I spend a considerable portion of my time convincing researchers of the benefits associated with publishing their data online in open repositories. Bringing up things like reproducibility of research and the idea of others using their original data sets to advance scholarship in their field or another are my usual selling points. Academics produce vast amounts of data that has value well beyond the scope of their original project. That being said, government agencies produce endless amounts of data and information as they conduct their day to day business. There are obvious products that have mounds of useful information in them, like the U.S. Census or the American Community Survey. Governments rely on information in all sorts of formats to perform countless tasks on a day to day basis. For example, many local governments rely on spatial data of their infrastructure (roads, sewers, power lines) to set maintenance schedules or to select an ideal space for new residential development.
In May of 2013, the White House issued an Executive Order making open and machine readable the new default for government information. You can find government produced data on a wide variety of subjects by using sites like data.gov. However, local and state governments also produce data that has utility to the public as well as researchers. Many times, data at the local level can be more difficult to acquire. This usually has more to do funding issues or a lack of staffing in local government settings than the willingness of people to share their data. I am constantly in awe at how willing local governments or officials at state agencies are to help find and provide their data to researchers whenever I ask on their behalf.
This year, the Florida Division of Elections published the unofficial results of the recent 2014 elections almost instantly. I know this because our developer tweeted this to me before I even got to work the night after the elections. Here I was with all of the election data for Florida just hours after the polls closed so I needed to find something fun to do. I decided to install Tableau Public, a free data visualization software, and mess around. As I was just getting started, I was amazed at how much faster you can create simple data visualizations (like charts and graphs) in Tableau Public versus a spreadsheet program, like Microsoft Excel. Throughout the day, I created a plethora of visualizations that probably belonged in this subreddit but I finally settled on this simple visualization that compares the election counts of the governor’s race as well as the congressional race in U.S. District 2 (Florida). Here are the results:
You can interact with the data or even download the visualization along with the data into Tableau by going here.
So, what kind of story does this visualization tell? Well, it kind of reiterates what we already know. People have a tendency to vote along party lines, which isn’t really saying much. The point of this post isn’t to show off my sweet data viz but rather to show you how easy it is to use open government information (data!) and analyze/visualize it with free tools from the web. You can use Tableau or a number of other tools to tell stories with open data. With a little bit of time and effort, you can probably make something much cooler than I did.