Can We Pop Our Political Bubbles?

It’s no secret that Americans—and likely at least Western communities more broadly—live in bubbles, one of which being our political bubbles. And so I want to thank one of my mates for sending me the link to this opinion piece about political bubbles from the New York Times.

The piece is fairly short, but begins with an interactive piece that allows you to plot your address and examine whether or not you live in a political bubble. Using my flat in Philadelphia, the map shows lots of little blue dots, representing Democratic voters, near the marker for my address and comparatively few red dots for Republicans.

An island of blue in a sea of red.

If you then look a bit more broadly, you can see that by summing up the dots, my geographic bubble is largely a political bubble, as only 13% of my neighbours are Republicans. Not terribly surprising for a Democratic city.

A certain lack of diversity in political thought.

And while the piece does then zoom back out a wee bit, it tries to show me that I don’t live too far from a politically integrated bubble. Except in this case, it’s across a decent sized river and getting there isn’t the easiest thing in the world. I’m not headed to Gloucester anytime soon.

Things are better in Jersey?

These interactives serve the purpose of drawing the user into the article, which continues explaining some of the causes of this political segregation, by both policy, redlining, and personal choice, lifestyle. The approach works, because it gives us the most relatable story in a large dataset, ourselves. We’re now emotionally or intellectually invested in the idea, in this case political bubbles, and want to learn all about it. Because the more you know…

The piece uses the same type of map to showcase the bubbles more broadly from the Bay Area to the plains of Wyoming. (No surprises in the nature of those political bubbles.) It wraps up by showing how politicians can use the geography of our political bubbles to create political geographies via gerrymandering that shore up their political careers by creating safe districts. The authors use a gerrymandered northeastern Ohio district that encompasses two cities, Cleveland and Akron, to make that point.

That’s in part why I’m in favour of apolitical, independent boundary commissions to create more competitive congressional districts. Personally, I would have been fascinated to see how Pennsylvania’s congressional districts, redrawn in 2018 by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, after the court found the gerrymandered districts of 2011 unconstitutional, created political competition between parties instead of within parties. But I digress.

And then for kicks, I looked at how my flat in Chicago compared.

Less island of blue and sea of red, because a lake of blue water alters that geography.

Not surprisingly, my neighbourhood in Lakeview was another political bubble, though this one even more Democratic than my current one.

Lakeview is even more Democratic than Logan Square, Philly’s Logan Square that is.

But if I had wanted to move to an integrated political bubble, instead of Philadelphia, I could have moved to…Jefferson Park.

Because everyone can agree Polish food is good food.

Credit for the piece goes to Gus Wezerek, Ryan D. Enos and Jacob Brown.

The Disappearing Urban Middle Class

Today we look at income in American cities and in particular the middle class disappearance. The Guardian published the graphics, but they originate with Metrocosm, LTDB at Brown, and IPUMS National Historical Geographic Information System. So what are we looking at? Well, the big one is a set of small multiples of cities and their income breakdowns as percentages of city census tracts. This screenshot is static, but the original is an animated .gif.

The flattening of the curve
The flattening of the curve

I have a few issues with the design of the graphic, the most important of which is the colour palette. If the goal is to focus on the decline of the middle class—and I admit that may be the point of the Guardian’s authors and not the original authors—why are the most visually striking colours at the top of the income distribution. Instead, you would want to draw attention to the middle of each chart, not the right. And if the idea was that the darker colours represent the higher income groups, well the positioning of each bar on the chart and the axis labelling does that already. After all, if anything, the story is that in a number of cities the middle class has shrunk while the lower income groups have grown. And you can barely see that with the lower income groups coloured yellow.

My other issues are more minor design things such as the city labelling. I kept reading the label as being below the bars, not above as it actually is.

And then I wonder if a different chart form would be more effective at showing the decline in the middle class. Perhaps a line chart plotting the beginning and end points for each cohort?

Then the piece gets into some three-dimensional maps that you can spin and rotate.

Just stop
Just stop

Yeah. Shall I count the ways? A more conventional choropleth would have served the purpose far more effectively. The dimensionality hides lower income tracts behind higher ones. The solution? Allow the user to rotate and spin the map? No, get rid of the dimensionality. It offers little to the understanding of the underlying data. Not to mention, are the areas of shadows shadows? Or are they another bin or cohort of income?

And then you have to read the piece to get a fuller understanding of my criticism.

But don’t worry, I can quote it.

Chicago was largely successful transitioning away from manufacturing to a service-based economy. This shift is evident in the bifurcated pattern present in 2015 – a heavy concentration of wealth in the business/financial district and marked decline in the surrounding area.

