Data Visualization

The New York Times Without Flash

I’m in love with the New York Times data visualization/infographics division. They consistently put out some of the most amazing visualization pieces (both in print and online) that I’ve ever seen. Their recently geographic analysis of Netflix ratings was absolutely superb. And we all probably saw their election maps (either for 2008 or 2004). They produce stunning displays that convey amazing amounts of information in a way that only interactive graphics can do. And they’re all done in Flash.

A Peek Into Netflix Queues

And for even more check out the NYT’s selected infographics list or simply do a Google search for “interactive graphic” on the New York Times website.

flashSo when you see images showing the missing plugin icon on the New York Times website on the iPad or iPhone, that’s not just some annoying ad that’s not playing or a streaming video. That’s some of the most cutting edge visualization work that’s being produced today. And without Flash it simply doesn’t exist.

Sure, you might be able to recreate some of these without using Flash (I’d argue that many you simply would never be able to do, but that’s for another debate). But the point isn’t whether or not you could eventually do it without Flash. The point is that the New York Times does them all with flash. So we need to ask why. It’s not an accident or an arbitrary technology choice. Newspapers operate on a schedule and a budget (and one that is getting tighter and tighter). The simple truth is, creating amazing visualizations like you see on the NYT website is possible and easy with Flash. They use the tools that get the job done most efficiently and produce the best end result. This isn’t an argument about whether it’s theoretically possible to create these types of visualizations without Flash, it’s about whether it’s being done. And save for handfuls of examples, it’s not (for every one good JavaScript visualization I’ll show you ten good Flash ones). Taking away the New York Times’ ability to use Flash is setting their data visualization department back 5 or 10 years. And it would mean that we, as readers and citizens, would be missing out on some of the most important journalism being produced today.

The New York Times (like all newspapers) is in crisis. They are trying to reinvent themselves in an online form. And as a news organization they are one of the most progressive and experimental out there. They are embracing the new medium by doing some of the best damn interactive graphic work I’ve ever seen. They make things that convey news and information in ways that draw people in and keep them coming back for more.

But without Flash they’re just a newspaper. And we all know newspapers are dying.


33 thoughts on “The New York Times Without Flash

  1. joe says:

    It looks like NYT really dropped the ball and should have used open technology to do these visualizations instead of proprietary formats and plugins. People can rant and rave all they want but this presentation is easily possible without flash. As browsers start adopting the HTML5 standards within the next year or two we’ll see the importance of flash continue to diminish greatly until it is no longer needed.

  2. Doug,

    On Apple’s part, it’s cold calculated decision to prohibit Flash on iPhone/iPad to maintain control on the money making iStore. I can hear your arguments, but don’t you think Steve Job’s also knows about all these NYT subscribers that won’t be able to enjoy their newspaper to its fullest on iPad that supposedly has excellent UI for reading papers? They’ve calculated pros and cons and made their decision. you should also blame Adobe for not being able to make a deal with Apple, especially given the fact that their CEO used to work for Aaple.

    I can also argue that iPad users won’t be able to enjoy nice Mercedes Benz USA Web site I’ve been working on Steve Jobs is not into cheap cars…

    Hopefully, things will change naturally by the end of this year, when and if other vendors of smart phones will produce a real competitor to iPhone. Meanwhile, Apple will happily sell iPhone/oPod with a crippled Web browser.

    Here’s my view of iPad if interested:

  3. @joe – That’s just simply not a fair criticism when the tools aren’t there. Saying HTML 5 can do all the things the NYT needs is just a lie, it’s categorically not true. It’s getting there, that’s true, but it’s not there yet by a long shot.

    And it’s not just the New York Times. The Wall Street Journal just produced some great interactive pieces about the Haiti earthquake:

    The truth is Flash is the best tool out there right now for these kinds of interactive pieces. That’s why people use it. They didn’t just make some silly choice, they made the choice that met their (and their customers) needs.

  4. @yakov – my point wasn’t that this is a reason for Apple to reconsider, obviously Apple makes its choices knowing the full consequences. But over and over and over again I keep hearing people saying that a lack of Flash Player doesn’t matter because all it’s used for is ads and video. That’s simply not true. That’s all I’m trying to dispute.

  5. Doug:

    I don’t mind repeating that the NY Times Digital department is the most influential spreader of data viz best practices on the web today.

