Trying to fit all the election results on one television screen

I watched briefly a number of election night broadcasts last night. One conclusion I came to: there is way too much data to fit on a television screen. And if you want more of the data, you need the Internet, not television.

The different broadcasts tried similar variations: flipping back and forth between a set of anchors and pundits at desks and analysts at a smart board showing election results from different states and locations. They have done this for enough election nights that the process is pretty established.

While they do this, there is often a lot of data on the screen. This could include: a map of the United States with states shaded; a chryon at the bottom with scrolling news; another panel at the bottom flipping through results from different races; and people talking, sometimes in connection to the data on the screen and sometimes. If the analyst at the smart board is on the screen, there is another set of maps to consider.

CNN broadcast, November 4, 2020

This is a lot to take in and it might not be enough. The broadcasts try to balance all of the levels of government – from the presidential race to congressional districts – and are flipping back and forth. I appreciated seeing the more simple approach of PBS which went with a lot less data on the screen, bigger images of the talking heads, and simple summary graphics of the winners.

But, if you want the data, the television broadcast does not cut it. Numerous websites offered single pages where one could monitor all of the major races in real-time. Want to keep up on both local and national races? Have two pages open. Want reaction? Add social media in a third window. Use multiple Internet-connected devices including smartphones, tablets, and computers (and maybe Internet-enabled televisions).

Furthermore, web pages give users more control over the data they are seeing. Take the final 2020 election forecast from FiveThirtyEight:

On one page, readers could see multiple presentations of data plus explanations. Want to scroll through in 10 seconds and see the headlines? Fine. Want to spend 5 minutes analyzing the various graphics? That works. Want to click on all the links for the metholodogy and commentary? A reader could do that too.

The one big advantage television offers is that it offers commentary and faces in real-time plus the potential for live coverage from the scene (such as images of gatherings for candidates) and feeling like the viewer is present when major announcements are made. The Internet has approximations of this – lively social media accounts, live blogs – but it is not the same feeling. (Of course, when you have more than ten live election night broadcasts available on your television, the audience will be pretty split there as well.) Elections are not just about data for many; they also include emotions, presence, and the potential for important memories.

Given these differences in media, I did what I am guessing many did last night: I consumed both television and Internet/social media coverage. Neither are perfect for the task. I had to go to sleep eventually. And whoever can figure out how to combine the best elements of both for election nights may do very well for themselves.

American population change by the second

In searching for housing data this week, I came across a small animated widget on the Census website:

I like this presentation for three reasons.

First, a static image does not do this graphic justice. The different bars, all four of them, moved in time with the passage of time. It is one thing to read that something happens every few seconds or minutes; it is another to see it count down or up next to other markers.

Second, while a larger presentation might help display the gravity of the population changes – imagine a map filling with new people – this is a pint-sized graphic with lots of information going into it. Population losses and gains can be complicated with lots of different inputs. This graphic boils it down to three major demographic factors: births, deaths, and immigration.

Third, this highlights the large American population and its growth. Given all the social, cultural, and political issues of recent years, I have wondered what role the size of the US population plays. Addressing any major issue might be more difficult given all of the people groups and experiences, regional differences, and more.

Of course, any graphic aims to simplify and this graphic does as well. At the same time, in a world awash in information, simple yet well-design presentations can go a long way to conveying helpful information.

American land uses in a number of interesting maps

Bloomberg put together a set of graphics to illustrate how Americans use land. Here are a few of the maps interspersed with information. First, the general patterns of land use:

AmericanLandUseGeneral

The U.S. is becoming more urban—at an average rate of about 1 million additional acres a year. That’s the equivalent of adding new urban area the size of Los Angeles, Houston and Phoenix combined. U.S. urban areas have more than quadrupled since 1945…

AmericanLandUseComparative

More than one-third of U.S. land is used for pasture—by far the largest land-use type in the contiguous 48 states. And nearly 25 percent of that land is administered by the federal government, with most occurring in the West. That land is open to grazing for a fee.

There is some data here that could be viewed as conflicting: urban areas are the fastest growing land use – watch out for sprawl! – but the biggest land use overall is pasture and range – open land yet given over to creatures that are land and resource intensive!

One nice feature of these maps is that they are helpful for making comparisons between land uses. Given the size of the country plus the limited day-to-day experiences of many in different parts of the country, it can be hard to get a handle on all the land uses.

After looking this all over, I wonder what Americans and policymakers would say an ideal land use mix is for the entire country. This is a difficult question to answer, particularly since many people would not necessarily regularly encounter all the uses. If people want more protected land, what other land uses should be reduced and how would this affect individual lives as well as the American way of life?

 

Evaluating the charts and graphics in President Obama’s “enhanced experience” version of the State of the Union

In addition to the speech, President Obama’s State of the Union involved an “enhanced experience” with plenty of charts and graphics. Here are some thoughts about how well this data and information was presented:

But sometimes, even accuracy can be misleading, especially when it comes to graphics and charts. On Tuesday night, President Obama gave his State of the Union address and the White House launched an “enhanced” experience, a multimedia display with video, 107 slides and 27 charts…

Overall, Few said Obama’s team created well-designed charts that presented information “simply, clearly and honestly.”

