Infographics and Data Visualization (Week 2)

For week two of the course, we’ve been asked to take a look at this interactive graphic from the New York Times, which compares the different words that Democrats and Republicans speakers used during their respective conventions.

Overall, I thought that the graphic was pretty good but there were a few things that I might consider redesigning. The first problem I noticed was that, when you click on the word bubbles, the political quotes below the chart change based on your selection. Unfortunately, most of this interactivity occurs “below the fold” or off-screen so you don’t necessaryily see it right away. I would need to be presented with more cues to know that this was going on. It seems like tightening up the top part of the chart and shrinking some of the ad space or menu heights might help here.

It also took me awhile to figure out that you could type in your own words and add them to the graphic. This feature is pretty cool but I don’t think it is necessarily obvious to first time visitors. I liked how the new word bubbles kind of migrated around to find a spot in the crowd but they sometimes got stuck in the middle of the pack if the words around them were too big.

The bubble sizes are difficult to interpret directly but I don’t think that is necessary for this graphic. I do have a problem with the way the bubbles indicate the % of word usage by political party. I would expect either a pie chart with the % in a slice or maybe a color difference along a spectrum (blue to red).

My first redesign attempt:

Although this “sketch” is not interactive, you can kind of see where I was headed. The first issue I tackled was trying to make it more obvious that the individual words or phrases could be shown in context. I did this by moving the quotes up from the bottom and placing them in cartoon speech bubbles along the sides of the graphic. The directional arrow for each speech bubble points to the word being examined and also indicates a slider that can be moved up and down from word to word. The speech bubbles could expand to include multiple quotes or maybe there could be some other form of gallery navigation within the bubble itself.

The individual words are displayed in a standard bar chart that clearly shows the word itself but doesn’t play with the font size at all. I let all comparisons between the words be shown using the red and blue bars, with relative usage rates treated by the length of the bars. This allows direct comparison of usage rates between the two parties as well as relative comparison between words.

I imagined that typing a word or phrase in the box would add that word or phrase to the top of the “stack” of bar charts, moving the rest of the words down one slot. This way the user could add as many words as they want and scroll down the length of the chart to look at their entire list and make comparisons.

Despite these adjustments, it’s still hard to see how the average user would pull a compelling narrative out of this  presentation without some assistance. To me, the story of this graphic is about the language that the different parties use to craft their messages. The use of certain words over others reflects each party’s priorities and their understanding of the intended audience.

Since we know word choice is designed to influence the audience in some way, it might be interesting to include examples of how the two parties have used language in the past. On the Republican side, Newt Gingrich’s 1994 memo to the GOPAC titled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control” is a famous example. It contains a list of “optimistic positive governing words” that Gingrich recommended for use in describing Republican politicians and “contrasting words” that he suggested using to describe Democrats.

On the other side of the aisle, people like George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling at the The Little Blue Blog use concepts like “frames” to describe how the use of particular words trigger associations with either conservative or progressive moral systems. (Another interesting look at the use of language in politics can be found at Sasha Issenberg’s Victory Lab site.)

Either of these resources might be a good starting point for an analysis of word usage by politicians. In fact, one member of the class posted a quick graphic using Gingrich’s positive words here and I found it fascinating that the top three positive words used by Democrats (fair, building and reform) demonstrated a far different focus than those used by Republicans (liberty, freedom and lead).)

Modifying the NYT graphic to accomodate these investigations might involve the addition of “starter lists” of words such as the top 10 words for each party by word count, top 10 words by uniqueness to each party, or Gingrich’s positive word list. I also like the idea of a word association feature which could suggested related topics via a word cloud or a “you might also try this word” feature.


2 thoughts on “Infographics and Data Visualization (Week 2)

  1. Doug

    Interesting, Mike. My first thought was that the graphic is a smoking gun for [the other side's] use of rhetoric as an instrument of fear. E.g., the GOP speakers were not using the words “government” and “regulation” as positives – i.e., we have solutions; they were using these as the evil monster presented by the other side. Forcing myself to be balanced, it really exposes both sides. The Dems, alas, were using the words “women” and “middle class” in the same way – to create fear of what the other side would supposedly do.

    My point is not to be political. I think the graphic illustrates that aspiration in political rhetoric is nowhere near as prevalent as doomsaying the other side. I think the graphic is very effective.

    1. mkinde Post author

      Thanks, Doug. I thought that this topic could definitely use some deeper exploration. The idea of grouping words by their levels of rhetoric intrigues me. You point out some good examples and the flip side is also present … the word “science” barely gets mentioned by either party even though everybody agrees that jobs in science and engineering are important to our economy. I’m perennial loser “infrastructure” doesn’t rate very high either.


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