Tech Economies in the USA

Earlier this March the Washington Post published a piece looking at the twenty finalist contenders for the second Amazon headquarters. Specifically it explored how the cities rank in metrics that speak to a city’s technology and innovation economy.

That in and of itself, while incredibly fascinating, is not noteworthy in and of itself. Though I will say the article’s online title is neatly presented, split half-and-half with the vertical graphic showing the cities ranked.

I really like how this title space received a special design.
I really like how this title space received a special design.

But the point that was really neat was the interactivity that followed. Here you can see a dropdown from which the user selects a city of interest—surprise, surprise we are looking at Philadelphia. From that point on, the piece keeps the selected city highlighted in every graphic that follows.

Looking at Philly
Looking at Philly

Again, that is nothing truly surprising, but it is neat to see. What would have taken it to the next step is if each of those associated paragraphs were tailored to the specific city. Instead, they appear to be general paragraphs.

But overall, it does a really nice job of comparing the twenty cities—it’s actually fewer because both Washington and New York have multiple sites per metro area—across the different metrics.

The only part that left me scratching my head a bit was the colour choice. I am not certain that it needs the blue-green to yellow-green palette. Those colours seem defined by a city’s placement on the overall list and I am not convinced that the piece would not have still worked if they had been only a single colour, using another colour to define the selected city.

Credit for the piece goes to Darla Cameron and Jonathan O’Connell.

Russia Tomorrow

In news that surprises absolutely nobody, Russia “re-elected” Vladimir Putin as president for another six-year term. The Economist recently looked at what they termed the Puteens, a generation of Russians born starting in 1999 who have no memory of a Russia pre-Vladimir Putin.

This piece features a set of interactive dot plots that capture survey results on a number of topics that are segmented by age. It attempts to capture the perspective of Puteens on a range of issues from their media diet to foreign policy outlook to civil rights.

The ideas of youth…
The ideas of youth…

The design is largely effective. The Puteen generation sticks out clearly as the bright red to the cool greys. And more importantly, when the dots would overlap they move vertically away from the line so users can clearly see all the dots. And on hover, all the dots of the same age cohort’s interest are highlighted. I think one area of improvement would have been to apply that same logic to the legend to allow the user to scroll through the whole dataset without always having to interact with the chart. But that is a minor bit on an otherwise really nice piece.

Credit for the piece goes to the Economist’s graphics department.

My Kingdom for a Needle

I am exhausted. I tried to stay up late enough to catch the absentee ballots from Washington County. Alas, I did not quite make it. (You better bet I will be drinking all the caffeine today.) But someone else did not quite make it through the night. Or rather, something. What was it? The New York Times election night needle.

To understand why the Times made the needle, read this really great explainer. The super short version: it tries to forecast the results of that particular election day, accounting for things like uncounted votes. On television, analysts and large interactive screens can show how, usually, urban districts are counted first then followed by slower-to-return rural areas. But for people following results solely online, those nuances might well be lost. Enter the needle.

Trust the Needle
Trust the Needle

Last night, like much of the Twitterverse I follow for politics, I had the needle open in one tab. But as the results began to come in, something odd was happening on the Times’ results page. The votes were being displayed in a precinct-by-precinct fashion in Allegheny, Washington, and Greene Counties. But Westmoreland was oddly grey. It turned out, the county elections board was not, I suppose, digitally publishing the precinct results, only county-wide.

Whilst the Needle spins…
Whilst the Needle spins…

Fun fact, the needle’s model is apparently built on precinct results. So how do you have a needle if something like 30% of the model’s required or expected data will not be available? The Times tweeted about it a few times, but ultimately pulled it down. Better to not have it and be right than have it wrong just to have it.

Needle down…
Needle down…

But that brings me to the second point about the needle. Well done to BuzzFeed’s Decision Desk HQ, who were presciently concerned about the ability of the county to get precinct level results up online. So they sent a reporter, as in a human being, to Westmoreland to get the analogue results and then upload them to BuzzFeed’s own results spreadsheet. (I never did find a BuzzFeed live results page.)

Who knows the budget difference between the New York Times’s graphics/politics desks and that of BuzzFeed’s, but the ability to put a single person in Westmoreland made the difference for BuzzFeed, whose coverage via Decision Desk HQ, made for a more compelling following because they were,  old school like, reading out results as they came in via reporters. And because there were no exit polls in the election, we had to wait for all the votes. Strangely, it almost felt like watching a UK general election where you have to wait hours for some constituencies to announce results. Though this election had a noticeable lack of Raving Monster Loony candidates.

I bring up the BuzzFeed contribution to the night because it does show how sometimes the sheer fact of placing a reporter on the ground can yield tremendous results. Come November, no, I don’t think any single media organisation can afford to put a reporter in every single US county. But I would bet the Times will be working on how to better precinct proof their needle.

