Visualizing Texas political drift 2008-2012

I always enjoy the maps and other data features at the Texas Tribune, but sometimes they inspire me to try to improve them.

A case in point is the Tribune’s recent map of party “drift” or Democratic-Republican change between the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.

The Tribune map strikingly shows that Obama got fewer votes in 2012 than in 2008 in most Texas counties, but it made me wonder about the significance of the change, both as a percentage of votes cast and in terms of the population of each county.

A couple of approaches to adding more information to the map come to mind. The most obvious would be to use more shades to show percentage change. Another would be to use a cartogram, or a map where political units are resized according to population, like the famous election results cartograms of Mark Newman.

US presidential election results 2012, cartogram at county level by Mark Newman

But I don’t have easy access to cartogram software. So I cooked up the poor folks’ alternative to a cartogram: an Excel bubble chart (click for full size).

Texas political drift by county, 2008-2012

What can we see in this map? First, it supports the Tribune’s thesis that most Texas counties had Republican gains in 2012, at least in terms of presidential counts. However, it calls into question how significant the change was, for both Republicans and Democrats. None of Texas’ most populous counties experienced over 3% change, and in the three largest the change was less than 1%. Only a few tiny counties have the bright red indicating Republican gains over 6%. On the other hand, the Democrats have no bright blue counties, and most of the pockets where the Tribune showed Democratic gains turned out to be either under 1% change or in counties so small that they can barely be seen. The only notable blue on the map is in the Valley, and the only county of a significant size that broke 3% growth for the Democrats was Webb County (Laredo).

My map has plenty of room for improvement: the convention of the red-blue political scale makes light blue hard to distinguish from neutral gray, and keeping the circles small enough that Harris County doesn’t swallow the whole Houston area turns most West Texas counties into barely perceptible dots. Using Excel rather than a proper GIS means the map is missing some cartographic niceties: the projection is distorted, and it lacks an outline of the state that would make it a lot easier to recognize as Texas. Finally, while my data ranges and scales seem reasonable to me, it would be better to base them on some measure of statistical significance.

Nevertheless it’s a start. If you’d like to see my data sources or check my work, here’s the spreadsheet: texas-drift-2008-2012.xlsx.

SXSW Interactive 2008 endorsements: Go Team Portugal!

The annual geek popularity contest is underway as SXSW has opened up the voting in their SXSWi 2008 Panel Picker.

This year I was wise enough not to overcommit by proposing a panel myself, but I do have some horses in the race. I’m presently working on the UT Austin – Portugal CoLab, a large project bringing together various UT departments with their counterparts at universities in Portugal (about which I’ll blog more another time). As part of that project I’ve had the pleasure of helping a number of Portuguese digital media researchers craft proposals for SXSW. The Portuguese are excited about Austin and I’m excited about these panels: I think they bring much-needed international perspectives to Interactive, which in contrast to Music and Film has always been very US-centric. I hope you’ll consider giving them your votes.

Beyond Thumbs and Cursors: Innovative Physical Interfaces

Digitally Communicating Dance

Musical Freedom Just Down the Road

‘Redrum in the Rue Morgue’: Collaboration in International Communities

Virtual Scandals and Sacrilege: Who’s grieFing Now?

I’m particularly proud that the griefing panel is the first to my knowledge to use the phrase “feces-spewing obscenity” in a proposal abstract. :-)

Beyond the Portuguese invasion I find myself voting most enthusiastically for topics that relate to geography: mapping, hyperlocal communities, localization, and location-based gaming. I want to vote against anything with a “2.0″ or god forbid “3.0″ in the description, but alas, there is no negative voting. Hugh Forrest confirms that not voting is the same as giving 0 stars and that 1 star beats 0 stars. I think I see his point (why should I be able to interfere with someone else’s expression of interest in a topic?), but dammit, I want the pleasure of a good backlash!