Those of you who read this blog from Chicago or who have lived in Chicago will pick up on it. The rest of you not so much. The concentration of wealth is not located in the business/financial district. Those dark red skyscrapers are not actual skyscrapers, they are census tracts located not in the financial district, but the areas of River North, Old Town, Gold Coast, &c. Thinking of the issue more logically, yes incomes are up in cities that are doing well. But how many of those very wealthy live on the same block as their office? Not many. Your higher income is going to be concentrated in residential or mixed-residential neighbourhoods near, but not in the business/financial district.

The data behind this work fascinates me. I just wish the final graphics had been designed with a bit more consideration for the data and the stories therein. And a little bit of proper understanding of the cities and their geography would help the text.

Credit for the piece goes to Metrocosm, LTDB at Brown University, and IPUMS National Historical Geographic Information System.

Income Inequality

On the lighter side of things we have today’s post on income inequality. Always a lighter subject, no? Thanks to Jonathan Fairman for the link.

Herwig Scherabon designed the Atlas of Gentrification as a project at the Glasgow School of Art and it was picked up by Creative Review. It displays income as height and so creates a new cityscape of skyscrapers for the wealthy and leaves lower income residents looking straight up. His work covered the US cities of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The image below is of Chicago. I probably was living in a cluster of mid-rise buildings despite living in a five-story building.

A look at Chicago
A look at Chicago

Credit for the piece goes to Herwig Scherabon.

Two Tales of One City

Dickens is not my favourite, but that felt an appropriate title for today’s piece from the Washington Post on Chicago residents’ opinions on, well, Chicago. Turns out there is a notable demographic split on how residents feel about various things in the city.

Some of the issues
Some of the issues

Credit for the piece goes to Emily Badger.

Water Level on Lake Michigan

Today’s a little piece for those of you who follow me from the Chicago area. It turns out that in the last 30 months, the water level of Lake Michigan has risen three feet. Despite what some people think, Lake Michigan is not an ocean—I have overheard conversations in my neighbourhood about people who went “swimming in the ocean today” and want to show them a map that points out the Atlantic is almost a thousand miles away—and is not under the same threat as the coast via melting icecaps. The Great Lakes are instead impacted by other regional and cyclical patterns, e.g. El Niño. This article by the Chicago Tribune makes use of this small but clear line chart in its discussion of those very factors.

Water levels for Lakes Michigan and Huron
Water levels for Lakes Michigan and Huron

Credit for the piece goes to the Chicago Tribune’s graphics department.

How Different Temperature Profiles Make Different Precipitation Types

I apologise for the lack of posts over the last two weeks, but I was on holiday. Naturally, I have returned just in time for some snowstorms in the Midwest. But today’s piece comes from WGN and it explains how the type of winter precipitation that falls depends not solely on ground temperatures. Rather, temperature profiles in the upper atmosphere can make all the difference between rain, sleet, and snow.

How temperatures create different precipitation types
How temperatures create different precipitation types

Credit for the piece goes to Steve Kahn and Jennifer Kohnke.

Chicago’s Minimum Wage

Today’s piece is a photo I snapped of the cover of a relatively recent edition of the RedEye, a free, daily tabloid distributed in Chicago. The city of Chicago decided to raise the minimum wage in the city. And this photo of a stack of quarters depicts just how many quarters that increase will be over the next five years.

The minimum wage in Chicago
The minimum wage in Chicago

I find I usually do not enjoy data photos, for want of a better term. But here we have an obviously editorially driven graphic, but one that uses real materials to represent the data. In other words, we are not taking one quarter to represent one dollar per hour. One quarter means one quarter per hour. And the segmentations merely break out how much that will increase over the years. With minimal annotation, the photo is clear and direct.

Credit for the piece goes to Lenny Gilmore.

FAA Fire in Aurora

Last Friday a fire in an FAA centre in one of Chicago’s suburbs shut down air traffic in the Chicago area. You know, not a big deal. So the Chicago Tribune made a small graphic to show just how much of a difference a closure of air space can make.

Air traffic shutdown
Air traffic shutdown

Credit for the piece goes to the Chicago Tribune’s graphics department.

The Cycling Gender Gap

Here in Chicago this week is Bike Week and today Bike to Work Day. So today is a great day for some work from Buzzfeed that highlights the gender gap in cycling (at least in three US cities). To be fair, the data for the statement comes only from urban bike share programmes. But it does hint at a disparity all the same.

Chicago's cycling gender gap
Chicago’s cycling gender gap

Credit for the piece goes to Jeremy Singer-Vine.

Chicago’s Disappearing Middle Class

President Obama has made a big deal recently about income inequality. The story in short is that the rich in the country are getting rich; the poor are getting poorer; and the people in the middle are fewer in number. Here in Chicago, this has meant that over the last few decades, many of the former middle-class neighbourhoods have been gutted of, well, the middle class. Daniel Kay Hertz has created a series of maps to show just how drastic the change has been since 1970.

Chicago's disappearing middle class
Chicago’s disappearing middle class

Credit for the piece goes to Daniel Kay Hertz.