    I’m humored by the assumption that those of us who use Flash/Flex technologies for data visualization have some religious attachment to Adobe technologies that makes us blind to the attractions of putatively more “open” approaches. If the tools and distribution mechanisms were there to create more compelling information experiences, we’d switch in a heartbeat. In the meantime, I’m running a business where I have to deliver tomorrow, not wait for a sunny future of HTML 5, the tag, and SVG (hey, thanks Microsoft for joining the SVG standards working group the other day–only 10 years late!).

    And if anyone needed more evidence that they should choose their overlords carefully, go to the new Java SDK download page and tell me how you feel.

    Brian Timoney

  6. nwebb says:

    “I’m humored by the assumption that those of us who use Flash/Flex technologies for data visualization have some religious attachment to Adobe technologies that makes us blind to the attractions of putatively more “open” approaches.”

    Brian – you hit the nail on the head. The Flash platform developers I know do not have some sort of crazy ‘fanboy’ allegiance to Flash. They use it because Flash is currently the best tool for the job they do (especially when real-world time & money constraints come in to play) – it enables rich apps to be developed quickly and efficiently across multiple platforms , and if we relied purely on open standards, we would be about 5-8 years behind where we are today in many areas.

  7. Doug – great post. I imagine this is one reason why the NYT is shipping an iPad app right on launch date – they know full well their website is gonna suck on the iPad.

    NYT has scale to do that, release for specific hardware – what concerns me is the 1000s of smaller RIA webapps that use Flash, Silverlight or JavaFX to deliver their awesome content. I’m one of those guys – what am I gonna do, ignore iPad users or spend a lot of time / money picking up Objective-C? Ignoring iPhone users hasn’t been too much of a drag so far cos noone really expects to use an RIA on their phone… but on the iPad? That expectation will be there.

    Even if i did write a version of my awesome web app for the iPad… how do i get the casual visitor to my site, to instead go to iTunes and download my app? Most are just gonna bounce.

    We all know and love conditional markup in HTML – “if not IE, use awesome CSS, else use broken degraded CSS”.

    Pretty soon its gonna be “if iPad, don’t show awesome RIA; else, show awesome RIA”.

    Lastly – I pity the first user who says to me – your sites broken on iPad. I’m gonna rant!

  8. Erik says:

    “So we need to ask why. It’s not an accident or an arbitrary technology choice. Newspapers operate on a schedule and a budget (and one that is getting tighter and tighter). The simple truth is, creating amazing visualizations like you see on the NYT website is possible and easy with Flash.”

    You’re right, you don’t think Flash’s extremely high (but obviously eroding, at least on Apple platforms) market penetration is just as important, if not more important? In other words, if today’s Flash penetration was much lower – say, if it were equal to today’s HTML5/Canvas/whatever-open-standards-are-equivalent (and I agree that they’re not entirely equivalent) penetration – and HTML5/Canvas/whatever penetration was at Flash’s current 97% market penetration, do you think that the NYT would still be using Flash, regardless of how much more capable or easy-to-use it is?

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m not one of those who believe that HTML5/Canvas/whatever is even capable of what the Flash platform is capable of (it’s just not, it doesn’t even have API parity), but I feel like your argument ignores a more probably explanation.

  9. I agree with your observations, Doug. Flash have become very useful in many types of applications on the Web, information visualization is just one category. It is a fairly mature and advanced tool with alternatives falling short in terms of advanced multimedia development.

    One of the potential great uses of Flash in the near future would be to start producing multimedia textbooks that mix traditional content with simulations, visualizations, advanced interactive multimedia displays of science concepts. And iPad would be a great hardware to use them on…

    So, the question is the following. Will the pressure on Apple to support Flash be strong enough for Jobs to welcome Flash on iPhone and iPad or… the pressure on innovative companies like NYT will make them scale down from Flash RIA backwards into animated gifs, etc of 10 years ago to make their projects fit limitations of Apple?

    I think that Flash is at the adoption point where it cannot be ignored and work showcased by companies like NYT demonstrates that it should not be. As Flash developer I am disappointed, but I think that eventually it will find its way into Apple products. Jobs might be just delaying its entry, so large enough community of Apple programmers working with its SDK develops and once it’s dominant he will allow for alternative tools to coexist. I hope…

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  12. Brian says:

    @Tomek – Re: the “flash is essential” argument, people used to say that about RealPlayer, too. Look how that ended up.

    Jobs will not allow Flash onto the mobile devices for the same reason that they use OpenGL instead of DirectX for 3D. They will not allow their platforms to critically depend on technologies that other companies own.

