Azavea Atlas

Maps, geography and the web

Free Cicero Credits During #Dreamforce!

In honor of Dreamforce 2015, Cicero is granting twice the free API credits to all who sign up between September 15th and 22nd. The Cicero API matches addresses to legislative districts, and returns comprehensive elected official information, including district offices and social media identifiers. As a developer, use the API  to fuel the next great Salesforce App! Not a developer? Cicero is already integrated with the Nonprofit Starter Pack, for easily matching your household addresses to legislative districts. 

During Dreamforce, we want to encourage everyone to test out Cicero with 2,000 free credits! To sign up, simply visit our free trial page. You will instantly get 1,000 credits, which is good for 90 days. As a tribute to Dreamforce, we’ll add 1,000 more, and extend your trial an additional 3 months. That’s 2,000 credits in total, good for 6 months (trust us, we did the math).

Have questions? Drop us a line or tweet us; we’ll be happy to help. Happy Dreamforce!


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The Struggle for Power in Civic Tech: Highlights from #PDF15

Among the numerous talks at this year’s Personal Democracy Forum, one word that stood out was “Power” (not the kind that is currently keeping your computer on). Power, in Civic Tech, was discussed as both an impediment to achievement, as well as a by-product of having the right tools at your disposal. Below, several compelling perspectives:

Picture of the stage at Personal Democracy Forum 2015

Let’s Talk About Power

Eric Liu’s excellent first-day talk framed this discussion, defining Power, simply, as “a capacity to have others do what you would like them to do.” Civic Power, therefore, is that capacity “as applied to the common good” or the many. This leads to the core question of civic Power, which is, for the many, “who decides?” Eric thinks we should strive to Democratize our understanding of how Power works, and be responsible with the pile of tools, skills, and ideas we have in our possession. This is especially important in Civic Tech, where we have the opportunity to design tools for the public good, and often, to choose how they are used and distributed.


Knowledge is Power

Both Harold Feld and Dave Troy gave incredible presentations about the internet and social media as public utilities, although approached from two very different angles. Harold discussed Verizon’s attempts not to rebuild on Fire Island after Hurricane Sandy. He argued that the internet’s powers to offer open communication are as crucial as any other public utility, and it should be made available and affordable to all.

A People Map of the City of St. Louis showing various twitter users interests who live in St. Louis

People Map of St. Louis, via, created by Dave Troy

Dave Troy, a social media cartographer, presented a new project called He used Twitter to create a people map of St. Louis (including Ferguson) that shed light on the segregations in that community in a much more meaningful way than geographic maps alone. Dave used to do this with Facebook, which unfortunately no longer allows access to the API. Many other sites do the same. Even Twitter allows itself to be censored in other countries. These tools also are public utilities, Dave pointed out, and blocking access to them is a direct attack on knowledge.

Tools are Power

Many PDF speakers agreed that having the right tools impacted Power. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (pictured right), Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers Presenting on stage at PDFCongressional Chair of the House Republican Conference, gave an honest speech about her efforts to integrate Congress with the technology of the future. “Policy makers should be innovators,” she said, but instead, “Congress is more like the DMV than Uber.” She also summarized a recent trip to Ukraine in which the Mayor of Kiev stated, “media is more powerful than bullets” when it comes to revolution.

Danny O’Brien highlighted the successes of the movement to stop mass surveillance with the Patriot Act, but asked “Did we win because we were right, or because we had cool tools?” He ended with this message: “Tools need to be used to distribute Power, not aggregate it.”


Control is Power

Dante Barry’s passionate speech about the Black Lives Matter movement recognized the extraordinary collaboration that has resulted from the open internet. This Powerful platform has led to a Powerful movement, but he warned, “The internet is only as good as the people who control it.” In an age where phones have become defense mechanisms, rules that keep our content in our hands are critical.


