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Can Data Visualization Help Improve Voting Decisions?

Rani Molla

published on June 21, 2012 in Storytelling

Given the abundance of candidates and claims, political and personal beliefs, not to mention the echo chamber of talking heads, it’s difficult to know what to think — or how to vote — in any political election.

Vote Compass, a Canada-based nonprofit organization, seeks to change that with the help of data visualization — and those changes might come to the U.S. for this year’s presidential election.

Vote Compass is an electoral literacy application guided by a group of non-partisan political scientists and academics. It compares data from candidates in a given election with the responses from potential voters regarding a given election’s issues, such as environmentalism, health care and government intervention in social issues. It also monitors their opinions of candidates and their voter demographics, correcting according to census data (in 2010, 10% of the voter-eligible population of Canada, a statistically significant percentage, replied to the survey, van der Linden says; the application also has numerous safety mechanisms to simultaneously ensure that multiple family members can reply from the same computer, while safeguarding against the same people voting multiple times).

The result is an abundance of real-time and cumulative data on how one’s views actually stack up to a candidate’s, as well as informative inroads into the driving forces behind elections.

According to Cliff van der Linden, executive director of Vote Compass and a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Toronto, who gave a presentation on Vote Compass at O’Reilly the Strata online political data conference June 20, the intricate data produced tells stories that traditional polling doesn’t.

“It’s not just who’s going to win the election,” van der Linden told from a cab between conferences. “We think it’s more interesting to see, for example, what young women think about environmental politics or what middle-age black men with graduate degrees think about taxation.”

To wit: for the 2012 Alberta Provincial Election, voters can see how beliefs vary depending on region, age, education, gender, political party and income, among other statistics. Most importantly, voters can get beyond the hubbub and see how they really relate to those running for office.

Vote Compass partners with news organizations to broadcast these nuanced data stories.

“Our pitch to media organizations is twofold,” van der Linden said. “One, we can say, ‘listen, we actually embed the tool in your site, which drives massive traffic.'” Secondly, the news organizations can use that data to create its own stories that “say things about elections that no pollsters can say; we tell stories about the dynamics of the electorate that traditional public research methods can’t mimic.”

In Canada, Vote Compass partners with organizations like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, among others, to make sure they get the word—and the user responses—out. “We’re a nonprofit organization that’s interested in electoral literacy and democratic engagement,” said van der Linden, who got the idea for Vote Compass from more rudimentary versions of electoral literacy campaigns that have existed for nearly a decade in Western Europe. “As long as you promote [the application], you can have it.”

Vote Compass has not yet worked with U.S. elections, but plans on expanding there for the upcoming presidential race. It already launched a preliminary investigation with leading U.S. political science scholars to craft a questionnaire that abides by the dictates of survey and design methodology, to prevent agains bias or acquiescence bias in questioning.

“Our hope right now, if we find appropriate partners, is a tentative [U.S.] launch date at the beginning of September,” van der Linden said. “Whatever [news organization] arrangements we end up with, they have to have a national reach, to get every subset of Americans.”

Soon, voting — for the right candidate based on your goals and values — might be that much easier.

Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.