Finally, a fanboy shout out to the personalities I most want to see on stage this year:

Christian Crumlish on Online Identity and Design Patterns

George Kelly on Roll Over Gutenberg, Tell McLuhan The News

Charlene McBride on Mr. Cranky Customer: The Forgotten Persona

Glenda Sims on Global Design: Web Sites for the World

Rashmi Sinha on True Stories from Social Media Sites

Apologies to anybody I overlooked in the 683 proposals. See you in March!

Searchable panel schedule for SXSW 2007, now with Conferenceer goodness

Like last year, the SXSW Interactive panel schedule isn’t searchable and the panelist bios don’t link back to their panels.

I’ve addressed that by hacking together a searchable SXSW Interactive 2007 schedule. It’s “searchable” in that it’s one big web page in which you can cmd-F/ctrl-F to your heart’s content.

searchable SXSWi 2007 panel schedule

And just for grins, I’ve added links for each panel to the corresponding page in Jacob Patton’s Conferenceer site. Now if Conferenceer only talked to Upcoming’s list of SXSWi sideshows.

Like this stuff? Then friend me: Conferenceer, Twitter, Upcoming.

Blackboard tries and fails to get a clue

Blackboard, the horrendous courseware behemoth, has heard about this Web 2.0 stuff and decided the right response is to clone — as a closed system inside Blackboard!

Survey about BlackBoard Scholar

I love the bit about how "limiting access to Blackboard users" is supposed to contribute to the goal of "a new way to find educationally valuable resources".

If only they’d put a little effort into opening Blackboard up, for starters by supporting e-mail and RSS subscriptions so students wouldn’t have to log into Bb’s nasty multi-click frames interface to keep up with their classes.

Ah — Googling a bit I see that Blackboard Scholar permits non-users to search its collected bookmarks, but only lets registered users create bookmarks.

It’s part of the Blackboard Beyond Initiative, which is at work on "e-Learning 2.0". Trying to read through the marketing murk, it sounds like the BbBI people themselves may actually have found that elusive clue; let us wish them success at revolution from within.

Second Life OS

So the prof has us brainstorm in class about a "new and different" OS metaphor. I take the bait and throw out Second Life OS. Then he tells us we have to prototype it by Tuesday! Why oh why didn’t I stick with Google OS, which would just be a search box?

SecondLife OS

The fellow in the middle is Caspar David Friedrich, patron saint of POV. I have to say I do like the “reminder flies” buzzing around his head. I wanted to create a really annoying Twitter avatar but being short on time I used a flaming Adium bird instead. (Click through for more notes and larger images.)

Some features: Objects/files are placed in the virtual landscape, in clusters which may be the analogue of “folders”. Other users’ interactions with shared objects are visualized spatially, like the angel reading a PDF in the lower right. The level of animation detail for objects can range from traditional static icons through vanilla widgets (upper left) to biomorphic widgets like the reminder flies and full-blown avatarbots like the Adium bird.

P.S. I know that a Second Life OS is far too obvious to be an original idea. Not only is there plenty of prior art from the earliest days of VR, but it turns out that Scoble says Second Life already is an OS.

Social software du jour: Twitter and Virb

Recently I’ve been toying with Twitter, a viciously addictive little social networking/microblogging application intended to work on mobile devices. Twitter lets you post 143-character bursts of self-expression (where you’re going for lunch, what the cat ate for breakfast, what social networking app you’re moving to next) and broadcasts them to all your friends foolish enough to subscribe to your feed. You can both post and read through text messaging, IM, or a web interface. Twitter seems to have the attention of the early adopters — all the usual social networking cool kids are on it.

me at twitter

Oddly enough, Twitter isn’t location-sensitive, unlike its competitor Dodgeball. It seems to me that being able to filter by location would be a natural for both senders and subscribers. If I’m out for the evening or attending a conference I might want to be able to connect with only those of my friends currently in the area. Perhaps Twitter’s decision to be both mobile- and IM-friendly is a limiting factor: it has a minimalist set of controls suitable for texting from a keypad, and it can’t use location info from the mobile service provider because that would be unavailable from an IM client.

