Building a better election map
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about maps this election. Australia has an interesting problem when showing election results on a map – because of our vast landscape, with population centres clustered at the edges, the electorates do not align very well with geography.
Federal seats range from a meagre 30 sq km in the inner city seat of Wentworth to the sprawling 1,587,758 sq km Western Australian electorate of Durack.
Because of this, it’s very hard to present at a glance election results in a geographic form.
Here’s how the standard election map looked for the 2010 election.
You simply can’t see the small electorates at the same scale required to see the entire country. On top of this, because the larger electorates tend towards the Coalition, the map looks mostly blue. If you weren’t familiar with the distribution of seats, you’d probably take this to mean a Coalition victory. And, although in 2010 there was a hung parliament, there was the same issue in 2007.
Despite this, news organisations persist with showing the results on a map, election after election. It’s still a good way to put seat results in context – where it is, which parts of the country support which party, and so on, although people have had to draw the metropolitan areas separately, or add a zoom function.
While the zoom is good if you need to find your address and corresponding electorate, it still won’t show you the results easily at a national level.
There have been a few attempts at building a better election map. Researching the problem lead me to cartograms. Cartograms take a variable such as population or GDP, and use that to reshape the geographic boundaries of an area. For example, academic Mark Newman produced these cartograms of the US election results, resizing counties by the number of votes cast:
These are great for equalising the area of the map taken up by electorates, and thus you can more easily compare the amount of red and blue. To maintain the relationship between normal geography, you can make it possible to toggle between both views.
Another approach is to make it more abstract, which presents electorates at the same size, but removes most of the geographical association. The 150 hexagons infographic is a great example of this, but it’s barely a map anymore.
Here, we’ve shown all electorates as circles sized by population and loosely tied to their geographic location. However, each circle isn’t allowed to overlap, and so pushes other circles away so all electorates are visible.
I think this is the best combination so far for showing the location of electorates and making the results immediately understandable, and I will be updating it with the 2013 results as they come in