Talking To The Taliban

“Understanding the insurgents is a basic part of reporting on the Afghan war, but it’s a remarkably difficult task,” writes Globe and Mail reporter Graeme Smith in the introduction to Talking To The Taliban. Smith’s solution was to send out a researcher, someone with connections to the insurgency, with a camera to interview Taliban members. The footage the researcher brought back – 42 different interviews – is the basis of Talking To The Taliban.

How It Works

The narrative of the project is broken up into six parts: “Negotiations,” “Forced To Fight,” “The Tribal War,” “Pakistan Relations,” “View of the World,” and “Suicide Bombing.” Each part consists of a short video and a text article on the topic. The videos include footage from the interviews with the Taliban as well as shots of Smith himself speaking to the camera in front of ruins or rows of tanks. These interview clips are mixed with other images from Afghanistan as well as graphics and text quotes from a variety of figures. The text offers a sort of deconstruction of the footage for that given topic, with quotes from others referring both to the given topic and the interviews of the Taliban fighters.

In addition to the videos and images, Talking To The Taliban also includes all of the interviews with members of the Taliban, unedited, and an interactive timeline about the Taliban from 1994 to 2008. Five infographics with accompanying text demonstrate the breakdown of tribes in Afghanistan, the number of air strikes in 2007 compared to 2006, the number of suicide attacks in 2007 compared to 2006, the amount of opium poppy cultivation in the country, and the risk to humanitarian operations in the country.

What Works, What Doesn’t

With such rich source material – the interviews with the Taliban themselves – the videos often have a certain raw power. The video quality isn’t great but the men talk directly to the camera, their faces are covered, a machine gun often on their lap. The same can’t be said when Smith is talking. He isn’t the most comfortable figure on camera and he talks in a clipped manner with too many pauses. Sometimes writers are better off writing.

Talking To The Taliban might have been more effective if text had been used to add context with video clips of the Taliban interspersed. The text that accompanies each section covers much of the same ground as what Smith says anyway. Or Smith could have spoken over images and video as the Globe did with Behind the Veil.

And the graphics and other extras, tacked on at the end of the piece, are easily forgotten about. It’s important to integrate extras like these into the main content or at least provide direct links to them.


Animated Openings

When a project, either Flash based or a tablet app, includes an animated introduction to the topic that can include moving text, images, or video that plays before the user can navigate to other parts of the story (although there is usually a skip option). Unlike full video or text introduction sections, these openings tend to be brief, sometimes taking only a second or two with only a few lines of text. Think of them as moving title pages.

See: Biblion: World’s Fair, How Much Is Left?, A Matter of Life & Death, Soul-Patron, The Debt Trap, Carie, Our Choice, Waterlife, The Big Issue, Welcome To Pine Point, This Land, Test Tube, Out My Window

Automatic Video

When a video, usually on a loop, begins playing as soon as the page where the video is loads; this occurs without the user needing to click any play button (usually, there is no play or stop button). Automatic videos are often used in Flash-based projects. The video sometimes takes up the full page with other media layered on top of it.

See: Soul-Patron, The Big Issue, Welcome to Pine Point, This Land, Test Tube

NYPL Biblion: World’s Fair

Is this how all archives will look in the future? Produced by the New York Public Library, the Biblion: World’s Fair iPad app presents “the World of Tomorrow,” that is, the 1939-40 World’s Fair Collection in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the library. That collection includes documents, images, films, audio, and essays from and about the famous forward-looking fair, which the app calls a “living, breathing version of today’s unbounded digital landscape, where you could meet foreign people, see exotic locales, experience the world, and find the future.” Forgiving such hyperbole, Biblion: World’s Fair is indeed an impressive experience.

How It Works

The app begins with a menu of six rather nebulous themes to explore: “A Moment In Time,” “Enter The World Of Tomorrow,” “Beacon of Idealism,” “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” “Fashion, Food and Famous Faces,” and “From The Stacks.” Within each theme are a number of stories, essays, and galleries, each of which pair a certain amount of text, broken into selections, with corresponding photos, documents, images, and the occasional video and audio file interspersed.

The navigation is novel. When the iPad is held on its side, the user can swipe through each page of media, one at a time, from left to right. Turn the iPad for book view, and the same information can be scrolled down through as one large chunk with the option to expand an embedded image or video to full size.

When there is a related story or essay in one of the other themes, the user can follow the “connection” to bring up a blurb about that story and, if they want, read the full story. To browse all the stories, essays, and galleries at once, there is a larger menu with every story listed in which different types of media – audio & video, featured images, document, and connection – are colour coded for easy recognition.

