Elections and Campaign Data Visualization

With the upcoming Dutch elections the campaigns are heating up and we will be allowed to choose our parliamentary representatives yet again. It is interesting to see how statistics and their visualization are used to clarify and position issues in our complex world.

Issues with visualization

You cannot release statistics and visualizations without thinking through the ramifications of these actions. Every non-trivial bit of information has biases and values attached to it. You can never know what will happen, but you can at least think about it.

The other day at the Rotterdam Open Data meeting, someone vehemently defended the point of view that we should not publish data because it could be spun in a way that is harmful to society. A wholly subjective and belittling point of course to which we countered, that unfounded claims can be launched already and without authoritative data sources we do not have a good way of debunking them.

A lot can go wrong when using data visualization, just see this video of a presentation by Alex Lundry which is familiar territory, but is brought nice and quickly:

Or this recent example from a so called Dutch quality newspaper about Greec and other European edging towards the brink of financial ruin spotted by the great Sargasso1:

This is guilty of the fiddling with origins and axis scales that is so common in juicing up statistics for presentation purposes. Other faults from the video: “sin of ommission”, “correlation is not causation”, “pie-charts suck”. Most of this is treated pretty well in Tufte’s Visual Design of Quantitative Information where he calculates the lie factor of faulty infographics.

US Job Losses

Data visualizations —especially charts of statistics— in elections are also nothing new2, but with the increase of open data and data processing tools, we are bound to see more of them coming out and I hope to see more dynamic ones especially.

The Obama Job Chart (below, taken from Creekside Chat) is a very static traditional chart which could have just as easily been punched out of Excel (though the extra visual touches are nice), but the most important part of this chart is how it supports an overall narrative:

I take issue with the poster’s critique3 because the chart clearly says that it shows “Job Loss” and not absolute unemployment. Any turnaround of the economical situation will be necessarily coupled by a trend as displayed in the chart (losses have to edge back to zero before they can become gains). Also the comparison to the amount of money in a wallet does not really work because money spent is an absolute loss, while the amount of people in the job market is a pool which is in flux.

UK Job Losses

The UK will have their General Elections next Thursday. In the run-up to the elections, Russell Davies spotted this nice interactive chart by Labour to clarify how they helped reduce unemployment.

Jobs Interactive Map | The Labour Party

It remains to be seen how far these kind of more technocratic online methods support the narratives and media plays that an election revolves around. It does not look like it has helped Labour that much in their struggle.

Combined Approaches

So how to combine online more mechanical and easy to ignore material with the mass-media appeal of legwork on the campaign trail?

What’s more likely to be pivotal is the canny use of the latter to leverage the former: ensuring that every casual contact goes into a database, every issue raised by a constituent (or inferred from a pattern of facts on the ground) is captured and tracked, everything that shows up in the gillnet of your feeds is exploited for its propaganda or organizational value. —“Harvey Milk, community development and the digital balance sheet” by Adam Greenfield

As suggested by Adam Greenfield, a combination of both may be the best option, but besides the much praised Obama campaign we haven’t seen much successful work along those lines yet and even the Obama grassroots organization has been underutilized since the inauguration.

The Dutch Situation

One question would be: Where is the Dutch job loss chart at. If I can massage the correct statistics from the CBS, I’ll see if I can whip up something.

Many political organizations in the Netherlands, do not have the budget or maturity in web infrastructure to be able to quickly create and deploy bespoke applications that are situated within their workflows and fit within campaign deadlines.

A small but comprehensive overview of online activities for the Dutch general elections can be found on Spotlight Effect (in Dutch) but small really is the operative word. I am aware of a couple more initiatives due to come out but it’s quite meagre.

Also when talking about the overarching themes, I haven’t spotted the ones that our election is supposed to be about yet. Unless it is whether you envision a divided Netherlands where a discontented white proletariat rules over both foreigners and intellectual elite alike or whether you want a whole country governed by sane and rational people.
Issues such as education, technology, healthcare, immigration, urban and ex-urban planning for a decreasing population, our international position, energy and food security and all of those with a vision of at least 10 years into the future are sorely lacking. This is probably because most of the population is too shuttered inside their blocks and suburbs to be able to look over the rim of the nearest enclosing dyke.

This seems to be the overarching theme of the elections for the PvdA.
Iedereen telt mee

Alex Lundry notices that the Obama job loss chart is being updated by the Washington Monthly. Here’s the April version:

And here’s the same chart for the Netherlands albeit a lot less granular (if anybody has that data, I’d greatly appreciate it):
Werkloosheid Nederland

  1. To which my snide commentary was that most people going into graphic design don’t do so because they were especially good at maths or statistics in high school.
  2. I’d love to see a comprehensive annotated overview or even pointers to material.
  3. In Dutch we would call it: ‘looking for nails in low tide’.

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