Politics is Power

Speaking over Skype, Birgitta Jonsdottir (pictured below), Leader of the Pirate Party in Iceland, detailed her efforts Birgitta Jonsdottir speaking over Skype at the PDF Conferenceto affect change in her country, which ultimately led to a new political party being formed. “People are always telling us we don’t have the power to change. It’s a lie,” she said. Political movements should not be triangular, but rather a circle of shared Power. “If you don’t become the power, the power can’t control you.”

During a breakout session on Designing the Digital Legislature, New York City Councilmember Ben Kallos also agreed that politics is often the road to Power: “You can have the best ideas in the world, but you still need someone in government to pass the law.” This sentiment was echoed by Santiago Siri, in his creation of the Net Party in Argentina. This is also a theme well understood here at Team Cicero. Our database of legislative districts and elected officials is often used by organizations to advance an advocacy campaign through direct contact from constituents to their legislators.


Power to the People

Jess Kutch’s talk on proved what people can do when they have the right tools and skills available to them. In a triumph for Starbucks Baristas, a social media campaign was launched by one woman in an effort to change the corporate tattoo policy. What resulted was not only a win for tattoos, but also a blueprint for how the internet can fuel a movement.

With so many different channels, where does Power come from in Civic Tech? It does not flow solely from knowledge, or tools, or control, or politics. As Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry (organizers and founders of PDF) seemed to know when choosing this year’s theme, it is comes from the people. And as people working within Civic Tech, we should use that power consciously.

Unicorns, Ducks, and Things that are Big: A recap of Visualized Political Data

Last week I attended the Visualized: Political Data conference in Washington, D.C. This was an offshoot of the popular Visualized conference, focusing entirely on political data and visualizations, and also

The podium at the Jack Morton Auditorium at GW

covering themes such as open data, communication, journalism, maps, things that are big, and not-maps. With thirteen presentations in eight hours, it was an ambitious agenda. But, despite that diverse list of talking points, there was a clear sense of continuity among the sessions. Below, some themes from the day:

The Bridge

Jamie Chandler (self-described “lecturer” and professor from GW) started off the day with this statement: there is no bridge between Data Science and Communications. The problem, he said, is that Data Scientists can compute the numbers, and journalists can tell the story, but they often don’t do those things together. As Chris Cillizza from Chris Cillizza presenting on the ascent of data in journalismthe Washington Post (pictured left) later confirmed, the media is usually the last to catch on in terms of innovation.

The people that calculate the data need to be able to share it in a meaningful way. Jamie’s solution was that Data Scientists should partner with Data Journalists to get the story out. Chris’s solution, and one that other speakers referenced throughout the day, was more unicorns. Elusive beings that only exist in small numbers, unicorns are people who can crunch the numbers, make the visualizations, and talk about them in a way that makes sense. Are unicorns the journalists of the future? Chris thinks so. And he would hire hundreds of them if he could.

The Scaffolding

Derek Willis (NY Times Upshot) and Rebecca Williams ( discussed our data infrastructure problem, and tools to encourage open data, respectively. Derek’s focus was on the dead ends and errors encountered when one goes searching for data from the government. He highlighted incorrect Congressional swearing in dates, Congressional Leave of Absence records that were surprisingly absent, and a successful hack of Rand Paul’s donations (which he pretty easily scraped from the campaign website). Before building, you need to have a strong frame in place, which is something that we desperately lack. Derek encouraged the @unitedstates project, and the sharing of our individual efforts as a group to help prevent wasted time.

Rebecca, a current government employee, offered several useful solutions when encountering data you need but cannot access:

  1. Vote on it: This vote “may be more important than your annual November vote.”
  2. Engage with it: via Project Open Data
  3. Edit it: via Github
  4. And when all else fails, email the government (under: “human capital”) and they will email back*!

(*Personal anecdote: When doing research about legislative officials for the Cicero Database, I default to emailing frequently. Sometimes it works!)

