Category Archives: infovis

Another tool to keep up with election news

TechCrunch posted a link to another tool to keep up with the flood of election-related news coming from news services and each of the presidential campaigns.  Dipity Election Center presents news items in a time-line format.

The interface is very cluttered and not exactly intuitive (e.g., unclear what all the little icons below the timeline mean), but an interesting way to present news for news junkies like me.  It presents less at-a-glance information than the website everymomentnow.

How do you keep up with election news?  (if you do at all).

The VP Debates: An Adventure in Clutter

Perhaps it is because I associate CNN with Atlanta, a city dear to my heart, that I care so much about how badly they choose their on-screen visualizations. Last night I watched before, during and after the debate, which meant I was as informed as could be about their graphics (and even saw the gratuitous use of this Minority Report touch screen.)

This time there was one focus group (32 people), helpfully labeled “Ohio Undecideds” divided into women and men. CNN did apparently fix the scale problem from the first debate, where the reaction line never changed. This time we even saw some ceiling effects:

(Or, I suppose, these Ohio Undecideds were much more polarized than those watching the first debate.)

Now, obviously, I’m a big believer in sampling. However, when they interviewed the 32 people after the debate, it seemed pretty clear that they were mostly registered Democrats or Republicans who said they were undecided so they could be on CNN.* This was allowed almost 1/5th of the total screen during the debate, and was present during the entire debate. I suppose when another large square of the screen is dedicated to distractedly flashing “Vice Presidential Debate”/”Debate Night in America” we can no longer pretend to hold television (even when it the purpose is presenting information) to any rules (e.g., “frequency of use“.)

Continuing my curmudgeonly gripes about on-screen graphics, “points” from six political analysts were displayed on the screen in what I first thought were pie charts, but soon was not sure what to think.


This photo was taken early in the debate. The math became far more difficult by the end

I’ll outline the rules. Analysts could give positive or negative “points” to each candidate when they made a statement. Unlike well-trained Olympic judges, even the analysts on the same ‘side’ were wildly all over the board (some giving a miserly 1-4 points and others apparently madly pressing their button as if they were on Jeopardy.)

My main issue was with load and changability: To get a true number from any analyst I have to subtract the negative points from the positive one. For example, in the picture above, Begala has Sarah Palin at 0, though my first inclination was to add those two numbers. If I want to get an idea across analysts, I have to do that for each one, hold the final number in memory and move to the next (or switch from adding to subtracting as I move down and across the screen.) Then I have to remember the final number for a candidate and process the next candidate.

Worse, the analysts could change their already given points, making a mess of the idea of +/-. Just because one candidate had 3 positive points did not mean they wouldn’t have 2 or 1 the next time you checked. This undermines the idea that they are getting additive positive scores for good points they make and negative scores for incorrect, unpopular, or lame points they make. If that were the case, each number should only increase throughout the debate.

Perhaps it was the large amounts of pizza and chocolate consumed at the debate party, but once all analysts reached double digits, I gave up and tried to ignore the flashing numbers.

As another note, many of these analysts had party biases, however their leanings were not noted on the screen. It would have been helpful to have them separated on each side by that pre-debate bias.

Last, my favorite moment came after the debate when someone at CNN printed out the analysts pie-chart-ish results and put them on screen to talk about them while the actual graphics were still up on the sides of the screen!

*I mean no offense if one of the 32 reads this and doesn’t fit that claim. There were a few true Independents interviewed.

Infovis in the Debates

I‘m currently watching the first presidential debates, presumably with some fair percentage of America.

There is a graph at the bottom of the screen called “Audience Reaction.” I cannot figure out the data.

As you can see, the two parties and independents are represented by colors on to the left. The Y-axis seems to increase (I think the center is zero, but not really sure). The X-axis is time, so the graph scrolls while they talk.

But where are these data coming from? It can’t be the audience… there is no clapping or hooting that would “raise” the lines of approval. Did they give them clickers? Is it from online reactions? Are the Nielsen families calling in? For these data to have meaning, we need more information.

For example, we need to know if the reaction is from the Mississippi audience or from a national one. We need to know if the sample is random. We need to know the number of people in each group (I would assume the two parties have a larger number of contributors to the graph than the independents.)

Last, I know I’m not the only one confused. Check out the top hits for my search:

(A final nitpick: the graph barely changes… what scale is it on!?!?)

Update: At the end of the debate (and presumably at the beginning) they revealed the audience members are in “focus groups.” I still don’t have most of my questions answered, but it’s something.

Visualizing election news

Here is an interesting website that aggregates news items about both US presidential candidates and visualizes that data providing a nice dashboard-like “snapshot”.  Once you click on a bar or candidate name, it shows you word-sized historical graphs (sparklines) of their popularity.  For more information on sparklines or other ways of visualizing data, see Edward Tufte.
Sparklines for Obama-related terms
Sparklines for McCain-related terms

Infographics in Movies

Have you ever seen those cool interfaces or graphics that are shown in movies, mostly sci-fi, and wondered who created them?  I ran across this old post on Flowing data about a guy who creates those “infographics”.  Sounds like a very cool job!  I think I first became aware of infographics/visualization in the 1997 movie Event Horizon (which is when I became interested in HF) and have been a keen observer ever since.  The movie was so-so but I distinctly remember the interfaces for the ship being fluid, novel, and cool.

Or more recently, the multi-touch, gestural interface used by Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

Mark Coleran creates infographics/visualizations for film/tv.  His demo reel is definitely worth a look (quicktime web plug in required).