Credit for the piece goes to Nate Cohn, Josh Katz, Sarah Almukhtar, and Matthew Bloch.

Italian Election Results

Europe enjoyed some significant political news yesterday. First, Angela Merkel will serve a fourth term as chancellor as the SPD members voted to allow their party to enter into a grand coalition with Merkel’s CDU/CSU party.

But the more important story is that of the Italian elections, where the centre-left under Matteo Renzi was attempting a comeback against the populist parties the 5-Star Movement and the League, the latter an anti-immigrant party. Also in the mix was Silvio Berlusconi, whose Forza party won 14% of the vote and as a member of a right/centre-right bloc that won 37%.

So I chose to highlight the homepage of IL Sore 24 Ore, an Italian newspaper, that had the results displayed clearly.

Live results at the top of the home page
Live results at the top of the home page

Of course the big problem is that I can neither read nor speak Italian. So figuring out just what every label is proved to be a bit tricky. But once you figure it out, it is quite clear.  The nice blue banner for the real-time results (again with the assuming of translation) does a nice job of clearly separating itself from the rest of the page, but the tables inside are quiet and not screaming for attention. Instead the user is allowed to find his or her party of bloc of interest and then scan to the right for the bold number of seats in the respective chamber.

The results page is similarly nice, using clean and simple tables to organise the information. Using the Chamber of Deputies page as an example, the overall results appear on the left while important context via maps and specific regions appear to the right. All the while the use of simple typography and whitespace guide the user to the appropriate data set.

These are the results for the Chamber of Deputies, the equivalent to the US House or House of Commons
These are the results for the Chamber of Deputies, the equivalent to the US House or House of Commons

And lastly a screenshot of an article about the election results, none of which I can read. Here, instead of an interactive table or graphic, we have a static graphic showing the results. It certainly captures the results in this particular moment—exact seat numbers have not yet been released—but could grow stale as the day goes on. Although there very well could be a page with interactive results like this, but that I cannot find because, again, I cannot read Italian.

The centre-right bloc did well, as did the 5-Star Movement (M5S)
The centre-right bloc did well, as did the 5-Star Movement (M5S)

The design of the graphic is nice. It uses the popular half-circle arc to show who “crosses the finish line” in terms of blocs seating more than 50% of the chamber. But once again, I am most impressed by the clarity of the table and information displays through white space and typography. (Though I feel in this case white space should be more like light salmon-coloured space.)

Overall, the designers did a fantastic job of presenting the data and information, so well that a non-Italian could even figure it out.

Credit for the piece goes to the Il Sore 24 Ore graphics department.

Undersea Mining

Today’s piece isn’t strictly about data visualisation. Instead it’s a nice article from the BBC that explores the nascent industry of undersea mining. What caught my interest was the story of Soviet submarine K-129, which sank mysteriously in the middle of the Pacific. But that isn’t even half the story, so if you are interested go and read the article for that bit.

But that sinking may have created the beginning of the undersea mining industry. And so as I read on, I found a nice mixture of text, photography, and graphics explaining processes and such. This screenshot is a comparison of the size of an undersea mining zone compared to a land-based copper mine.

An undersea mine vs. a surface mine
An undersea mine vs. a surface mine

Some of the graphics could use some polish and finesse, but I do appreciate the effort that goes into creating pieces like this. You will note that four different people had to work together to get the piece online. But if this is perhaps the future of BBC content, this is a great start.

Credit for the piece goes to David Shukman, Ben Milne, Zoe Barthlomew, and Finlo Rohrer.

More Murder in Merica

Today’s post was going to be something not this. But it is remarkable how many people die in the United States in mass shootings. It is, generally speaking, not a problem experienced in the rest of the developed world. The question is do we want gun violence to really define American exceptionalism?

Anyways, the Washington Post has a frightening piece exploring all the deaths, the guns, the killers, and the frequency of the killings.

Too many illustrations there
Too many illustrations there

Credit for the piece goes to Bonnie Berkowitz, Denise Lu, and Chris Alcantara.

All Your Base Are Belong to Internets

Over the weekend news broke that since November, plans for military bases around the world were available to anyone and everyone on the internets. How? Why?

Well, it turns out that soldiers using wearable tech to track their rides or cycling routes had forgotten to disable that feature whilst on military installations. And so when the company collecting the data published a global heatmap of activities, well, this happened.

You can even make out the perimeter of the former British airfield.
You can even make out the perimeter of the former British airfield.

This is not one of the worst offenders, because this is the site of what was formerly Camps Leatherneck and Bastion, the American and British, respectively, military bases in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. But we all know those bases exist and where they are. But, what is interesting and perhaps worrying for military planners is that sites like this do not show up on publicly available sites like Google Maps, for example. Take the same heatmap and look at it on satellite view and you get…a whole lot of nothing.

