So, those of you a little bit older than me—not to date myself—probably remember the evil Reds of Soviet Russia. Some my age do as well. Younger than me, it’s probably all ancient history. And so for those of you who forget, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was, if I am to simplify, a Russian empire that featured a centralised, command and control economy and a dictatorial government. In 1991, the empire fell apart for a number of reasons and became 15 independent countries, Russia still being the largest. And a lot has happened in the twenty years between 1991 and 2011.
Twenty years being a long time, the BBC has remembered the event by creating a relatively simple piece that compares the fates of the various countries in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s breakup. One takes one drop-down list and selects a country and then another country from the other list. And in the centre one can control whether the comparison is of wealth (GDP), health (life expectancy), or leadership (no. of times the presidency has changed hands).
I have an issue with some of the metrics and whether they are the best suited to describe the wealth, health, and democracy of the former Soviet republics. But, I think the strength really is not so much the charts but the brief summaries for each country that try to capture the story of the past two decades.
RMS Titanic launched 100 years ago today in Belfast, where the anniversary was marked all these years later and the BBC covered it. In a related article, the BBC looked at why people celebrate a ship that had such a brief and tragic history, in which there was this small little graphic illustrating the failure of the watertight bulkheads.
To the victors go the spoils of war. Often unheralded of course is the spoil of drawing the new map. But, in and among the Himalayas, the territory of Jammu and Kashmir is yet to be won decisively by any side. Look at 1947, 1965, and 1999, we still have the territory contested and different parts controlled by different countries.
The Economist, noting the potential flashpoint, created an interactive map to highlight the region and the situation, wherein one can view the different claims and how they overlap. Nothing particularly fancy, but it need not be to clearly communicate the fact that Jammu and Kashmir is mess of the most sovereign order.
However, the interesting bit of the story is how in India the government, which claims the entirety of the territory, censored the print-edition of the Economist wherein the conflicting claims and current lines-of-control were drawn with a sticker because the map was incorrect, to use the BBC’s word, as it showed the region divided between India, Pakistan, and China.
Note here the Pakistani claim versus the Indian claim—I shall leave you, the reader, to investigate the differences between the Chinese claim.
Ireland, the ancestral land of many Americans, can also be claimed by President Obama. His maternal great-great-great-grandfather was a shoemaker. The BBC created this graphic to complement their news article. And I must admit to being quietly amused at the % ‘Irishness’; Approximate label.
If you have not heard, somebody in Britain is getting married…and of course that means explorations of royal blood lines and, well, non-royal bloodlines. So the BBC put together a small piece on Kate Middleton’s ancestry. So for those of you with any interest in charting family lines, here you go. The piece has some interactive features, clicking on the folks with little cameras provides a brief bio or story and a photo—though not necessarily of the individual.
The BBC has a new feature on Nigeria, one of Africa’s most important—and most complicated—countries. And a few days ago it was supposed to hold elections. But these have been postponed, apparently on logistical problems. This piece attempts to explain the complexities of modern Nigeria across several different metrics via maps. Overall, it is very similar to a piece I mentioned that the BBC ran on South Sudan in the run up to that soon-to-be-country’s independence referendum.
Overall, the piece works for me as a means of quickly and broadly explaining the geographic breakdown of Nigeria in terms of ethnicity, politics, health, et cetera. The colours work, especially shifting between hues for the one-variable maps. The one thing that the Nigeria map adds over the Sudan map is the name of each state. However, these begin to become a bit cluttered and distracting—not to mention that in all-caps they sit at roughly the same level of the neighbouring country names despite being a touch smaller. Perhaps the maps could have been made to do more with less, and only label those states mentioned in the explanatory text. Or they could have been included but treated in a subtler fashion.
For those who may not be aware, part of Africa’s largest country is holding a referendum on whether it should remain a part of Sudan or secede and become an independent state, Southern Sudan—though one wonders if they would not come up with a different name. About 2005 a peace agreement all-but-ended a decades-long civil war in Sudan and as that violence subsided the attention in Sudan shifted to Darfur. The terms for the peace deal included a referendum on independence for Southern Sudan, long since joined with the northern half of Sudan as part of a British colony in Africa to control the Nile River.
