Early in the morning on June 12, just a few hours after 29-year-old Omar Mateen stood under the throbbing houselights of the Pulse nightclub and first began firing a semi-automatic rifle into the crowd, the shaken newsroom of the Tampa Bay Times gathered together to decide how to cover what had already cemented itself as the deadliest mass shooting in United States history.
"We knew we wanted to use technology to help people visualize what had happened without sensationalizing the tragedy," says Adam Playford, director of data and digital enterprise at the Times. But how do you interactively visualize the blood and bedlam of an event like the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, without turning it into something as crass as a video game?
The Times answer to this question is Choice and Chance, a powerful exploration of the Pulse shootings. By mapping eyewitness accounts of the massacre to a 3-D recreation of the Pulse nightclub, the Tampa Bay Times has succeeded in not just visualizing the night's horrors, but also showing the inadvertent role architecture took in determining who lived, and who died.
Bullet by bullet, the visualization takes you through the Pulse nightclub on the night of the rampage. You can see exactly where Mateen was standing in relation to the dance floor and the bar when he first walked into Pulse and open fire on the crowds with his SIG Sauer MCX semi-automatic. Those who were standing near the back of the club when Mateen walked in were the most likely to survive. The visualization also explores the many hiding spots Pulse patrons took to when the shooting started, and even lets you peek out from behind these doors through the eyes of survivors, to see what they could see from their vantage point.
The execution of something like this could be pretty ghastly, but the Choice and Chance interactive works so well because it only recreates the architecture of the massacre. Instead of giving the murderer and his victims digital avatars, their actions are represented only by the accompanying text and the color of the club's houselights, with each individual's narrative coded to a different hue. There's not even any sound. The effect is eerie, like a walk through an empty house still haunted by those who died inside.
A lot of the design decisions that help make Choice and Chance so effective were more serendipity than genius, according to Eli Murray, who came up with the idea of the visualization and also programmed it. "We only had a week to make this," he says, so the choice to leave out people from the recreation was just as much a technical limitation as it was a conscious artistic choice. The last thing they wanted to do, Murray says, was position their recreation of the Pulse nightclub in the middle of the Uncanny Valley.
Other design decisions had nothing to do with technology. For example, the Tampa Bay Times opted not to include sound in the interactive, because it was felt the addition of music, screams, and gunshots didn't add anything valuable to the story besides a degree of realism that could be considered ghoulish. "We were very conscious as we were making this that we were walking a fine line between creating something that felt stale and ending up with something that felt like a video game," Murray says.
That's a balance the Tampa Bay Times seems to have found. Although the Times wouldn't share traffic numbers, the interactive has been well received by respected infographic makers like Nathan Yau, and feels like it could be shortlisted for a visualization of the year award. These accolades are humbling, says Murray, because no one at the Tampa Bay Times had ever set out to create something like this before.
But the Times doesn't think every story should be told this way. "I think this was the right approach [to tell the story of the Orlando nightclub shootings] because it was a very situational event with a lot of confusion, where the police and FBI weren't giving out a lot of information," Murray says. "But I don't think this will be our go-to approach for every big event."
Let's pray not. If anything positive can come out of the killings at Pulse, let's hope it's a world where visualizations like Choice and Chance never need to be made again.