Another social app I was recently invited to is Virb, a wannabe MySpace killer. So far it seems pretty much like a feature-for-feature MySpace clone without the totally disgusting design. I’ve heard that Virb does a better job with music features but I haven’t investigated that yet.

If anybody would like a Twitter or Virb invitation, let me know. Virb is presently in stealth beta and I only have a few invitations left, so act fast.

Update: ValleyWag has reported (or manufactured?) a flap about Michael Harrington being embarrassed on a panel recently when he brought Twitter up on the screen and somebody in the audience twittered something flip. Surely that has happened whenever a brave presenter has tuned into the livebloggers and IRC. Of more interest to me is Twitter founder Evan Williams’ remark (mistakenly attributed to Stewart Butterfield) that “Every time I hear ‘UGC’, a little part of me — and everything I’ve ever believed in — dies.” What’s the gripe with user-generated content? Is it a question of marketing-centric terminology or really something he doesn’t like about the idea?

Google Books comes to the Benson

The rumors are true: the Google Books Library Project is partnering with UT.

Since the day I heard of Google Books I’ve been hoping it would come to UT’s Benson Latin American Collection. The Benson is one of the largest collections of Latin American materials in the world, filling a void created by inconsistent institutional support for libraries in the region. There are legends about UT researchers who got grants to travel to national libraries in Latin America only to find that their holdings were a shadow of the Benson’s. As a student I was always enchanted and frustrated by the Benson because it is an open-stack, non-circulating library: you can see and touch and smell the books but you can’t take them home. It’s a perfect candidate for using digitization to address needs that will not be met otherwise.

The announcement doesn’t specify that the project will focus on Latin American materials, but the fact that the Benson and the PCL Map Collection are mentioned by name is encouraging. The latter also raises the question of whether Google might be interested in digitizing UT’s maps, ideally not only scanning them as UT has already been doing but perhaps georeferencing them: providing Google Earth-like access to specialized and historical maps could yield some amazing results.

I’m sure that there are many hurdles to be faced by the project, not least of which will be to deal with thousands of small publishers in dozens of legal jurisdictions.

I’d love to hear from people at other Google Library Project sites about what it has meant for you on the ground. (Ed?)

Wireless usage in Austin public libraries

Preview of a paper I’m writing for my GIS class.

This map shows wireless sessions in proportion to “wireful” Internet terminal sessions at Austin Public Library branches. The regions on the map relate to the spatial analysis part of the paper: I’ve aggregated census block groups to the nearest library so I can estimate income and demographic characteristics for each branch.

Austin wireless map

My hypothesis is that people in the more affluent parts of town are better prepared to take advantage of the availability of public wireless in Austin. Libraries are a good place to study that because they’re open to everyone and because I could get wireful session counts with which to normalize the wireless counts.

I think this map roughly supports my hypothesis, although interestingly Oak Springs and Ruiz show wireless use more like westside libraries. Can anyone think of anything unusual about those branches to explain their high wireless rates? ACC and/or Riverside student apartments might do it for Ruiz, I suppose.

Meanwhile at Yarborough the wireless count is a full 22% of the wireful count! The next highest is barely over half that, at Old Quarry. Yarborough is my neighborhood branch and there’s nothing obvious to explain it. I’m seriously wondering whether someone in the adjacent apartment complex has a Pringles antenna. :-)

Britannica vs. Wikipedia: you can’t win if you don’t play

Recently I’ve become a nearly daily Wikipedia user, and I have to say that I find the assertions of Wikipedia’s quality to be overstated. Although I’ve rarely noticed outright errors, almost every article includes at least some examples of poor organization, unclear writing, major omissions, or obsessive attention to trivia.

I’d like to do my own personal A-B test of Wikipedia vs. Britannica, but the sad fact is that the information I need on a regular basis just isn’t in Britannica. The problem isn’t limited to Britannica’s eschewing of pop culture or lag time in covering technology. Last week I needed to look up a grab-bag of information studies theories that came up in class (Bradford’s Law, Zipf’s Law, Lotka’s Law, Bates’ Model of Berrypicking). The only one of them mentioned in Britannica at all was Zipf, who got three sentences in an article on linguistics, with no mention of how Zipf applies in information studies, media, culture, economics, or biology. Wikipedia had full articles, however imperfect, on three of the four (omitting only Bates).

