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.


How are you doing global exception handling in Flex/Flash/AS3?

On the project I’m currently working I was recently assigned the following bug:

runtime errors hose application
It seems that when a RTE encountered, the app is pretty much hosed (somewhat unpredictably) until the app is reloaded.

Since non debug players simply swallow the error without any other action, I assume users of the nondebug player who encounter RTEs will report odd behavior with is more of an effect that a cause.

Is there anything we can do to handle this any better?

This is a well known issue with Flash Player. There’s no global exception handling. It’s the most voted on issue in the Flash Player bug database ( It’s duplicated within the Adobe bug database a few times, and even one of the duplicates is the second most voted on bug in the AS Compiler bug database ( Combine those votes and you’ve got by far the single most wanted feature in Flash Player.

My initial response to this issue was to just say it’s impossible given the current state of Flash Player. But then I got thinking about possible solutions.

What about using JavaScript?
So let’s say I’m resigned to the fact that I cannot have any kind of global exception handling. What if I set up a simple pingback function in my Flash application that was called with JavaScript through ExternalInterface? The only purpose of this function would be to notify the HTML wrapper that the application is responding. Basically the HTML pages says “Yo Flash, you alive?” and Flash says “Yup, still pinging!”

Then if you ever don’t get a ping back you know that something is seriously wrong. Like, application-is-totally-hosed type of seriously wrong. You could then at least display a big ugly crash screen overlay on top of your app and give the user a little description field to file a bug report to tell you what they were doing when the app broke. You wouldn’t be able to save the app from breaking, but you would at least tell the user that the app is broken (which is much better than letting them keep trying to use a broken application) and you might get valuable bug reports to help you find the issue.

So here’s my big question:

In your experience with Flash applications and runtime errors that cause the application to stop functioning correctly, would a simple pingback function of the main application:

  • A. continue to run after the RTE (since the pingback function is so simple, doesn’t do any Flash rendering, or for whatever other reason)
  • B. always stop running after a RTE
  • C. sometimes keep running and sometimes stop running depending on the type of RTE

I have a feeling that the answer is C, which is half useless (although might be better than nothing). But if you know for a fact that you can write some kind of function that will always stop running after ANY runtime error in your application, please let me know (maybe this could include checking something in one of the Flex manager classes? verifying your main application is still laying itself out to the right dimensions? still able to add and remove a simple item from the stage?).

Yes, I am crowdsourcing my bugs.