Election Maps

There are a lot of things not to like about election season – incessant political ads that play non-stop, robo-calls from candidates, endless pundit speculation on winners and losers… One thing that I like and always fascinates me during the reshuffling of the political deck, is the use of maps for conveying information.

Online these days, it seems the major news outlets have really gotten down how to create, quickly update and publish excellent maps that convey a lot of great information. While the web has yet to see anything like CNN’s virtual map that rolled out with 3D, super-fancy animations and green screen technology on TV election night, 2008, I think we are seeing some great innovations and a step forward in user experience in this year’s maps.

My impressions of a few major news sites:

Washington Post (link)

I really like the “balance of power” bar at the top above the map. That’s a key piece of data that everyone is continually looking for as returns pour in, asking themselves, “when will the balance change in the House, Senate and Gubanatorial races?” With a nice bar graph continually updating, they clearly show where the tipping point is and how close the Republicans or Democrats are to it, and how many races remain undecided.

I also really like the way that the detailed information block remains hidden until you hit a certain zoom level. That’s smart as the user wouldn’t really care about the details until they zoom in. The animation of sliding out from the side is nice as well.

The Post also prompts you when new data may be available to reload the page. Nice for making sure you’re getting the most up-to-date material.

NY Times (link)

The times follows a similar design with a “balance of power” bar, though include a little more information. Instead of showing a detail block on the side, they show all of the race detail in a tool tip overlay as you mouseover different districts. Maybe a bit too much squished into such a small space.

Here they’ve got a very interesting use of color, shape and proportion with circles showing the lead-size in each district. So at a scan you can tell which races are leading by whom as an avalanche all the way down to those that are dead heats.

CNN (link)

Like the Post and the Times, CNN uses a map and bar to show the tipping points for controlling the house and senate as well; though their’s is a bit smaller in scale and they present the bar below. Perhaps they thought priority-wise, the map was more impactful than the bar. Election information is presented in the tool tip on mouseover.

Interestingly, there is not a zooming mechanism per say within the full context of the map. To drill down, you have to select each state and get a different state-level view in order to see the details. I didn’t like this as much, as I couldn’t get back to “the top” level as easily as the other two maps.

In general, it was curious to see that all large versions of the maps were done in Flash on these sites. Not surprising I guess, given that complex map applications on the web are likely still most viable in Flash. Emerging technologies such as svg, javascript-driven libraries such as jQuery and/or animations driven by new capabilities in HTML5 yet don’t *quite* rival the possibilities for highly designed maps done in Flash. I believe someday they will, however.

On the homepage, all three outlets are not using Flash maps, presumably due to limitations on iPhones and other mobile browsers for rendering Flash.

So even though once again there was lot’s to be annoyed about this election season, we’ve seen some real headway in the development of quickly being able to utilize maps to convey lot’s of information. Maybe someday soon, the web will have a version of the CNN TV “hologram,” where Jessica Yellin seemingly beemed in from Chicago to CNN’s New York City studios on election night 2008.

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