Note to visualization creators: Add subtitles and narration

Embedded information makes animated visualizations more accessible.

I came across a fantastic animated visualization from NASA that shows a spaced-based view of the Earth’s fires. Like many visualizations in this genre, the combination of maps, data points and time-based animation proves quite powerful.

Beyond being just plain fascinating, this particular visualization also includes two simple but often neglected features: subtitles and narration.

NASA fire visualization
NASA’s animated visualization of the Earth’s fires is enhanced by subtitles and simple narration. (Click to see full version.)

It’s common for visualization creators to write accompanying posts that detail the development of their visualizations and/or dig further into findings (case in point: NASA’s excellent write-up). These sorts of posts are great, but why not go the extra step and embed a degree of context within the animations? That way, the information contained in subtitles and narration will always float along with the core material. This is particularly important with embeddable objects because the flashy animated bits are what gets shared across the web. The contextual elements rarely come along for the ride.

That said, the NASA visualization is far from perfect. Notably, there doesn’t appear to be an easy way to embed a version of the video with formal subtitles and narration. A Fast Company version is embeddable, but captions and narration are absent. A YouTube version gets a little closer — it includes the narration and YouTube’s experimental captions — but it’s not on par with the full version available through NASA’s site. What I really want is an embeddable “official” animation with narration and subtitles that I can toggle on or off.

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