Forget authority vs. populism: Britannica can’t possibly compete with Wikipedia if it doesn’t even cover the topics people need and want.

(Not to mention free one-click access vs. a subscription-only service locked up behind cumbersome authentication…)

SXSWi 2007 panel selection begins

SXSW has announced the beginning of public input to the selection of panels for SXSW Interactive 2007. Visit their panel picker to vote for your favorite 10 among the 173 panel proposals received so far.

It’s a hard choice. I counted 40 panels that I would really like to hear and, to complicate matters, eight of the panels were proposed by friends. I’m not going to disclose my vote, but I will say that of the many panels on social networks the top of my list is the excellent Rashmi Sinha’s The New Social Networks and Massively Multiplayer Online Sharing. I’m glad to see Jon Lebkowsky and Liz Henry addressing the dearth of international perspectives at SXSWi with their panels on Blogging Where Speech Isn’t Free and Blogging Across Cultures, Countries, Languages. (Why is it that the SXSW music festival scours the earth for bands from places you’ve never heard of but Interactive still acts as though the web were an English-only club?) I hope Carrie Bickner’s fresh approach in her panel Preserving our Digital Legacy and the Individual Collector gets some votes despite the usual indifference to digital preservation. And of course I must endorse the contrarian stance of Christian Crumlish’s You’re It! Tagging is So Over! It’s the People, Stupid! (Does he mean that in the sense of Soylent Green?)

This is just round 1, in which previous panelists were invited to submit their proposals. Another round open to first-timers is supposed to be announced soon.

The Long Tail in the New Yorker

Last week’s New Yorker had a thoughtful review by John Cassidy of Chris Anderson’s long-awaited The Long Tail. The review is generally favorable, and a good intro to the topic for those of us who haven’t been following it, but it does offer a few interesting criticisms.

One is that the idea of technology-enabled niche marketing isn’t new. Cassidy cites dusty old futurist Alvin Toffler’s 1980 book The Third Wave as predicting an end to mass marketing. I’m sure that precursors of the idea of “mass customization” have been kicking around for a while. But I wonder, did Toffler understand it as related not only to the technology of production and delivery but also to the technology of communication? In other words, did he anticipate not only the forces driving down the price of niche goods and services but also the forces identified by Anderson (blogs, search engines, online reviews) driving up the demand for niche products?

Cassidy also criticizes Anderson’s claim that the strengthening of the long tail will directly shrink the influence of the “short head”, noting that the movie industry in particular is still led by blockbusters. As he puts it,

Blockbusters and niche products will continue to coexist, because they’re flip sides of the same phenomenon, something economists call “increasing returns,” whereby the big get bigger and the rest fight for the scraps. A long-tail world doesn’t threaten the whales or the minnows; it threatens those who cater to the neglected middle, such as writers of “mid-list” fiction and producers of adult dramas.

That’s an interesting hypothesis, but Cassidy doesn’t back it up with any data. Are Amazon, Netflix and the other enablers of the long tail really hurting mid-tier artists? I find it hard to believe. To me it looks like any cultivation of an audience willing to look past blockbusters is immediately beneficial to those who stand closest to the blockbusters’ shadow. But maybe it all depends on how you define the head, the middle and the tail.

Finally, Cassidy complains that Anderson has overlooked the fact that the aggregators of the long tail are themselves über-blockbusters. There’s nothing long-tail about the position of Amazon, Google, eBay, iTunes, or Netflix in their respective businesses. Although Amazon is the friend of the small publisher, it is the bitter enemy of the small bookstore. One interesting question is which of these businesses inherently lead to natural monopolies — Netflix’s and Amazon’s hard-copy distribution networks, for instance, have constraints that resemble those of classic distribution networks for water or electricity — and which ones would work just as efficiently as open, distributed systems that could develop their own long tails.

