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Data Visualization in the US Elections

March 6th, 2012

With the pending presidential elections in the United States in November and the ongoing campaign to elect the Republican opponent to run against President Obama, it is no surprise that in the reporting about these events there is a myriad of data visualization and related social media applications to be found, with each news site and organization trying to provide all sorts of data it thinks is useful, informative or interesting to its readers.

As the Republican Party is still in search for its presidential candidate, most focus by the leading online and TV news providers has been on the Republican primaries, most of which are either bar-based prediction/result graphs or map-based divisions of votes from each voting district. It is interesting to see that in all this data of predictions, facts, results and comparisons the bigger picture (who has the most support to become presidential candidate) is often lost. Even Google, on the forefront of data visualization for all, choosez to show a view that requires some effort to see what is going on. Its trending page may look nice but what do those graphs really mean without showing any variables? The Los Angeles Times succeeds however pretty well in showing the overall big picture with a simple map and data view, and the Wall Street Journal provides a simple yet informative breakdown of voting behavior for each state.

With the Republicans still voting to choose their candidate, it is still guess work for all media whom President Obama will be running against and the visualizations concerning the president mostly focus on his approval rate and predictions of who will vote for either Obama or the yet unknown opponent. This is so far mostly a boring number, bar and graph visualization matter, hardly using any of the recent interactive possibilities to compare data.

Data reliability is also a factor that needs to be taken into consideration: with news agencies often being politically affiliated (for instance Fox News being Republican oriented, while MSNBC is oriented towards the Democrats), let alone looking at Democratic and Republican affiliated sites, the polls, interpretations of data and reason for presenting data in certain ways constantly needs to be taken evaluated against its purpose. This has given rise to fact checkers similar to Suomen Kuvalehti’s “Totuuspuntari” (although these are usually far from graphic) and also sites providing independent information about the candidates, parties and issues, such as ElectAd.

However, the above still do not provide an all-inclusive view of the issues people may want to know more about, the issues they truly care for or the politicians they may be interested in without doing extensive work. It is here that sites similar to Reality Creating Media’s Vaalikone come in to use, with examples such as USA Today’s Match Game.

In brief: there is a lot of election data available in the US that can be visualized in many ways. Maps, bars and graphs continue to dominate, either “old-school” or with new, interactive means added (such as filters, zoom functions and others). Also the influence of the touch screens has not been ignored by some. However, what should not be forgotten is that, while graphic visualizations may look impressive at first, they should always be easy to use and provide accurate information at a fast glance for the user.

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