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Who Won The Election? Data Visualization, the New York Times, and Data Storytelling

No matter which way you voted in yesterday’s U.S. Presidential election you were concerned with how everyone else was voting. Like you, I wanted to know what polls were still open, where the Electoral College tally fell, and granular vote return details about other battleground states. I had an unquenchable thirst for data. I wanted all of the data in my hands and in real time.

Whether it started with my love for Google Analytics, a 24-hour cable news cycle, or the nature of the web in general, I have become a fiend for finding the “purest” data and interpreting it myself. I don’t like the talking heads on the news stations. I obviously cannot trust a poll—not even from or it would seem. Where could I get reliable data that wasn’t tainted by Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC?

The New York Times delivered. They understood two critical words: DATA. VISUALIZATION. Their election night portion of their website was more than a phenomenal display of data, but the user design created an environment where the tidal wave of numbers made sense to an Excel-impaired creative like me.

Storytelling Worked For Visualizing Election Data

From metered dials and county-level maps to precinct reports and probability percentage of a specific outcome was both addictive and intoxicating. In short—the data told a story. It was a story that captivated me and was continually being refreshed.

Presidential Election Data Dials
From national level “outcome dials” to more local results, the New York Times delivered easy to understand visuals.
State of Michigan Presidential Election Breakdown
Critical battleground states (MI shown) were mapped, but were just the prelude of the data storytelling.
Presidential Data Visualization in Michigan
Clickable county-by-county returns showed more than just vote counts, but also the number of precincts outstanding. This brief historical perspective helped give context to the data.
Michigan Predictive Dials
Easy to understand forecasting data dials gave users the ability to draw their own conclusions based on returns.

Why Does Data Visualization Matter?

A professional colleague and phenomenal technical communicator once impressed on me the difference between data and information. Data is the raw material. Information is the finished product. Data visualization is important because it lays out the raw materials in an effective fashion allowing you to develop your own finished product. The faster and easier you arrive at the finished product or conclusion the more valuable the design.

The New York Times has a great history of recognizing great design. I believe this risk-taking by developing a great user experience for their data paid off. From being used by cable news stations to being my second (primary, really) screen during the returns demonstrates that being a data source can be even more critical than being an information source.

Conclusion— Be a Data Storyteller

I believe the New York Times just set a high bar for election data visualization. However, data is used by so many industries in countless ways. Look at your own business. How could your data tell a story? Not all data needs to flow in real time, maybe it is a bit more static. Whether it comes as an infographic, a dashboard, or an interactive app, make sure your data visualization is telling a story your community would like to engage.