Free tools for telling interactive stories

Want an interactive map but can’t code in Action Script? There are a few handy tools out there that can bring a strong visual and interactive element to stories without the need to create in Flash.

Visual storytelling is being used more and more by media groups. Slideshows, info graphics and video can be powerful ways to tell stories and communicate information. The Guardian’s War Logs investigation resulted in some powerful and informative visual stories and the interactive components meant readers could become engaged in the storytelling process.

Interaction is a real strength of digital storytelling. I like to think of it as a fourth medium, alongside text, sound and vision. It’s also essential for non-linear stories and packaging.

Data visualisations combine visual and interactive benefits. John Sviokla, blogging at Harvard Business Review, reckoned there were three benefits of graphical representation:

  1. Great visualizations are efficient — they let people look at vast quantities of data quickly.
  2. Visualizations can help an analyst or a group achieve more insight into the nature of a problem and discover new understanding.
  3. A great visualization can help create a shared view of a situation and align folks on needed actions.

Here are some free tools you can use to create content and embed in your own site or story.

Maps

UMapper allows you to create Flash maps and embed them in your own site. You can choose a template or upload your own map on which you can add information. It’s a bit like GoogleMaps, but more sophisticated. Audio and video files can be uploaded and there’s a function to create geo games. There are free and paid versions. Pricing is tiered and is calculated on usage.

AmMaps is a tool for creating interactive Flash maps. They are fully customisable and have some great functionality, but you will need some some coding skills. Most countries are covered and the software is free to download. AmCharts is a similar tool for creating charts using Flex. Choose from pie, bar, line, radar or bubble.

Visual stories

Vuvox is a media production and sharing service. One of the tools in its suite is Collage, which allows you to create layered visual slideshows, that can include audio, video and links. Users can play the stories through and can click on other media or links to interact with the story. This a cool tool, with a lot of potential. Sign up is free, but note that Vuvox and other users have the right to reproduce your content.

Simple word clouds can also be effective. The one above is this post. It’s made using Wordle.

Data visualisations

There are a few tools around for turning spreadsheets into graphics and visualisations. Visualize Free is a data analysis tool from InetSoft that allows you to upload data sets (.xls or .csv) and create visualisations that you can share and embed. Check out the examples to get an idea of what is possible – some of these are rather complex.

Many Eyes is a tool from IBM that lets you create visualisations from your own data sets. There is a community element to this product and you can create a topic centre.

If you have some programming skills then you might be interested in Google’s Visualisation API, which includes several tools for creating visualisatons, including charts, maps and timelines.

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