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Relating zip codes and geography using Processing

This week I tackled recreating Ben Fry’s Zipdecode project, which he gives great step-by-step instructions for in his Visualizing Data book that I have been following along with this quarter.

It’s an interesting take on the concept of the scatterplot, even before using its interactive features, it asserts its usefulness as a population density map. Each dot represents a different zip code, and the more zip codes an area requires, the greater its population. This visualization isn’t news per se, but could be a valuable reporting tool, helping journalists to understand how visualizations are geographically related, and helping them find the precise location of where a certain source is located.

I take no creative credit for the project that emerged below. But I did learn a few things about the Processing language and coding that I thought might be useful to note. Probably more useful as a note to self than anything else, but here goes.

  1. If you’re unable to find a class, you may think it’s because you are missing a bracket within that class. But you could be missing a bracket in another class, which could affect other code. It took me much longer than it should have to figure that out.
  2. You can clean a spreadsheet or database efficiently by using a program to adjust small nuances. But sometimes the time it takes to code is longer than it would take for you to do it in a non-programatic way. If the question is making it easier for the computer to parse, then you should let a program make that change. If it’s a question of making it easier on your eyes, there may be times when that isn’t as necessary. Or maybe that’s just me.
  3. Little nuances can take a lot longer than you think. I kept fussing with the placement of textual instructions, wondering if it was clear enough where to click and when. Sometimes simple is better, I think just having the word “Zoom” for people to click on is clearer than a three-level sliding scale in this case.
  4. Embedding Processing applets in WordPress is buggier than it should be. I’m unhappy that the visualization displays as a big gray box. But I couldn’t see a way to put text on that gray box saying “Click in this box to begin,” because that blank box doesn’t appear when I run the visualization directly on my computer, it just appears as it should.  It’s a little better in HTML, so I’ll be linking instead of embedding from here forward. You can find today’s visualization here.
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