Political Map Magic

Earlier this year, Matthew Kane at Indiana University came up with “Following the Dollars,” a project for informatics professor Markus Jakobsson’s “Issues in Security and Privacy” class. He mixed Google Maps and public campaign finance records from The Fundrace Project to create an amazing new way to see local politics.

Type in a ZIP code, and see not only the number of donors to political campaigns and how they broke down by party, but also where they live. Here’s the map for Manoa (96822), and here’s the map for Hilo (96720).

It’s one thing to quip that “all politics is local.” But when you can see, at a glance, where your neighbors’ money is going, it really sets your brain in motion.

Want more?

Well, last month, Google itself added yet another layer to its fantastic Google Earth utility. In addition to the thrill of seeing your neighborhood from space, with schools and parks and other landmarks highlighted, you can now activate a “2006 US Election Guide,” as well as other goodies like U.S. Census data, Congressional districts, crime data, and more.

The detail isn’t quite as fine as Kane’s class project, but clicking the “Election Guide” icon will give you a window with a list of congressional candidates with links to their websites and quick links for web, news, and image searches, as well as general links to voter registration and campaign finance resources. As I flew around the continental U.S., clicking random star icons, I only wished there was more detail. More local information. Actual map overlays.

Enter Neighboroo, a new site that is trying to pull together some serious Google Maps voodoo. They’ve broken things down to the city level. And they’ve color coded everything. From population density and home prices to commute times and air quality, you can get an incredible bird’s eye view of a neighborhood’s myriad characteristics. And, of course, there’s the political data… the first map you see on the Neighboroo site is the continental U.S., in all its splotchy glory.

Sadly, and not surprisingly, Hawaii is a bit of the black sheep of the U.S. family in these national datasets. Both Kane’s political donor map utility and Neighboroo have some pretty big gaps when it comes to the 50th state. Compare the colorful “life phase” map of Madison, Wisconsin to the map-less, text-only demographic display for Mililani. You can get a lot of statistics shown to you, which is great, but the integration with maps is lacking. Though I’d more likely attribute this to the quality of data available from Hawaii, rather than the level of attention the developers paid to the islands. Our state and county governments, after all, aren’t exactly known for transparency.

The web has brought us dancing hamsters and LonelyGirl15 and phishing. But that tools like these are also surfacing is encouraging. The Internet might connect us to the world, but it should also help us learn more about what’s in our own backyard… and what we might do to change it.

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