Faceted tagging in the wild

Sara Brumfield and I were talking about tagging as a possible feature in her web-based wardrobe management system Dressr. I suggested she look into faceted tagging a la mefeedia and she pointed out that another fashion site, etsy, already has it. Etsy has one bucket of general tags and a separate bucket specifically for materials. Nice!

Looking around, I see that Emanuele Quintarelli has written about etsy’s other innovative features in the context of faceted classification.

So — how many other web 2.0 apps out there use faceted tagging? By which I mean separate categories of tags for distinct aspects of the items being classified.

Panels for women, sure, but a toolbar for women?

Ulla-Maaria Mutanen at the crafts/tech blog Hobby Princess has pointed things to say about ghettoizing women at conferences:

If you want to make sure that you include the “female perspective” to your program, just invite women to speak about the things they’re doing. Putting smart people to discuss under a separate “women & technology” category is not doing the job.

I can see her point, but I was just at SXSW Interactive where the organizers significantly improved the gender imbalances of recent years in part by inviting BlogHer to program a series of panels. The panels were not a “women and technology” ghetto. Many of the BlogHer-organized panels were on topics of interest to the BlogHer community not strictly related to gender, for example an excellent panel on what happens when you mix personal blogging and professional life. At the same time, part of what BlogHer does is point out sexism in the blogosphere (e.g., the dismissal of “mommybloggers” by people who think it’s dandy for boys to blog about their toys), so some of the BlogHer panels did address those issues. One was entitled “Increasing Women’s Visibility on the Web: Whose Butt Should We Be Kicking?” Works for me!

But speaking of ghettoizing, can somebody explain to me what’s gender-specific about this toolbar?

Girlawhirl toolbar

That’s the Girlawhirl toolbar, advertised through AdSense as:

Toolbar for Women: Better Web Search Toolbar. Stop pop-ups and more

Like men don’t use Google or block pop-ups?

I get the joke when somebody ironically skins a gender-neutral tool in pink and says it’s for women, like the pink laptops and hard drives at Shiny Shiny, or for that matter Shiny Shiny itself. But the Girlawhirl toolbar appears to be entirely unironic. The idea seems to be that women are afraid to download a toolbar from a tech site but will do so from a fashion site with a violet logo. That’s what I call a ghetto.

Regarding gender and gadgets, I found Hobby Princess through another great panel at SXSW, the one on DIY media. As represented on this panel, the hacker and crafts movements are at work on a grand fusion of traditionally male and female approaches to gadgets and technology. Craft blogs and Make magazine (which is planning a special crafts issue for the fall) are the cutting edge of this fusion. That’s what I call an anti-ghetto.

11+1 ways to back up

The Backup blog counts 11 ways to back up your bookmarks but forgot to mention Flock.

Flock is a new open-source browser that uses a social bookmarking service like or Shadows to store your favorites instead of keeping them on your desktop. And if you switch services, Flock copies your favorites from one service to the other.

The list does kindly mention that Shadows can import your bookmarks directly as well.

Tagging 2.0 talk at SXSW

Yesterday I was on the “Tagging 2.0″ panel at SXSW Interactive. Since I figured my co-panelists Don Turnbull, Tom Vander Wall, Adina Levin and Rashmi Sinha would do a good job of articulating the advantages of tagging I decided to introduce a little drama and took the contrarian position. I called my talk “The Six Dirty Secrets of Tagging,” to wit:

  1. It’s the content, stupid.
    (Tags are a means to an end, not an end themselves.)
  2. Ordinary users don’t understand tags.
    (Present a normal person with a tag box and they’ll ignore it or enter an English sentence.)
  3. It’s the UX, stupid.
    (When tagging systems do work it’s because a great deal of care went into the end-to-end user experience. Flickr is a good reference point here.)
  4. Tags don’t play well with others.
    (Tagging systems are plagued with interoperability problems, like differing standards for delimiters and different social norms.)
  5. Rich applications require rich metadata.
    (Or, where’s my flying car?)
  6. Nobody likes real tags.
    (What they want is tagginess!)

