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5 simple visualizations that help make sense of the Capitol insurrection

The Capitol riots were violent and chaotic. Here are the best visuals to understand what exactly happened that day.

5 simple visualizations that help make sense of the Capitol insurrection
[Source Image: iStock]
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We all watched the insurrection at the Capitol unfold last Wednesday. But the sheer mass of information combined with the need to get it out fast made it pretty difficult to figure out what happened and when.

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With a minute to catch their breath, several news organizations made visual explainers that analyzed the images, videos, and actions from the day. It was a strong way to apply infographics to break down a series of events that felt like pure chaos.

From visual timelines, to maps and analysis of photographs on site, here are some of the very best visualizations to make sense of the attempted coup.

Icons on viral photos

This visual guide from the BBC’s visual journalism team is the simplest of the group. And for that reason, it’s the easiest to get a bird’s eye view of the day at a glance. The riot’s major events unfold consecutively as the reader scrolls down the page, with time stamps in bold.

[Screenshot: BBC]
What I found the most helpful, however, were small map icons in the bottom corners of some of the images, which showed where in the Capitol that particular shot was taken. For instance, you’ve probably seen the photo of security officials blocking the door to the house chamber with guns drawn. The addition of this little icon shows where that event occurred relative to other events in the building. That small visual tool is a big help in adding context to some of the most viral images of the day.

Clear timeline of events

Images of Trump supporters swarming the Capitol building doors and breaking through barricades were striking, but because most were close-up, it was hard to tell what the heck was going on. Where did the rioters first breach the building? How did they get there?

Explore the timeline here. [Screenshot: The Washington Post]
The Washington Post’s visual timeline of the insurrection provides a clear, consecutive breakdown of what it calls “one of America’s ugliest days.” Readers scroll down the page to see the timeline of events. Each major piece of news from the day appears as its own box on the timeline, with Trump tweets sprinkled in to add additional context. In some places, the timeline splits into two, showing where similar riots were happening  across the country.

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Maps with bird’s-eye views of D.C.

The New York Times’ treatment is organized similarly to the Washington Post’s, but has a different visual treatment. The dark background puts increased emphasis on the images themselves. Events are also placed consecutively, with each blurb led by a time stamp and many accompanied by videos.

Explore the interactive graphic here. [Screenshot: The New York Times]
The most effective part of this visualization is the way the team integrated important birds eye view information, like a map of DC showing the path rioters took from the White House to the Capitol building, or where the bombs at the RNC and DNC headquarters were located.

Detailed maps with notes

BuzzFeed’s play-by-play has the same consecutive format, unfolding the day’s events as you scroll. Their treatment is very focused on images, with photos that take up the full width of the page along with annotated maps and notes explaining key locations. For instance, a white dot at the entrance to the Capitol Hill grounds reads, “at approximately 1:15 p.m., rioters knock over barricades and overwhelm police officers.”

See the full series of maps here. [Screenshot: Buzzfeed News]
The treatment also has detailed maps of the Capitol’s interior, showing where and when rioters broke into Nancy Pelosi’s office, the Senate chamber, and more.

Video breakdowns

It was really difficult to see what exactly happened to police officers who were attacked by the rioters because the scene was so chaotic and so many people were in each photograph. The New York Times  breaks down videos from those events into digestible pieces, with additional visual aids like circles that draw attention to the officers in question.

See the full series here. [Screenshot: The New York Times]
The New York Times applied that same treatment to help readers decode the slew of unfamiliar symbols at the riot, breaking down videos on the ground to show how various flags or outfits were connected to the iconography of hate groups.

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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