On a chart about natural gas wells:

“This graph depicting growth in natural gas wells suffers from a problem related to the quantitative scale, specifically the fact that it does not begin at zero. Although it is not always necessary to begin the scale of a line graph at zero, in this case because the graph was shown to the general public, narrowing the scale to begin at 400,000 probably exaggerated people’s perception of the degree in change.”

On a chart about “energy-related CO2 emissions”:

We found that the data behind this chart match up with what the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports in its table of U.S. Macroeconomic Indicators and CO2 Emissions. But the y-axis is too compressed and as a result the chart exaggerates the trend a bit.

On a chart about American troop levels in Afghanistan:

Annotating discrete data points as this chart does can be helpful to tease out the story in a bunch of numbers, but that’s not a replacement for properly labeled axes. And this chart has none.

It seems like the data was correct but it often was put into a compressed context – not surprisingly, the years Obama has been in office or just a few years beforehand. This is a basic thing to keep in mind with charts and graphs: the range on the axes matters and manipulating these can change people’s perceptions of whether there have been sharp changes or not.

Improving the word cloud: NYT adds rates of word usage and comparisons between groups

I’m generally not a big fan of word clouds but one of students recently pointed out to me an example from the New York Times that makes some improvements: looking at the rates of word usage at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. (Click through to see the interactive graphic.) Here is how I think this improves on a typical word cloud:

1. It doesn’t display word frequency but rather the rate of the word usage. Thus, we get an idea of how often the words were used in comparison to all the words that were said. Frequencies by themselves don’t tell you much but this helps put them into a context. (A note: I would like the graphic to include the total word usage for each convention so we have a quick idea of how many words were spoken).

2. The display also makes a comparison between the two political parties so we can see the relative word usage across two groups. This could run into the same problem as frequencies – just because one group uses the term more doesn’t necessarily mean they think it is more important – but we can start getting some clues into the differences in how Republicans and Democrats made a case for their party.

Overall, this is an improvement over the typical word cloud (make your own at wordle.net) and helps us start analyzing the tens of thousands of words spoken at the conventions. Of course, we would need a more complete analysis, probably including multiple coders, to really get at what was conveyed through the words (and that doesn’t even get at the visuals, body language, presentation).

Four tips for making a good infographic

The head of a new infographic website suggests four tips for making a good infographic:

1. Apply a journalist’s code of ethics

An infographic starts with a great data set. Even if you’re not a journalist — but an advertiser or independent contractor, say — you need to represent the data ethically in order to preserve your credibility with your audience. Don’t source from blogs. Don’t source from Wikipedia. Don’t misrepresent your data with images.

2. Find the story in the data

There’s a popular misconception that creating a great infographic just requires hiring a great graphic designer. But even the best designer can only do so much with poor material. Mapping out the key points in your narrative should be the first order of business. “The most accessible graphics we’ve ever done are the ones that tell a story. It should have an arc, a climax and a conclusion,” Langille says. When you find a great data set, mock up your visualization first and figure out what you want to say, before contacting a designer.

3. Make it mobile and personal

As the media becomes more sophisticated, designers are developing non-static infographics. An interactive infographic might seem pretty “sexy,” Langille says, but it’s much less shareable. A video infographic, on the other hand, is both interactive and easy to port from site to site. Another way to involve readers is to create a graphic that allows them to input and share their own information.

4. Don’t let the code out

One of the easiest ways to protect your work is to share it on a community site. Visual.ly offers Creative Commons licensing to users who upload a graphic to the site. When visitors who want to use the graphic grab embed code from the site, the embedded image automatically links back to its creator. Langille suggests adding branding to the bottom of your work and never releasing the actual source file — only the PNG, JPEG, or PDF. And what if your work goes viral without proper credit? For god’s sake, don’t be a pain and demand that the thieves take it down. “It’s better to let it go and ask for a link back and credits on the graphics,” Langille said.

The first two points apply to all charts and graphs: you need to have good and compelling data and then use the graphic to tell this story. Infographics should make the relevant data easier to understand than having someone read through denser text. An easy temptation is to try new ways of displaying data without thinking through whether they are easily readable.

It would be interesting to know whether infographics are actually more effective in conveying information to viewers. In other words, is a traditional bar graph made in Excel really worse in the basic task of sharing information than a snazzy infographic? I imagine websites and publications would rather have infographics because they look better and take advantage of newer tools but a better visual does not necessarily equal connecting more with viewers.

Side note: the “meta Infographic” at the beginning of this article and the “Most Popular Infographics You Can Find Around the Web” at the end are amusing.

A word cloud as an accurate information graphic

There are many ways to visually present data or statistics. One issue can arise when parts of graphs or images are not displayed in the correct proportions. Does using a word cloud fall into these difficulties?

Gallup has put together a word cloud of American’s perceptions about the federal government. Some phrases, such as “too big” and “corrupt” are much bigger. Some words are on their sides such as “good” and “terrible.”

Overall, I would say the word cloud is probably not the best choice in this situation. It is hard to judge the most popular responses and the relative proportions of each response. While one can quickly pick up that the majority of responses were negative, it is not a very precise graphic.