The 2012 Political Visualization Race – New Hampshire Primaries Edition

Jan 11, 2012

This political season all major news and media outlets will be competing in the dynamic visualization race. We’re only at the New Hampshire Primaries and already the LA Times, CNN, The New York Times, MSNBC, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Fox News, Google, and even The Guardian all have their own live results trackers as noted by Nathan Yau.

Inevitably some of these news sources do it better than others but the ones leading the pack may surprise you. My picks for the best election results trackers are TThe New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and Fox News. What’s interesting is that all of these trackers use the exact same data, provided by the AP, but no two present it to their audience in the same way.

Fox News, despite their sordid history with displaying data, has done the best job of communicating the basic information to its audience in a clear and quick way. The design of the page – from visual hierarchy to layout, color and typography – is far better than any of the other trackers mentioned. For displaying the data, the table at the top wastes no time with abstract bar graphs to represent percentage of votes and just gives you the straight numbers. The projected winner is clear and the candidates are arranged in standing order.

Below the table we have a clear indication of the percentage of polling stations that are reporting and a call to action to see all exit poll results. The map is simple but extremely clear. Hovering on different counties re-sorts the color key by the rankings for that area – a nice touch and easy to detect visually. The ability to yet:explore the primary results by town is also a nice added feature and easy to find. Fox News didn’t try to present all the data they have on one screen and instead split it out into separate pages. They did, however, decide to automatically play a video of the winner Mitt Romney when the page loaded but otherwise a job well done by Fox News.

On the other side of the spectrum, The New York Times has attempted to display all of the New Hampshire primary data on the same page.

The most important candidate information is still clear but there is a lot more clutter on the page to wade through. Some of it is useful and contextual and some could easily be eliminated or hidden in a smart way. It’s a lot harder to find the percent reporting on this page as well.

By default the map is presented showing results by town instead of county. Showing results by town may be interesting for the individual user to see result for where they live but the essential information is really the winner in the larger counties. Deciphering the aggregate winner from town areas is very difficult to do. The user can switch to county view with an option on the right and can also filter the map by a number of demographic and political metrics, some more revealing than others.

An alternate map titled ‘size of lead’ can be accessed in another tab and attempts to visualize the magnitude of the win with circle size. To me this view doesn’t reveal any new information you can’t get from hovering over a county area. The town view of lead size is more interesting but it’s very difficult to determine who won in each area since the colored circles are so close in value.

The New York Times nicely presents a selection of exit poll results, highlighting the top candidate for each survey result. They also show a selection of other NH Primary polls with similarly useful highlighting. One small detail on the page that seems like important information is the small asterisk stating “*The Republican Party penalized New Hampshire for holding its primary before February 2012 by taking away half of its delegates.” None of the other trackers mention this.

This map from the Chicago Tribune takes the interface of a primary tracker in a different direction.

The simple page directs your eye to the important information and leaves out all unnecessary clutter and context. It’s obvious how the candidate sidebar relates to the map and the color coding seems simple enough. The strength here is really information architecture and economy of attention.

Clicking on a candidate changes the map to represent the percentage of the vote that candidate has in each area. The color scale changes to a purple range and, as the sidebar text states, “gray indicates a tie.” Clicking on other candidates changes the map’s coloring and takes some cognitive work to keep up with. Some of the colors generated by the purple to gray scale are similar to the color assigned to Romney in the sidebar. The candidate colors in the sidebar no longer reference the active map.

If any of the trackers should have town-level data it should be the one with a map that’s 75% of the page. Instead, this map zooms to arbitrary levels, revealing no new information.

After this tracker, the level of quality falls steeply, ranging from not useful to not usable. However, the sheer number of visualizations put out is encouraging, especially since each news outlet will compete against the other for tracker traffic. Let’s hope these dynamic data displays improve as the political season rolls steadily on and that users pick visualizations for their display of data and not their affiliation.

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