Search gizmos like that are easy for web programmers to put online, and they are helpful for readers who want to zero in on specific races quickly without having to scroll through extraneous information. What they don’t provide, though, is the big picture. They don’t tell a visual story, they don’t show geographic trends. For that, the best choice is a clickable Flash map that includes voting information, ideally divided by county. This one showing Dallas county results for the Texas gubernatorial race, on The Dallas Morning News website, is a good example:
The St. Petersburg Times editors decided to take advantage of the AP’s interactive national map for their TampaBay.com site, as many other news sites did. But they also put web editor and designer Darla Cameron to work making a map of Florida results by county to accompany it. The AP map gets the job done for the national races, and then the custom map made by the Times gives readers a reason to come to the website for more specific, local information. That map, below, went up on Election Night as the results came in; another precinct-by-precinct map went up late on Wednesday that tempted readers to “See how your neighbors voted.”
Cameron described the Times as “a big politics paper,” noting that the capitol bureau teamed up with the Miami Herald and PolitiFact Florida to deliver a complete political package. “[O]ur readers expect statewide politics coverage. The maps are just one local element to that whole package,” she explained.
As big as the newsroom is, in terms of reporters and editors, the Times does not have that many programmer/developers, Cameron said. She was the only person coordinating the online election presence for graphics on Tuesday night. Luckily, she has a lot of experience working with GIS and mapping programs, and has already developed a lot of maps for the site in years past.
The key, Cameron said, is to plan ahead (as Kahler’s friend at the Times said, “set it up ahead of time.”) In her case, she has been talking to the county election officers for a few months about how and when the data would come out on Election Night. She got “zeroed-out versions” of the datasets from them, so she could set up a program to populate the map with the information quickly when it came in. That way, as the results were posted, she could feed the data into her map with the click of a mouse.
“As the election results were coming in, we had arranged ahead of time to have a feed that was coming in from the [Rhode Island] Board of Elections every five minutes, and so I had a process that would go out, grab that feed, and put it on our server,” Barmann said. “And then our page is automatically refreshed every five minutes anyway, so it would re-draw the map and fill in the colors based on the newest data.” It was the first election that Barmann and his colleagues had ever tried anything like that, but it worked.
It’s worth noting that Barmann, like most reporter-programmers, is mainly self-taught. He worked at the Journal as a photographer and then a reporter for twenty years before taking on the new challenge of programming and design work for ProJo.com. He used online resources like the IRE website and its NICAR mailing list to glean the basics, and then worked through projects by trial and error. Barmann is the only person in the newsroom working on projects like these right now, so he stays busy.*