    Bottom line: Apple will sell tons of $500 computers that don’t support flash. Folks will buy them and only then discover that the content is inaccessible because it’s in flash. Which do you think they will criticize – the company they just gave several hundred dollars to for a device they’re excited about, or the web page? One option means they must criticize themselves and their decision to purchase the device; the other allows them to blame someone other than themselves.

    Between the iPhone and the iPad flash is doomed because folks don’t like to feel bad about themselves. Designers will take a hit until HTML5 comes along, but consumers are the ones that push the market. The argument being made here is *not* going to resonate with the folks the iPad is aimed at. That crowd doesn’t even know what Flash is.

  13. > Lastly – I pity the first user who says to me – your sites broken on iPad. I’m gonna rant!

    I don’t blame you, but what about the 100th, or the 1000th?

  14. @Brian – I totally agree with you and think you hit the issue spot on. Consumers won’t care that Flash isn’t on their devices. They’ll be mad temporarily in very certain instances when they try to access content they can’t, but largely I don’t even think that will be a huge deal to consumers. Current readers of the New York Times on the iPhone use the NYT’s iPhone app, and when they get iPads they’ll either use another NYT app or they’ll use a version of the NYT that works well on the device. Readers won’t know they’re missing anything. Nobody will care.

    And yet what that means is that the work that I respect and love, more than almost any other creative or journalistic work being done today, that of interactive data visualization, will effectively disappear for a few years. It will come back once HTML 5 develops the features it needs and reaches the penetration consumers require, but until then we’re entering a dark age (yes, I’m aware I’m being overly dramatic, but I think my sentiment is correct). The interactive data viz pieces being produced are inspirational, informative, and they move the journalistic practice forward as a whole. What we’re basically saying by telling people they must wait for HTML 5 to catch up to Flash is that for the next few years (2? 5? 10?) we have to wait for standards bodies and browser manufacturers to get their shit together and then we also have to reinvent the wheel and recreate all the things that we’ve made easy with Flash (there are countless visualization libraries and well-developed pieces of code that will all need to be redone).

    If the Flash haters had their way and Flash were to disappear tomorrow, then I’m going to have to wait years for the NYT to come out with interactive data visualization pieces on par with the ones they produce today. I just find that sad. I’m not angry or outraged or bitter, just sad.

  15. Great post and comments, personally I’ve been developing in Flash as well with many other technologies in the last 10 years. I don’t like to depend on any corporate, being Adobe, Apple or Microsoft!
    As pointed out, Flash is just the best tool at the moment to create this kind of experiences (keeping also into consideration: market penetration, tools/libraries available and thus cost-effectiveness).

    @Brian – Personally, if after I bought an iPad I would figure out that quite some content won’t be available, I would be angry with who just sold me a several hundreds dollars toy with the claim that is the best experience for internet. Accessibility is an important part of the experience, and some content won’t just be accessible and I like to believe that lies don’t pay (how naive!).

    Apple talks about open standards only when it’s good for them. IPhone OS is bringing the computer world, at some extents, backwards. We all criticized Microsoft for being so closed in the past, now poor Microsoft can’t even recommend their own browser with their own systems (actually only in Europe)! I can accept a phone to be so closed, but not the iPad!

  16. I was forgetting… personally I stopped using twitter clients on the iPhone because some of the links people post on my feeds don’t work, some might be probably flash RIA, but most are probably just sites with videos. As someone pointed out on the net, if it wasn’t for Flash, today we wouldn’t have youtube, but more importantly we wouldn’t have so many sites with videos in it. Sure we can live without videos, like we were years ago! Maybe it can be the case that to do 2 steps forward, for Apple, we need to do 1 backwards, but it is quite scaring that they will decide for the whole industry.

  17. Maybe Adobe should be hiring the guy that made the Javascript Flash Player and make this one of the official compile targets in Flash and Flex, alongside Flash, Air and iPhone App.
    And all those saying Flash is dead when HTML5 fully arrives should consider what tool animators would use to create the content ?

  18. Brian says:

    @christian – some folks undoubtedly will react that way, but not enough to matter. Most folks will just send a flame mail to the webmaster, as it allows them to continue thinking highly of the expensive device. Complaining about the device means boxing it up and driving back to the store. People optimize for the shortest route to making it someone else’s problem.

  19. @Brian + @ Dough, I see your points, but what I wanted to say is that Flash demonstrated that it can be a great and smart addition to online content and many end users want these kind of experiences. RealPlayer is gone, but it demonstrated that it’s possible to do video online and there are audiences that want it. RealPlayer failed, but video exploded online. The specific plugin/standard lost, but the motion picture content evolved just fine.

