Information Visualization in Politics

Political Information Visualization:
What Works
By Ken Norquist, December 2011
From the moment man first applied dye to cave walls to
share hunting tips, as a species we've been on a journey to
understand and share more, faster. We measure...we
observe...we quantify and qualify, and constantly seek
better ways to digest what we've learned and immortalize
that knowledge by inventing new and increasingly dynamic
ways to share it with others.
One of the most revisited and widely shared are those used to describe
the political landscape whose players shape the world we live in.
You need only look back as far as the early 19th century to Leon
Montigny's visualization of the Parisian Parliamentary Elections of
1869 (above) to see how powerful and influential these translated
observations and examinations could be.
Few areas of modern culture receive the same rigorous attention
from both the powerful and the pawn, save perhaps financial
market data, and as such there is a huge appetite for any
information in the political arena—from poll results to policy
effectiveness; history to headlines.
With the advent of the internet
and the vastly expanded
connectivity it afforded us, new
avenues sprang out of every corner
offering analysis and perspectives
of political issues.
Since 2007-2008, news
organizations have seized
upon this new frontier...this
new public square, and
begun a new datastory
visualization arms race,
where the major players such
as are developing new,
dynamic, interactive ways to
tell their version of the
datastory in support of their
coverage of the wider
political landscape.
Here, we’ll be taking a look at how political
data is visualized through four clusters of
• Infographics
• Dynamic Charting Visualizations
• Cartographic Visualizations
• Other Visualizations
• Infographic Visualizations are identified as those
visualizations which present a finite view of complex data in a
quickly digestible way.
• Dynamic Charting Visualizations are identified as those which
present complex data sets in malleable, dynamic ways that
allow a great degree of user-controlled focus (Information
Visualization Dashboards are included in this cluster).
• Cartographic Visualizations are identified as those
visualizations who allow for a similar level of user control, but
visualize the altered results through a geographic or
cartographic representation.
• Other Visualizations are those visualizations where the
datastories being told are relevant and interesting, but the
visualization or interaction styles being employed step just
beyond the bounds of the other defined clusters
The Stories Being Told:
What the Visuals Do
Through immersion into this realm I was able to
identify two major, overarching purposes that
these somewhat disparate visualizations seek to
- General political climate information sharing
- Election related information
The Stories Being Told:
What the Visuals Do
• First, as political topics hold
the interests of citizens
from every strata and
corner of society, there is a
large body of general
political climate
information sharing.
This broad sector of the
information visualization
spectrum provides
illustration of the data
behind politically charged
issues such as the economy,
military actions, policy or
law changes, international
political affairs, hot button
social issues, etc.
The Stories Being Told:
What the Visuals Do
The other major and perhaps more obvious or
expected facet of political data spoken to
through these information visualization tools, is
the vast array of election related information.
Cluster 1:
Infographic Visualizations of
Political Data
This rich class of visualization is comprised of some truly
beautiful and remarkable images. The level of artistry and deep
understanding of the datasets through the lens of the story they
want the image to tell is staggering. In some ways these
infographics are more difficult to master, even though the level
of focus and detail a user will encounter through one of the
other cluster's tools is greater. The margins the idea needs to be
communicated within are much tighter with infographics and as
such, require a greater degree of forethought and planning.
Infographic Visualizations of Political Data
Best-in-class example:
A Visual History
of the American
Infographic Visualizations of Political Data
This visualization from brings together a
host of political, social, and
economic factors to truly tell the
story of each remarkable
This visually compelling piece
provides an easy to follow
legend and employs preattentive
cues to help you better
understand the trends and
This visual history offers an
amazing array of political,
social, and economic
information specific to each
presidency using size, color,
position, shape, and
embedded charting to tell
each story in a remarkably
full way.
The deft application of high
definition imaging and
javascript delivery helps
promote comfortable,
purposeful interaction.
Why it Works
• Interactive, high-resolution web presentation that allows
for quick responding zoom to allow the viewer to make
best use of the perceptual coding cues
• Excellent use of the commonly recognized Red-Blue color
differential to quickly demonstrate variables as they
pertain to US Government political party affiliations
• Purposeful inclusion of a great number of impressive
visualizations that work both individually as well as in
concert to paint a detailed picture in one static frame.
