Week 2: A critique of the “Convention Word Counts” visualisation in the NYT

Source material: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/09/06/us/politics/convention-word-counts.html

A comparison of how often speakers at the two presidential nominating conventions used different words and phrases, based on an analysis of transcripts from the Federal News Service.

Although I very much like the look of this graphic at first glance I feel it includes too much information and too many layers of abstraction and hides the beauty of what is quite a high impact piece.

The main graphic serves two purposes:

1. It acts like a word cloud and illustrates the frequency of words by resizing bubbles accordingly.

2. Shows how the usage of words is split between the two parties.

Therefore it presents the reader with the ability to see that both parties have used the words ‘Tax’, ‘Energy’ and ‘Families’ in equal measures, but Democrats have used the word ‘Health’ more than the Democrats, though they themselves have used the word ‘Leadership’ more. The reader is clearly able to see this by comparing the size of the bubbles and they are able to identify the split in usage between the two parties.

However, I do feel that it presents the reader with too much information. I don’t think it is necessary for the numbers to be present in the bubbles as they serve as a distraction – the blue/red split in the bubble itself should be enough to allow someone to see the proportion of the word’s usage. The numbers themselves are also per 25,000 words, which bombard the reader with unnecessary information. Is the average reader really interested to know that the word ‘Health’ is used 38 times per 25,000 words by the Democrats vs. 9 times per 25,000 words by the Republicans? I’d hazard a guess and say “no”, but I think they are more interested in seeing that the Democrats used it more than the Republicans overall. But I do think the numbers are interesting and so maybe they should only be displayed when a bubble has been clicked on.

I feel the text, which is placed below the bubble, describing the words, does not need to be present the whole time. It’s taking up room and in actual fact I didn’t even bother to read it when I was playing around. Also, while I love the ability to add your own words to the collection, it does allow you to add words (e.g. “UK”) that have no mentions on either side – I personally didn’t find this very interesting and found that the 0-words cluttered up the visualisation.

I think the visualisation would benefit from altering the shade of blue/red depending on where the bubble is located. If for example we take the word ‘Forward’ which is far over on the Democrats’ side, I think the blue should be a lot darker than for a word such as ‘Success’ , which is more prominently in the Republicans’ side. This would help to reinforce the fact that there are two extremes to the viz and a middle ground shared by both parties.

Another level of abstraction I would love to see would be the ability to see who said the word and how many times. This data is used below the bubbles but it’s not really used effectively. How fascinating would it be to see how many times Mitt Romney said Obama (and vise versa) without having to count it up yourself?!? Then if you clicked on a bar in this chart, it would take you down to the section of the person to show a breakdown of the paragraphs.

And finally, while it’s not a criticism of the visualisation itself, I am an avid follower of the Guardian Data Blog and am used to seeing a link where I can browse and download the raw data. I’m not sure what the NYT’s policy is about this, but I think the visualisation would benefit from a link at the bottom so that data geeks like us can tinker with the data ourselves.

And so here is my rough sketch to show how I would tidy it up with the main changes listed below:

BEFORE                                                                                      AFTER


  • I have removed the figures inside the bubbles that displayed the share per 25,000 words to give the graphic a cleaner finish.
  • I have removed the descriptive text that relates to particular bubbles.
  • I have added the percentage share of the word used by each party at the top.
  • I have added two graphs below the main graphic that will be displayed when a bubble has been clicked on. They will show who in each party has used the word and their proportional usage as a whole per party.
  • If you were to click on the person’s name or a particular bar on the graph, it would take you straight down to that person’s section in the blurb below.

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