A view of the two military bases from well before they were constructed.
A view of the two military bases from well before they were constructed.

The problem is that when this technology is applied to places like, say, Syria. Given the civil war there, it is far more likely that users of wearable tech belong to or are working with one of the western military forces operating in the country. After all, the rest of the country is dark. So what is this set of rectangles and a grid-like pattern?

A bunch of rectangles and squares. It looks like a built up area, if not base.
A bunch of rectangles and squares. It looks like a built up area, if not base.

Well, by looking at the satellite photography, it is clearly a field situated between two small hamlets.

Nothing to see…I just run very straight routes through the middle of Syrian fields…
Nothing to see…I just run very straight routes through the middle of Syrian fields…

Most likely it is an American base. Could be Russian, though. But now we know where it is and have a rough understanding of its layout. You can see why military planners are concerned.

And it all owes to the ubiquity of tracking data on wearables, mobiles, vehicles, &c. And as we continue to generate data and want to see it visualised, are there or should there be boundaries? Alas, not a conversation for this blog to solve, but a conversation we should all continue to have.

Credit for the piece goes to the Strava design team.

Gerrymandering Again

The last two weeks we twice looked at gerrymandering as it in particular impacted Pennsylvania, notorious for its extreme gerrymandered districts. And now that the state will have to redraw districts to be less partisan, will Pennsylvania usher in a series of court orders from other state supreme courts, or even the federal Supreme Court, to create less partisan maps?

To that specific question, we do not know. But as we get ever closer to the 2020 Census that will lead to new maps in 2021, you can bet we will discuss gerrymandering as a country. Maybe to jumpstart that dialogue, we have a fantastic work by FiveThirtyEight, the Gerrymandering Project.

Since we focus on the data visualisation side of things, I want to draw your attention to the Atlas of Redistricting. This interactive piece features a map of House districts, by default the current map plan. The user can then toggle between different scenarios to see how those scenarios would adjust the Congressional map.

The setup today
The setup today

If, like me, you live in an area with lots of people in a small space, you might need to see Pennsylvania or New Jersey in detail. And by clicking on the state you can quickly see how the scenarios redraw districts and the probabilities of parties winning those seats. And at the bottom of the map is the set of all House seats colour-coded by the same chance of winning.

But what I really love about this piece is the separate article that goes into the different scenarios and walks the user through them, how they work, how they don’t work, and how difficult they would be to implement. It’s not exactly a quick read, but well worth it, especially with the map open in a separate tab/window.

Overall, a solid set of work from FiveThirtyEight diving deep into gerrymandering.

Credit for the piece goes to Aaron Bycoffe, Ella Koeze, David Wasserman and Julia Wolfe.

Gerrymandering Pennsylvania

Here in Pennsylvania this week, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments on the legality of congressional districts drawn by Republicans in 2010. The state is rather evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, e.g. Donald Trump won by less than one percentage point or less than 45,000 votes. But 13 of its 18 congressional districts are represented by Republicans, roughly 72%.

This graphic is from the New York Times Upshot and it opens a piece that explores gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. The graphic presents the map today as well as a nonpartisan map and an “extreme” gerrymander. The thing most noticeable to me was that even with the nonpartisan geography, the Democrats are still below what they might expect for a near 50-50 split. Why? One need only look at Philadelphia and Pittsburgh where, using the Times’ language, the Democrats “waste” votes with enormous margins, leaving the suburban and rural parts of the state open for Republican gains.

Three different ways of drawing Pennsylvania's congressional districts
Three different ways of drawing Pennsylvania’s congressional districts

Credit for the piece goes to Quoctrung Bui and Nate Cohn.

Where It’ll Be Too Warm for the Winter Olympics

The Winter Olympics are creeping ever closer and so this piece from the New York Times caught my eye. It examines the impact of climate change on host cities for the Winter Olympics. Startlingly, a handful of cities from the past almost century are no longer reliable enough, i.e. cold and snow-covered, to host winter games.

This screenshot is of a bar chart that looks at temperatures, because snow and ice obviously require freezing temperatures. The reliability is colour-coded and at first I was not a fan—it seemed unnecessary to me.

At first I did not care for the colours in the bars
At first I did not care for the colours in the bars

But then further down the piece, those same colours are used to reference reliability on a polar projection map.

But then this map changed my mind
But then this map changed my mind

That was a subtle, but well appreciated design choice. My initial aversion to the graphic and piece was changed by the end of it. That is always great when designers can pull that off.

Credit for the piece goes to Kendra Pierre-Louis and Nadja Popovich