The geography of presidential campaign rhetoric

A few months ago I started on a little side project to visualize presidential campaign speeches spatially. My idea was to collect speeches by the 2008 US presidential candidates, generate a word cloud of the most common words in each, and each word cloud on a map in the location where the speech was given.  We've seen a number of text visualizations and analyses, sometimes in-depth, during this campaign, but so far not by geography that I can recall.  (See those from Martin Krzywinski, and The New York Times with help from Many Eyes, for just a few examples.)  Are the candidates speaking to different issues in different parts of the country?  Are they talking about jobs in Michigan and immigration in New Mexico?  Are they pandering to everyone, everywhere they go?  (Can we call this project PanderViz?)  Visualizing campaign words on a map might answer such questions.

Campaign speech word clouds

We hoped to develop this idea into a sophisticated interactive map in which a user could search for words, filter speeches by date, and so on.  Other work has kept us from doing that before the election next week, but it seems worth showing some screenshots from what I did manage to get done originally.

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The Golden Age of Cartography is Now

This is an exciting time to be a cartographer. Cartography has changed more in the past 5 years than in the previous 50, and the field is in the midst of an unprecedented revolution that has forever altered what maps can do, and how and why we use maps. How far have we come? I now see teenagers using on-demand, customizable maps rendered in real time from multiple, distributed data sources on their cell phones that automatically geotag and upload photos to their blogs while they sit on the bus. Five years ago, heck, one year ago this would have been science fiction, now it's just a collection of geoservices on a $200 phone. As a result, mapping technology has quickly outpaced mapping theory and practice.

While much attention has (rightly) been focused on the technology that is enabling these amazing advances  (Google Earth, mash-ups), I think the equally significant change is why people are making maps and the role maps now play in our everyday lives.

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I'm not here to make your data look pretty.

"Good design is clear thinking made visible" -Edward Tufte

Geographic Visualization, the Artist Formerly Known as Cartography, derives much of its power to speak because it is visual. We humans are voracious abstract visual thinkers: just try not seeing the characters in front of you as words that denote meaning. Or eevn wehn the wrods are sellped wonrg, our bainrs jsut power thugroh fnie, in part because we don't just see letters, we mentally 'chunk' information into high-level structures shaped in large part by a clever bit of programming called prior experience. In fact, we can only read as fast as we do because we don't read individual letters but groups of them called words, and beyond that at the highest level, because languages have understood rules that make certain combinations of letters and words impossible allowing our brains to filter-out the ridiculous and focus on the likely. This, however, is both a blessing and a curse since we can process information very, very quickly (hitting a 95 mp/h fastball), but we often only see what our brains tells us we should expect to see (why trick pitches work). As a result, words, maps and other graphic representations have an expressway into our consciousness, often imparting vast amounts of data in mere glance. We can't help it – it's literally how we're wired.

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