The two halves of the country were and are very much different and the BBC has used maps to highlight these differences. The problem is that there are oil fields along the proposed border and a disputed region, called Abeyi, has significant deposits of its own. And so the question of who controls the oil and thus the money and the power remains. That, however, is a story for another post. This is just to highlight the maps.
Overall, not bad. I find using the different hues for the different subject matters a smart idea. The shift forces the audience to focus on the change in meaning, which is very important if the shape of the coloured area is not otherwise changing. That said, the infant mortality choropleth uses too great a shift in hues between data bins when compared to the water, education, and food security maps. The oil field map, while not necessarily a data-heavy map in the same way as the choropleths, is a nice bookend to what started the series, i.e. the satellite view. These highlight the sheer environmental and, in a fashion, economic differences between the two regions of Sudan.
I find the ethnic groups map, however, the most difficult to fit into the series. Certainly from a subject matter it is the most important. However, the colours chosen to represent the various ethnic groups seem disparate. The southern Dinka, for example, are represented as an olive-green whereas the northern Beja are more of a bluish-green. I think a better solution would have been to keep the three main groups, i.e. the Arabs, Northern Sudan, and Southern Sudan, and then assign each a different hue, for the sake of an example say the three primary colours. Then within those groups, different tints for the various but related ethnic groups. This would highlight the various ethnic groups existing across Sudan, but show the geographic split between the two groups.
Overall, a good effort from the BBC to highlight the stark differences between Northern and Southern Sudan.
The BBC has an article about the massiveness of Facebook—at least in the United States. They have taken the data and spent time to do a little bit of visualisation. It is worth a look; the design is not perfect but acceptable in a broad sense.
The election has come and gone yet very little is resolved; the UK now has a hung parliament. Labour, the Tories, and the Lib Dems are now left to negotiate on the details of forming a coalition government, wherein two parties formally agree to cooperate in governing the country, or a minority government, wherein the Tories try to govern with the most seats but less than a majority. Or does Labour try to work with the Lib Dems and achieve something of a minority coalition government. The one certain thing about the election is that we now have loads of electoral data that wants to be visualised.
A few things at the top, as an American, despite my following of British politics, I am, well, an American. I am more familiar with the American system and so some of what may follow may be inaccurate. If at all, please do speak up. I should very much like to understand an electoral system that may now change entirely.
I wanted to point out a couple of sites real quick and some advantages and disadvantages thereof. Most of these were likely around before the election, however, I have been a tad busy with work and some other things to provide any commentary until now.
Auntie. The Beeb. The BBC. They have done a pretty good job at playing with four variables and the results. Are pie charts great? No. Not at all. However, they naturally limit us to 100% whereas bar charts displaying share are not necessarily as limiting—understanding that, yes, such things can be coded into the system.
Another interesting thing about the BBC’s electoral map is their cartographic decision to represent each constituency as a hexagon instead of overlaying the constituencies over a political map. This actually makes quite a lot of sense, however, if one considers that British constituencies are supposed to be rather equal in terms of population—not geographic area. And so while a traditional map will portray vast swathes of Tory blue and Lib Deb yellow, Labour counters in holding numerous visually insignificant constituencies in the inner cities of the UK.
Does the BBC need to represent each Commons seat as a square and arrange them to cross the majority line? Most likely not. However, it does keep with the idea of displaying each constituency as the boxes are placed next to the hexagons.
All in all, I think the BBC’s piece is quite effective. I do miss seeing the actual geography of the UK. But I understand how it is less useful in displaying the outcome of one’s playing with the electoral swing. Useful, but not necessarily needed, is the provision of several historical elections as comparisons to one’s playing.
The Guardian is next, in no particular order. Their swingometer is a bit less interesting than that of the BBC’s. Certainly in some senses it makes more sense, any bi-directional swing, while easier to grasp, ignore the complexities in having the Liberal Democrats as a viable third party and thus third axis. The circular swingometer attempts to rectify that. However, what the BBC does with their pie chart version is delve into the politics of the regional and fourth party candidates. For example, the Greens won a single constituency in southern England. In a hung parliament a single vote may be the difference between passing and defeating a bill. The BBC accounts for this while the Guardian does not.
