the 50-odd years which have yet to dissolve (or, in fact, may have been exacerbated due to domestic migration patterns – leaving older people in the East and the younger generation in West).

The graphics themselves are very aesthetically pleasing, made with the typical kind of European minimalism.  There are also a few other types of graphics and videos that further illustrate the differences between East and West Germany.  It’s obvious that a lot of work went into making this project.  I can’t even imagine how hard it was to find the data to begin with, and then compiling it into a usable form before presenting it.

Overall it was a very effective presentation that showed what it set out to prove: that Germany is still very much divided along borders that disappeared 25 years ago, between West and East, and the long lasting impact this artificial construct has had on local societies, cultures and languages.  I’d be interested to see an update in 25 years to see if it changes at all or remains almost the same.