Visualizing Swiss Parliament’s decisions

Cartoon for the 2012 Data-Journalism Award

In May 2012 we left Politnetz to explore new shores with Livingdocs. Before we all forgot about online politics we received a nice surprise for our work: the 2012 data journalism award from Google and a nice quote from the New York Times:

This is a terrific project that exemplifies everything a good news app should be. First, it is extremely well designed. Better than ours, I’m sorry to say. Beautiful, intuitive, approachable and meaty. Second, it brings into the light of day important information that heretofore was difficult for the public to find and digest. Outstanding work.

Aron Pilhofer, New York Times

It all began in early december 2011. Looking back on the big election year — all 4 years Switzerland votes its national government — Christmas seemed just around the corner. Gabriel and Lukas, managing directors of Politnetz at the time, were struggling with what to do next. It was just then Adrienne, community manager and good soul of the company, proposed to visualize the votes of the newly elected national council during their first meeting. Perfect. Born was a project with no budget, only two weeks to the upcoming council meeting, but a whole lot of good faith and motivation from the entire team. Two weeks later, we were proud to visualize the «Yes» vote of the newly elected Swiss national council for a surpreme court; a historic decision given the many times it was rejected before.

Our visualization tool worked as we hoped for. People and politicians alike used it and joined together in the discussion of current affairs. National newspapers used it as a reference to produce stories, for example which councillors were absent most often from their seats. Aggregation of our parsed votes data made such summary views possible. We received mails to continue the work, wishlists, and even offers for help to bring political visualizations to regional levels.

The success of the application was mainly due to the focus on essentials.

Gabriel Hase

Looking back, we know more. The success wasn’t a coincidence, nor was it just due to a good idea — many applications actually visualize politicians votes all around the world. The tight schedule and lack of resources got us to focus on the bare minimum needed to reach the applications intent. The result is an application that is focused and easily understood by a broad public, because there are just as many features as it actually needs. The only thing we added on top of this are the community features.

Politics is complicated. Its complexity has to be lived up to in an Open-Data application.

Lukas Peyer

To foster the community, we put a lot of work into communicating with the national councillors and invite them to take a position on their votes. Visualizing votes data is great to shed light into politics, but to do justice to the complexity of a political data source, one has to involve people and experts, let them explain, comment, and share their knowledge. The intent of «transparent politics» is to enable people to have a better part in the political process by informing and teaching them. It is only when we put data into an objective and understandable form, that we actually enable people with it.

With the open-data movement in Switzerland on the rise, we hope that developers and designers will keep this in mind and build really useful applications that contribute to their fields and have a real impact.