What is particularly interesting about their calculator, however, is the ability to track individual seats and watch as one’s changes affect that particular constituency. As I play with the calculator, I can watch as Brighton Pavilion, where the Green party candidate won, changes from Labour to Conservative. However, nowhere in my exercises, have I managed to switch the seat to a fourth party candidate. The BBC solves this by not allowing one to select particular constituencies; one can only guess which seats they are looking at.
Also interesting about the Guardian’s version is their provision of different data displays. The default is a proportional representation, with each seat equating to a single square. However, they also allow one to view the results on a natural geographic level and strictly in terms of number of results and how close said results are to the magic number of 326. Additionally, the map allows you to filter for only that region of particular interest to you. If I only wish to look at, for example, the West Midlands, I can look at just the West Midlands without being distracted by additional regions. (The West Midlands provides another interesting example of being unable to factor in the role of fourth party players as Wyre Forest switched to the Conservatives, a result I cannot here duplicate.)
Overall, I really like how the Guardian provides different ways of viewing the data and the ability to track those changes to a particular constituency—even across the changes in data views. However, the Guardian is lacking at least in the ability to address the role of independents and regional parties. Perhaps this is do to a level of difficulty in predicting results at that level of granularity; something that is wholly understandable. However, that the BBC does just that is unfortunate for the rest of the Guardian’s piece because the rest of it is so nice. Even aesthetically, I find the Guardian’s to be appealing.
Next is the Sun. This, admittedly, is not so much a calculator but more a results map. And as such, it is effective in its simplicity. There is no messing about with swing or such—again probably because it is simply filling in constituencies by result. However, where the Sun’s piece fails is that to see any result, one needs to click a specific region. When selecting the UK, one can only see the outlines of the various regions of the UK. There appears to be no way of seeing UK-wide results.
Additionally, the data is presented strictly on a natural geography. This has the deficits as outlined above. And while the Guardian does present the results in such a fashion, it is not the only fashion in which data can be presented. Further, to see any results for a particular constituency, one must click all the way through the map before seeing data. None of this helps one access the actual data. And while one could say that the results are less important than showing the victor, one still needs to click into a specific region to see a victor thereby requiring a click whereas the other pieces provide results at an instant view.
Aesthetically, while both the BBC and Guardian favour a lighter, more open space the Sun’s piece feels trapped in a claustrophobic space surrounded by dark advertisements and flush against menus and heavy-handed navigation. All in all, I must confess that the Sun’s piece strikes me as an underwhelming piece that is less than wholly successful. It could have been made at least wholly successful if I needed not navigate into a particular region to mouseover a constituency.
The last piece I am going to look at is that from the Times. While there appears to be no way of playing with possible outcomes, the Times provides interesting ways of slicing the data in a more narrative structure. In terms of the map, the display suffers from being viewable only as the natural geography of the United Kingdom without being able to even toggle to a proportional view.
The additional data is displayed nicely in a side panel. I have to say that from an aesthetic standpoint, the Times’ mini site for the election results is my favourite. The black banner and main navigation sits well against the light colours used for the remainder of the piece. The serifed typeface for the numbers fits well with the newspaper feel and the black and serif combined works well to recall No. 10, Downing Street. A very nice touch and design decision.
As noted, the display fails in that only shows the data in a natural geographic sense. Now, the site overall provides links to news coverage of the event; these are accessible through a dropdown menu in the black banner. But, when clicked, these stories alter the map and highlight the particular constituencies in question. This approach provides a nice touch on straight data visualisation in linking the data to the editorial content of the newspaper. Which seats were taken or lost by independents? On a broad and filled-in map of the United Kingdom, I may not be able to know. But by clicking on that story, the map filters appropriately and I can click each constituency and get the story.
And so while the data visualisation is not necessarily on par with that of the BBC and the Guardian, the tie-in with the editorial emphasis—in my mind—makes up for the lack of detail in data visualisation. Data is wonderful, however, the narrative is what helps us make sense of what is otherwise just numbers and figures.
That editorial link and the subtle design decision to link the minisite to the sort of 10 Downing Street aesthetic makes the Times version my favourite and the best designed experience. Besides the lack of detail in the data visualisation aspect, the only other drawback is perhaps the load time for each change in display.