What Works, What Doesn’t

As an historic record, Biblion: World’s Fair is a great resource, touching on a wide variety of topics under the umbrella of the fair and drawing out common historical themes to connect them.

There is a good balance between primary and secondary sources. The essays and stories provide context and understanding while the images and documents help connect the written parts to the time and place. The user doesn’t just read an essay about “Einstein, the Fair, and the Bomb,” they also see photographs of Einstein at the fair and bombshells being moved into the exhibition of the British Pavilion.

The NYPL wisely did not overload the app with either text or archival material. Too much of the first would be far too didactic. Too much of the second would be far too ponderous.

The balance is not as well kept in the mix of media. The vast majority of primary sources are images and documents with only a relative handful of videos and audio clips (although this could be just the source material available). And more often than not, the video and audio content is paired with a short bit of text rather than being integrated into a larger essay.

The navigation works better. When content is organized in a non-linear way as it is done here, the overall experience can easily become fragmented because the user is left to find the common themes on their own. By adding direct connections between essays and stories in different sections that have similar themes, Biblion: Word’s Fair helps the user do this.

This, however, makes much of the content of Biblion: World’s Fair more akin to what you would find in a book than something really innovative.

How Much Is Left?

“If the 20th century was an expansive era seemingly without boundaries – a time of jet plans, space travel and the Internet – the early years of the 21st century have showed us the limits of our small world.” This stark statement begins the introduction of How Much Is Left ?, a Flash-based interactive created for the magazine Scientific American by Zemi, the people behind FLYP. Time, that is, how much time we have before we run out of resources if our consumption levels don’t change, is the focus of How Much Is Left?

How It Works

Befitting the topic, an interactive timeline is at the centre of How Much Is Left? The estimated lifespans of 16 different resources are tracked from 1976 to 2560. One by one, each resource comes to an end. In 1976 the glaciers start to melt. In 2014, we will hit peak oil. In 2072, we will have used up 90% of the coal available to us. In 2560, we run out of Lithium, a key metal used to make batteries.

At the point on the timeline when each resource runs out, there is an icon to click on that brings up the main content: a pop up with text, a graphic (sometimes static, sometimes interactive), and occasionally a short audio track providing further information about that resource.

The timeline is organized by resource type: 4 minerals, 2 fossil fuels, 2 forms of biodiversity, 2 food sources, and 4 water sources. Each type is colour coded and the user can choose to turn off all but one resource type if they wish.

In addition to the timeline, there are also five documentary-style videos, one for each type of resource, about the depletion of that resource, with related footage and graphics intercut. Finally, there is a poll that asks users whether or not technological innovation will solve the problem of shrinking resources (as of this post, 54% of people said no).

What Works, What Doesn’t

The best thing about How Much Is Left? is that it doesn’t try to do too much. The focus is on the timeline. There aren’t additional sections that might bog down the overall experience. If the user wants further information, the videos corral together different bits of context (expert interviews, related footage and further graphics) in one place for easy watching.

Visually, the timeline works great. Using different colours for different resource types makes it easy to follow the different resources as time goes on. And the dwindling number of lines as time passes certainly makes an impression.

It also works well as a way to navigate through the content. When navigation tools are built into to the content itself instead of being presented in a separate menu, it can add to the overall experience. In How Much Is Left?, the user already knows an important piece of information – the year the resource will run out – before they click on the icon to see the pop up. The only problem is that the user has no idea what that specific resource is until they click on the icon. The only identification given on the timeline itself is the colour indicating what category of resource it is.

However, the pop ups themselves are not so well done.  The information varies from overly general, dull text (“Indium is a silvery meal that sits next to platinum on the periodic table and shares many of its properties such as its color and density”) to dense graphs that are not well explained.

It sometimes takes a minute to understand how the information corresponds to the date the resources runs out on. For example, in 2025, some countries will have slightly less water available per capita per year. Why the year 2025 is particularly significant is never explained.

And why audio is used in some pop ups instead of text seems to have been done only to limit the amount of reading the user would have to do. The information presented in each form is pretty much interchangeable in tone and substance.

Interactive Animation

Sometimes it can be fun to click on things and watch them move, even if it doesn’t help move the story forward in any way. This can mean pushing on a button, moving a paper clip across the screen, or, more usefully, flipping over a sticky note or Polaroid shot to reveal a bit of related text.

See: Welcome to Pine Point, Waterlife


When music and/or sound effects play in the background of a story whether a video is playing or not. Music soundtracks often consist of a series of songs which play on a loop.

See: Welcome to Pine Point, This Land, Waterlife, Out My Window, Soul-Patron, The Big Issue, Test Tube