• Excellent balance of data-to-ink ratio, especially given the
multiple political/social/economic dimensions represented.
It manages to be detailed, but “clean” at the same time.
Cluster 2:
Dynamic Charting
Visualizations of Political Data
This class of visualization represents the most powerful and
advanced tools available. The deep logic and multidimensional
approach to data representation affords those who engage
these visualizations to tailor the view to their own particular
interest or perspective, while offering related, dynamically
appearing information to further expand the users' perspective
and lead them to further datastory engagement.
Dynamic Charting Visualizations of Political Data
Best-in-class example:
U.S. Government Federal Information
Technology Spending Dashboard
This powerful dashboard was created to provide pertinent
information to members of the public and, perhaps more
importantly, Congress and other key members of the current
Administration insights on the effectiveness of and supporting
factors behind Federal Information Technology expenditures
from a variety of offices.
This flexible interface offers an
easy to customize, instantly
reactive dynamic charting and
graphing information on over
7,000 Federal IT investments and
detailed data for over 800 of those
investments that agencies classify
as "major."
The easily manipulable filters
employ a wide variety of
perceptual and interactive features
like color, motion, dynamic sliders,
details on demand, etc. to allow
users to tailor the datastory being
told by the type of spending, the
agency related to the expense, and
a variety of other facets
Why it Works
• Dynamic sliders with animation to show chronological
trends provide
• User-controlled color determinants to allow
highlighted, customized views
• User-controlled visualization styles (variety of charting
• Ability to tie federal expenditures to specific agency
initiatives (to provide readily available, accurate
spending data to inform particular “conversations”
Cluster 3:
Cartographic Visualizations of
Political Data
Arguably, the most common visualization employed to tell a
political story (at least in the United States) is that of a map
of the USA—frequently encoded with a red-blue color
scheme to denote Republican or Democratic leanings or
legislative representations. While this image lends itself to
numerous incarnations in the Infographics sphere, some
sites such as the best-in-class example shown in the next
slide make much more dynamic use of this iconic image.
Cartographic Visualizations of Political Data
Best-in-class example:
Post's Beyond the
Results: 2010
Few entities have the clout, cross-industry respect, and history of
maintaining such an envied position as the Washington Post.
Their “Beyond the Results” visualization offers a detailed examination
of the 2010 Congressional elections through the main lens of the
familiar Red-Blue map of the United States
This fascinating tool offers
a highly-detailed, zoomcapable view not only of
state results, but even
down to individual state
district levels.
Further, an animated
chronological function allows
you to observe how
landscape has changed over
the past few elections, and
the context-sensitive slider
enables you to see how the
particular filter you apply
would be altered with
variable input.
Why it Works
• Detailed, hi-resolution cartographic US representation
that allows district-level zoom
• Balanced approach to providing detailed data within a
visually engaging frame
• Variable filters that offer contextual guidance to allow
you to engage the visualization according to your own
interests, as well as those which match the larger
societal dialogue on the topic
• Excellent use of the red-blue standard for preattentive
Cluster 4:
Other Visualizations of
Political Data
You've seen the charts, you've engaged the dashboards, but did
you laugh? Did you come across any that made you double check
that you were indeed at the right website? Odds are, no.
Some visualization designers take an extra step to wrap these
often dry stories in fun or unusual ways. The population of these
types of visualizations is not as robust as their more serious peers,
but the few I have encountered were like s breath of fresh
air...making me feel as if maybe is doesn't all need to be so
incredibly serious.
Other Visualizations of Political Data
Best-in-class example:
Through deft application of
javascript, photography,
charting, this site from Project
Vote Smart (powered by
Periscopic) helps users
examine the position, as
supported by a linked,
detailed public record, of each
candidate for the 2012 U.S.
Presidential election across 13
topical issues surround the
The use of color, motion,
audio, and instant,
dynamically updating views
makes for a purposeful user
experience, and the
connection to the public
record information adds a
fantastic level of support for
each issue.
File size prevented me from including much in the way of video,
but the VoteEasy tool was too dynamic to represent without
some visual idea of just how dynamic and powerful it is.
