News junkies will find no shortage of live election coverage on the internet today, but if you’re craving something to distract you from the live blogs and the hot takes, do yourself a favor and check out the this real-time visualization of the issues voters are Googling in cities across America.
Created in collaboration with design studio Pitch Interactive, the map uses real-time data from Google Trends and historical search queries to identify up-to-the-minute interest in what Google says are the five most relevant voting issues: problems with voting machines, long wait times, information on inactive voter and provisional ballot status, and voter intimidation at polling sites. The map distills hundreds of keywords related to these issues into color-coded blips. The bigger the blip, the bigger the gap between national search frequency and the search frequency within the indicated city. (To even register on the map, there needs to be at least twice as much interest locally as there is nationally.) Click on individual issues to turn them on or off. The ticker at the bottom of the screen displays sudden spikes in search interest from around the country.
Put it all together and you have one captivating data visualization. “When it comes to this kind of tool, you have to give people something they understand and want to play with, otherwise it’s not going to tell a story or communicate anything,” says Google News Lab data editor Simon Rogers.
The map also provides a fascinating glimpse at America’s electoral process in action. This year, ProPublica teamed up with Google and hundreds of news organizations to launch a project called Electionland. Its mission: to monitor and report on voting issues across the US. This map is an essential—if experimental—part of that mission.
“This is the first time Google Trends data has been made available in real time during a US election, and it’s really interesting stuff,” Rogers says. For instance: According to the map, the greatest number of searches related to broken voting machines have originated in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, while search interest in lines peaked in Georgia at 7am, shortly after polls opened.
It’s important to remember that these are just signals—the fact that lots of folks in Anytown, USA are Googling about broken voting machines does not mean that voting machines in Anytown are, in fact, broken. But these signals can serve as early leads, or as ballast for developing stories. “We’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible,” Rogers says. “We’re showing that this data is something that can be used to complement news in a way that wasn’t possible in the past.” To that end, Rogers says there’s a good chance his team will publish data from the trends map on its GitHub account after the election. We hope they do. A good test of the map’s utility would be to go back, after the election, and cross reference the trends data with confirmed reports from election day.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For now, sit back and enjoy obsessing over this map. Polls are only open for a few more hours.