    And this is what is likely to happen with Flash. Adobe Flash might suffer or even disappear from the landscape, but the evolution of interactive multimedia online (including information visualization) will continue. I don’t see the obvious contender right now and it might not even exist yet, but either open source community will create one or some corporation will develop one based on open standards. It might even push Adobe to make Flash open standard in order to save it… I personally think they would actually benefited from such a move.

    To summarize, I am not concerned about the future of interactive new media online, it might just not be called Flash, but it will be there and increasingly present…

  20. johans says:

    From what I’ve seen HTML5 can’t do anything Flash isn’t doing already (and has been doing for a long time) and doing better.

    By the time HTML5 eventually gets some agreement and adoption across main browsers Flash will be leading in new areas.

    Apart form the HTML5 video and canvas tags everyone is talking about how about practical issues – tools (as mentioned already), developers/creative people who use those tools, support for localization, a framework for building RIAs. Sure there are options out there for javascript/HTML but nothing as integrated as Flash/Flex.

  21. thx for this. adding it to my collection of useful flash data visualizations.

    Anyone, PLEASE FEEL FREE TO PROVIDE ANY LINKS to other great data vis using flash.
    Im trying to collect them.

    Here’s one I frequently visit (I’m sure most have seen it, but it’s still a great one)

  22. Hey, does anyone know of some tutorials, information for creating some of those NYTimes style Flash maps? you know the ones where you can mouse over the county lines and they have focus, etc… I assume it’s something done dynamically, but maybe I’m wrong and somone actually laysout all those vector details.


  23. I’m sure I’m not in the minority by any means, but I do intend to improve. I suppose my main problem is that I find large numbers of comments overwhelming, I can honestly say that I’ve skipped reading entries at friends’ blogs, just because there’s already ninety comments on it, and I a) don’t want to get lost in the shuffle, or worse b) don’t want to be obligated to spew out forty comments of my own.

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  25. Robert says:


    I love comments like these. The debate between HTML 5 and flash has always been a chicken and egg scenario. HTML 5 was defined by the things HTML 4 can’t currently do, but are available in plugin form right now. If HTML 5 makes flash obsolete, progress will slow down to a crawl because everything will be dictated by a standards body that doesn’t do much more than argue. They need a technology to copy from so they know what users and developers want. I imagine that it has been and will continue to be Adobe innovating and everyone else trying to play catch-up. I’m not a fanboy – if another technology made sense to use, I’d use it in a heartbeat. I want to do cool stuff today, though.

  26. PR says:

    Doug – thanks for this… I’ve been posting those same links in conversations around the web every time somebody says “HTML5 can replace Flash”. Now I can just point to this post!

    And for what it’s worth, I can say, in no uncertain terms, that much of what the NYTimes is doing in Flash is currently IMPOSSIBLE in HTML5/Javascript so it drives me nuts when people claim otherwise. I do datavis work, and spent 3 weeks trying to duplicate a visualization in HTML5/JS and it is wonky at best. Further, upon trying it on the iPad, the javascript engine couldn’t keep up and the experience sucked. This same application would take me about 3 days in Flex.

    Further, I don’t care if it *can* be done in HTML5/JS, those technologies are the wrong tool for the job (anybody who tries to build-out serious animations/interactions has found all the same issues I did). Flash is currently the right tool for the job. By forcing developers to use the wrong tool, creativity gets stifled.

    Go figure, Apple stifling creativity. (I mean that seriously, I didn’t see that coming)

  27. Lloyd says:

    Clicking on each of the graphics gets me a larger cached graphic – fine, given the NYT might remove or move its content, but hardly interactive. But the ‘How Different Groups Spend Their Day’ text link goes to the parking ticket infographic. Link should be to:

    This could be done with javascript rollovers to swap graphs and imagemaps and rollovers for clicking on the graphs to isolate categories. It doesn’t need flash.

  28. These infographics are extremely useful, truly making complex data easy to understand. The argument about using HTML5 are disingenuous, that technology won’t be widely available (where most NYT readers have browsers supporting HTML5) until at least 2012 (imho).

    I do think NYT has a superb team I just wish they taught an infographics class, I’d sign up immediately.

  29. Stuart says:

    Q1 2011 – iOS is currently being outsold by Android and even Symbian… this year, smart phones and tablets in competition to Apple will support Flash.

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