- Click above to begin the video -
Why it Works
• Delightful balance of animation and photography
with charting and detailed data-to-ink
• Multiple engagement strategies supported (active vs.
• Fantastic use of flash to allow for automated
engagement that is both guided (navigation) and
open (user-selection-driven)
• Linked views of congressional election information
(to come) helps bring national issues to local stage –
varied focus
Infographic Visualizations
Visual History of the American Presidency (see Best-in-class explanation above)
Politics and Polls - These charts illustrate voters' feelings about Bill Clinton, Bob Dole and Ross Perot during the 1996
elections, based on data from The Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll.
Presidential Job Approval - Charts of Presidential Job-Approval Ratings, Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, compared to
charts of the Consumer Price Index, the Unemployment Rate and the Consumer Confidence Index.
Elections and Voting - Charts show how the public views the president and Congress, and how this may affect voter
Left Versus Right World – This colorful visualization shows a breakdown of the elements of government, society, and
culture pertinent to the liberal or the conservative minded citizen of the world.
Left Versus Right US – Sibling to the above, this colorful visualization shows a breakdown of the elements of
government, society, and culture pertinent to the liberal or the conservative minded citizen of the United States.
Newsweek’s the World’s Best Countries – This interactive infographic allows users to view the score and rank of the
world’s 100 best countries through comparison of five categories: Education, Health, Quality of Life, Economic
Dynamism and Political Environment. Filters can also be applied to group results by geographic location, income, and
Most Popular Political Blogs on the net – This static infographic, one of the IssueCrawler visualization series used by
NGOs and other researchers to answer questions about specific networks and effective networking more generally,
provides a quick visual reference source of the most popular political blogs, represented by size and color
NewsMap: Election – This popular site covers a vast range of national and international news, employing size, motion,
and color to “rank” news stories. The link above shows an example of how this affects the political sphere by searching
for the term “election”.
NY Times: Naming Names – This famous dynamic infographic shows the instances of the names used among the major
candidates during the debates leading up to the last presidential election. Relationships are represented through the
size, spacing, and color of lines and circle segments.
NY Times Election Calculator – Another stellar interactive infographic from the visionaries at the New York Times. This
slider-based infographic calculates the chances that GOP candidates could win the popular vote in the 2012
Presidential election based on the potential growth rate of the Gross Domestic Product
Infographic Visualizations (cont’d)
• Obama | One People Project – A runner up for my best-in-class for this cluster, this collection of visualizations
from the MIT Senselab visualizes the mobile phone activity in Washington DC and the world during the
inauguration of President Obama. Excellent use of video to show trends.
• Politilines – This interactive graphic by Periscopic visualizes the words spoken in the 2012 presidential debates by
issue, topic, and candidate, and allows users to view historical visualizations of these over time.
• Piero Zagami’s UN Security Council Resolutions – taking a step back to a world view, this collection of
visualizations really exemplifies the where-art-meets-science capacity of infographics. These beautiful
illustrations represent the trends and decisions of the UN Executive body (over 1,700 disconnected documents)
for study and political-student comprehension.
• Baucus Healthcare Lobbyist Complex – This pointed visualization seeks to demonstrate the conflicts of interest in
Sen. Max Baucus’ staff (Baucus-headed Finance Committee has been singled out by advocates and news
organizations as the toughest obstacle for the President's health care priorities). Good use of visualization to
influence opinion.
• Cartographic Representation of 2008 Presidential Election &
• 2010 Mid-term Elections – These two sites, similar in construction, offer some excellent examples of the political
use of cartographs to demonstrate voter reactions and the like. Excellent source of political cartograph betpractices.
• MSNBC 2012 Election Voter confidence Index Chart – This embedded visualization offers an updated look as the
President’s voter confidence rating over time. There are also comparisons from past seated Presidents.
• NY Times: PollWatch – This infographic employs the familiar red-blue standard US map, with the option of state
or bubble based shading, and presents an interactive look at the 2004 and 2010 congressional elections—even
allowing zoom down to county levels.
