28 Mar 2015

Hacks and Hackers turn to data: how can we cover the election?

Photo: Keila Guimar√£es

Last week’s Hacks and Hackers was all about data. Specifically, it was all about data relating to the election.

Representatives from YouGov and the Guardian spoke to us about polls, election coverage and potential results.

It was a great night – mainly because it sparked discussion on how we can use data in new ways to tell stories about the election. Aside from an interactive map showing the outcome of each constituency, what else can we do to engage readers in a long, drawn-out and potentially boring campaign?

YouGov’s job

YouGov’s Head of Political and Social Research, Joe Twyman, captivated the whole room with his amusing presentation on potential outcomes of the election – as well as other, more unusual, polling data.

He showed us how it is virtually impossible for any one party to claim a majority in 2015. While this may be bad for the country, it’s incredibly exciting for us data journalists.
Far from the standard polls you see on TV or in the newspapers, Joe dedicated a lot of time enlightening us on the sexual fantasies of each of the main parties’ supporters.

Turns out Ukippers want to use a dildo, and Labour supporters' fantasies include oral sex, role play and spanking. It's true. The data tells us.
My colleague Ben Jackson is currently working on the data to find out what else we can find out about sex and politics. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of this interesting topic.

In a wider context, however, this kind of data represents the kind of fun reporting that will draw people into the political discussion.

The Guardian’s way

Next up was Alberto Nardelli, data editor at the Guardian. From an infographic on the amount of times particular politicians appeared on BBC Question Time, to the Guardian's interactive poll tracker and projection, he told us how his team works to produce their fantastic resources.

He said data should be combined with story, something I have since blogged about from my own experience.

“Data without humanity is meaningless,” he argued. The challenge, then, is to find out how this can work in election coverage. A panel-based page, with each panel containing swing voters' concerns? How about broken down by region or constituency? Can we host our communities' emotional reactions to each political leader?
He also said that data is the enabler and challenger of misperceptions. This is an important point, particularly with the leaders’ debates coming up. Many claims will be made in this election, and some will be untrue. It is the data journalists’ job to highlight these errors or untruths.

So what did we learn?

We left the event thinking of new ways to try and bring data to life. Everyone in this election will be seeking to try out new things – but inevitably, most will be produce similar coverage, and the BBC will probably do it best.

#GE2015 will be full of exit polls and interactive maps, but those at #HHLDN will be trying to do something new.

Debunking false claims is one of data’s biggest uses, as is using more obscure polls to find new, accessible angles into reporting.

But there’s another, bigger point to take away. All major publications will be using similar tools, methods and presentations when they cover the bread and butter of elections: poll predictions and results. If someone can come up with a new way of doing this, instead of the standard map and swingometer, it will be an even more exciting time to be a data journalist.

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