A Republican Primary Debate Visualized

Jihii Jolly | October 7, 2011

Organizing and visualizing information is not easy. If you’re successful, the data can take on a whole new set of perspectives and reach wider audiences in more colorful ways (quite literally). Or, it can produce a pretty picture that is impossible to extract data from.

Gregory Hubacek is a freelance designer in Los Angeles who specializes in identity, branding, infographics, web design, print, and motion. He believes in design’s ability to solve problems and much of his work, which can be seen on GOOD.is and his personal website, reflects this ethic. Here, we look at two of his pieces, and how successfully he presents data in color.

A Messy Mosaic of Data

Earlier this year, Gregory Hubacek and GOOD collaborated on a project called Reading, Writing, and Earning Money. Using data from the U.S. Census’s American Community Survey, the project illustrates educational achievement across the United States (by high school and college degree per county) and correlates it to median household income. Each of these three data sets is shown on its own map (on the left), in gradients of pink, yellow, or blue. The final map, which is extraordinarily colorful, is the product of overlaying those three data sets. It’s quite mesmerizing and chock full of information.

Hubacek discusses this project in depth on his blog. It actually received a number of bad reviews because the colors are too difficult to decode and the information cannot be comprehended quickly. True as they may be, Hubacek reposts all these bad reviews in good humor and writes, “The concept of the map was not necessarily to show exactly what each county had in terms of numbers, but rather to paint a picture showing the ups and downs in relation to the entire U.S. In short, we sacrificed specific data to show trends across the country.” Though a complex study with a very large data set, the map project is an interesting way to see the overall trend (darker cities being the more educated, wealthier populations) in a beautiful picture. It certainly stirred discussion in the infographic community, which, to Hubacek, seems like a good thing. And he writes, “I wouldn’t do it any other way in hindsight.”

More Colorful Information from GOOD and Hubacek: The Debate Breakdown

That particular project by Hubacek for GOOD is one of many that stylize and re-arrange information that may otherwise not be as intriguing, easy to understand, or beautiful to general audiences. Let’s look at another color-coded project by Hubacek of the recent Republican primary debate hosted by Google and Fox News. See the full graphic here.

This visualization is actually quite fantastic and very different from the map project. It simultaneously illustrates trends in the debate based on data compiled by Google, and allows viewers to engage with the event by listening to categorized portions of it. Granted, the data set he is working with is far smaller than what he tried to do on the map.

The visualization is a journalistic report of sorts, giving us the who, what, when and where of the debate. The way the data is laid out naturally inclines us to wonder about the why and how — why, for example, out of 9 candidates, did Rick Perry and Mitt Romney speak for 34% of the 95-minute debate? This of course is inferred based on a fairly objective representation of data.

On the left of the visualization, Hubacek lays out the location, date and hosts of the event, along with a list of candidates and their photos. Next to that is a series of color-coded concentric circles (an increasingly popular format) that break down three categorizations: Airtime by Category, Submitted Questions (from the audience) by Category, and Airtime by Candidate. To the right is a most useful interactive timeline of the debate. The entire 95-minutes is broken down into the same color-coded debate categories and each candidate’s soundbite from that category is provided. Using embedded play buttons, viewers can choose to hear whichever candidates they want on whatever categories matter most to them. The color-coding, which is no doubt clean and pretty, also highlights the unsurprising fact that jobs and economy repeatedly came up in the debate and took over 25% of airtime.

I’ve drawn these two examples from Hubacek’s work not only because of the striking difference in efficiency of color use, but because it’s an interesting look at the difference between data visualization and infographics. There certainly isn’t a clear consensus. Infographics have been described by some as visualizations that can contextualize sensitive data sets a bit more than data visualizations, which are simpler presentations, at times even automatically generated. In this case, GOOD calls the debate piece an infographic, though it is a pretty straight organization of information without any context. The map is presented as an explorative project under their “transparency” section, which seeks to find out if there is any correlation between two large data sets – educational achievement and median income. The former turns out to be a clear representation of information while the latter ends up as a piece of art more than anything else, art that “paints a fascinating picture of the United States,” according to GOOD.