Dynamic Charting Visualizations
US Government Federal Information Technology Spending Dashboard – (see best-in-class above)
Dirty Energy Money Tool – (see best-in-class above)
ManyEyes “Political” Visualizations – While a number of the visualizations listed on this page cross cluster lines, I
couldn’t help but include this collection in the appendix, given the variety of applications and perspectives on
political views represented. You can get lost in here with so many options, but a number of these are award
winners, so it is worth the time to browse.
PoliticoSphere – A runner-up to the best-in-class for this cluster, this site provides dynamic charts for data related
to Political Personalities and Political Issues collected from nearly 4,000 blogs and news sites.
Unfluence – With a cleverly punny title, this site mines public records and allows users to track contributions to
candidates from EVERYONE. Users select the state, election type (Senate, Governor, etc.) and year, and then the
tool returns the data visually through scattergraphs. Best viewed with IE.
Trendistic- This dynamic charting tool visualizes trends in Twitter posts for a given day, week, month, 3 month, or 6
month period. Related posts (often with embedded URL's for further investigation) are displayed and dynamically
updated with the varied chronological user choices. The trend linked here is for the term “Romney” to give an idea
of the deep results delivered.
Where Did My Tax Dollars Go? - This tool came very close to being chosen as my best in class, and has received a
number of awards recognizing it's clever approach to understanding often obtuse data. Users enter thier salary
and tax filing status, and are instantly brought to a table containing the federal, state, social security, and medicare
deduction breakdowns. What's more is that this also employs an animated, interactive pie chart displaying the
specific offices or programs that the tax dollars supported in terms of the percenatge and dollar amount the user
contributed. Fascinating data and a uniquely engaging visualization.
NY Times: You Fix the Budget – This heavily-user-centered data visualization tool allows you to make budgetary
decisions in the areas of domestic spending, healthcare, military, social security, existing taxes, and new taxes and
see immediately (through dynamically updating charts) how these choices will affect the budget shortfalls for
2015 and 2030. Users are then encouraged to share the choices and resulting visuals online through embedded
social media links.
Cartographic Visualizations
Washington Post's Beyond the Results: 2010 Congressional Elections – (see best-in-class above)
Boots Up Election Dashboard - This tool from the Huffington Post uses a combination of cartographic
images and dynamic charts (mostly line) to tell the story of the Senate, House, and Governor's seats “up
for grabs” in the 2012 elections. While this tool is broad in scope and engaging, I would have
appreciated it if all of the elements of the “Election Dashboard” be treated as a dashboard and grouped
on one dynamic page rather than spread across a number of pages. The effect almost made it feel like a
disparate grouping of infographics rather than any dashboard.
PoliticoSphere: Maps – Like it’s charting cousin above, this dynamic visual shows the key issues in the US
politisphere form nearly 1,000 blogs and news sites using color, motion, dynamic zoom, and even fisheye views.
270 to Win – Referencing the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the US Presidential election,
270towin employs a flash frame to provide the user an interactive, colorful map to track 2012 electoral
votes as the user decides a state's Republican/Democrat/Undecided status. These indications instantly
open related historical voting information for that state, and a fantastic set of embedded sharing tools
makes it easy to bring your own views into the larger, visualized conversation.
Wikileaks US dispatches – The international wiki-leaks scandal rocked political headlines for months. This
innovative site, comprised of an interactive visual atlas and stunning “dossier” features bring the details
of this story to light through beautifully balanced charts, cartographs, photography, and flash. Great use
of color and motion, with instant response.
Other Visualizations
• VoteEasy – (See best-in-class above)
• Congress Speaks - offers a dynamic exploration of the words spoken in the 110th
congress. That's right—words. Users engage the U.S. map to select the state and
representative they wish to examine, and then select another state's
representative to compare them to.
• CNN’s Election Center: The Issues – This collection of issue-related articles is
navigated using a visual slider that updates with a candidates standing in the
election, as well as offering an overview of all candidate issues.
• Pollster – Much like the CNN Election Center, this interface combines charts,
infographic visualizations, and the related news stories. Updated daily, this site
helps keep you informed to whatever level of detail you are comfortable with.
Where do you think political data visualization is going next?

similar documents