NSA Files: Decoded

NSA Files: Decoded

Organisation: The Guardian US (United States)

Publication Date: 06/05/2014


“NSA Files: Decoded”, published on November 1, 2013, is an explanatory multimedia feature that captures, distills and weaves together complex political, legal and technological issues raised by the Guardian’s reporting on NSA surveillance activities. Employing all of the Internet’s storytelling tools -- including video, inter actives, maps, charts, text and GIFS, the web-native feature guides readers through the revelations in an accessible, relatable and visually compelling way. The feature is built in a single, cohesive, scrollable format that integrates 30-60 second video interviews with key experts -- including US Senator Ron Wyden, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, ACLU lawyer Jameel Jaffer and others. NSA Files: Decoded includes interactive pieces throughout to help readers make sense of some of the more complex topics, including: visualizing a “digital trail,” the amount of “metadata” one individual can generate, how information travels between countries along the world’s fiber-optic cables, as well as the reach of surveillance at a personal level, with tools linking to users’ Facebook account (with their permission) to show how many people could be caught in NSA dragnets if they became a target of surveillance. Other tools include an interactive that breaks down encryption technology, the laws and legal precedents the NSA asserts to justify surveillance, as well demographic breakdown of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is tasked with judicial oversight of the NSA. The interactive elements are held together with primary source documents and text-based narrative that offer background on how the story originated and developed. All the features come together to create an innovative form of interactive documentary that illustrates complex political, legal and technical issues in an immediate and relevant way. This approach allowed us to contextualize the revelations, explain how they fit together and convey the significance of them to readers. This proved instrumental in furthering a conversation about the consequences of the revelations and, in turn, increasing the quality and impact of the journalism.

Technologies used for this project:

Decoded is built on a lightweight framework that treated each interactive element as a separate project consisting of its own JavaScript module, less (compiled to CSS), and HTML. The framework itself consisted of some HTML scaffolding, narrative text, and Ruby ERB template references pointing to each of the interactive elements. In addition to the framework, each module, could be developed, browser tested, and edited independently. A rendering script built in Ruby stitched together the framework and modules, creating a list of JavaScript assets managed by a global progressive loader, minified CSS, and a single HTML page containing all of the assets. A final Ruby packaging script applied gzip compression to CSS and JavaScript files and necessary file headers during the upload process to S3. The packager also created a final HTML asset with all paths configured to point to the production CDN. The render and packaging scripts enabled a workflow that was fundamental to the development and editing processes: Elements could be viewed on mobile, tablet and on Internet Explorer to make style adjustments and debug JavaScript. The output of the render scripts allowed each piece to be viewed and edited in context. Testing for Decoded occurred throughout the development process as elements neared completion. Furthermore, the workflow allowed developers to adjust elements for mobile rendering and progressive enhancements in desktop browsers. Ultimately, it was the workflow and the ability to treat elements as independent modules that was essential. Decoded uses open source technology one might expect: D3, jQuery, Video.js, and LESS."
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