On the last point I discussed some of the features people have been trying to pile on top of tagging, like intra-tag syntax (del.icious “for:username” tags and geotagging), consensus tagging, hierarchical tagging and faceted tagging. I actually like faceted tagging. See for example, a video site with separate facets or “buckets” for place, topic, language, event and people.

That’s the short version. For more you can see my slides with notes, read Christian Crumlish’s summary of the whole panel or listen to the podcast.

Searchable panel schedule for SXSW Interactive 2006

For some reason the Interactive panel schedule at isn’t searchable and the panelist bios don’t link back to their panels. The pages don’t have meaningful <title> tags so you can’t even conveniently Google for them.

To address that problem I’ve whipped up a searchable schedule in one-page HTML, Excel and tab-separated text formats. Use cmd-F or grep to look up panelists to your heart’s content.

And for the tag-minded among you, I’ve included links to the Shadows tags for each speaker.

Tagging 2.0 at sxsw2006

Library Camp in Ann Arbor, April 14

Ed Vielmetti of Vacuum is organizing a Library Camp for April 14, 2006, in Ann Arbor.

Ed’s been doing great things as a techie patron/volunteer at the Ann Arbor public libraries. As I understand it the latest generation of library systems don’t necessarily do a lot of magical “web 2.0″ things themselves but they’re open enough to lend themselves to various kinds of mashups anyway. Ed’s been finding like-minded library geeks who are organizing themselves under the banner of “superpatrons“. (What’s a movement these days without an ambiguously ironic neologism?)

As with other fill-in-the-blank camps, attendance at Library Camp is free but be prepared to participate. You start by signing up on the wiki.

Sure wish I could be there! I also wish I could attend the mass digitization symposium this weekend at UMich. But I’ll console myself by hearing the panel on “Book Digitization and the Revenge of the Librarians” at SXSW. Daniel Clancy of Google Print will be there to answer the question, are we evil yet?

BlogBurst, a new blog syndication service

More interesting news from my employer, this time regarding a project I haven’t worked on myself. BlogBurst is a new blog syndication service connecting bloggers with some major news outlets including the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Houston Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman.


They’re looking for blogs with a topical focus and a full-content RSS feed and in return offer major media exposure. Some of the topics in most urgent demand from the publishers go beyond what what I would have expected, notably travel and women’s issues. It sounds like there’s an opportunity there for international bloggers and the BlogHer crowd. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

An experiment in consensus tagging at SXSW 2006

My employer,, is running an experiment in encouraging tagging at the upcoming South By Southwest conference and festival here in Austin.

It’s now common at tech conferences for participants to agree on a common tag so they can more easily find each other’s posts to Flickr,, Technorati, etc. (See for example iasummit or aoir6.)

We’re taking it a step further. We did an ad hoc survey of how people have already been tagging and otherwise abbreviating the names of the bands coming to SXSW and put together a list of “official” SXSW tags. We’ve been seeding the process by tagging band websites into Shadows but don’t mean this to be an intra-Shadows thing. There’s always a lot of Flickr and blogging activity surrounding SXSW and we hope people will use this list as a guide wherever they tag.

It will be interesting to see whether the idea catches on. Since SXSW opens with the very tag-aware Interactive portion of the conference the idea may at least reach the early adopters. At the moment we’ve only settled on tags for the bands but hope soon to get to films, directors and Interactive panelists too.

By the way, the consensus tag for the whole SXSW experience seems to be “sxsw2006“. The four-digit version is leading over “sxsw06″ everywhere we’ve looked, and that was the case in 2005 as well.

UX vs. UE

From the time I first heard enough about user experience to need an acronym for it, I’d mostly heard it called “UX”.

Now, though, I’m around people who consistently call it “UE”.

Google says UX beats UE in the context of user experience by 141,000 to 58,000.

That in itself isn’t very interesting. What I really want to know is, is the choice of UX or UE revealing? Do all the cool kids call it UX? :-)