Maps and Not-Maps

This was the title of the presentation by Alyson Hurt (NPR Visuals), and also summed up the contents of several other presenters’ material. Alyson discussed the “Geo-Map” (or just, “map”), which has long been the method used for representing state data. Alicia Parlapiano (NY Times) also showed election maps, ElectoralCollege2008.svgsome dating back to the late 18 and early 1900’s, with varying levels of usefulness. One of these maps depicted ducks with and without hats used to represent the senate and congress. But, most looked incredibly similar to those we still use today. This begged the question: how effective is this image a means to convey data?

Though maps are recognizable and loved by the public, they are also fraught. Maps don’t give states that are smaller fair representation, particularly in showing electoral results. Sometimes a map is not the best way to represent geographical data, Alicia said. Sometimes a table is.

Jonathan Swabish (Urban Institute, PolicyViz, and also co-host of the conference) mentioned this same point in the workshops the day before the conference. Before you make a map, he said, ask yourself these four things:

  1. Should it be a bar chart?
  2. Should it be a scatterplot?
  3. Should it be a table? OR
  4. Should it just be a sentence?

Alicia noted that Cartograms often solve the map problem. However, the loss of geography can be confusing. But, “sometimes geography is irrelevant,” said Alyson. The answer, as it turns out, is in your audience.

New York Times Cartogram of the United States in 1929, from Alicia's presentation

Fairly bad photo from Alicia’s presentation: New York Times Cartogram of the United States in 1929

The Human Element

At a conference focused on political data, many of the talks were geared toward the people. Jamie Chandler’s presentation on Communicating Data to Mass Publics emphasized the consumers. His first key step toward making an impactful visualization was to “understand your audience.” This was a theme that others carried along as well. Ben Casselman (FiveThirtyEight) asked the question, “How do we reach readers who are non-data junkies, while not disappointing those who are.” It’s important, he said, to choose your complexity wisely. “Reader’s eyes glaze over when they see a lot of numbers that don’t need to be in the piece.”Jonathan Schwabish

Jonathan Schwabish’s presentation (pictured right) made a similar point. He dissected hilarious comparisons that have been made in the media (3000 DWPF Cannisters to 24 Empire State Buildings, the olympic luge course inside of Times Square, 90 tons of CO2 next to wherever this is). Comparing something big to something bigger doesn’t usually work. If a person can’t actually imagine what something looks like, it’s probably not a useful tool for relaying information. We can do better, he said. We’re human. Make people feel. Have a soul.

The Takeaway

Rebecca Williams started off her presentation by saying “All Politics is Data.” In the age of information we not only need to be careful about what we choose to represent, we also need to represent it using the correct tool, for the correct audience, in the correct space. The goal of a successful visualization is not to show “all of the things,” as Alyson Hurt said. Instead, it is to clearly, and fairly, represent one angle of the story.

Anyone can be a journalist today. Anyone can make the decision to post a graphic of something big next to X number of football stadiums, which shows how Y politician is not the person any of you should be voting for. Anyone can put ducks on a map. But what would happen if we thought about the impact first? What would happen if we just stuck with what was really and truly important?



Azavea at the Do Good Data Conference

Last week, Tyler Dahlberg and I attended the Do Good Data Conference in Chicago, IL. The conference was a two-day extravaganza of workshops and talks geared towards nonprofit data geeks and professionals looking to learn new skills.

One of the sessions I found particularly insightful was hosted by Matthew Scharpnick of Elefint Designs. Matthew offered tips for effective data visualizations and creating infographics. He noted that raw data can deceive and how important context is. One of the case studies he brought up was the on-going debt ceiling debates during in 2012. At the time, there was a hot political debate about which party (and President) was responsible for running up budget deficits and debt. A graph chart of U.S. debt over time is one way to look at this — but there’s more nuance than simply political party in charge or President at the time. There’s even differences depending on whether the data is normalized by GDP, for example.

For example, if you only saw the chart on top left, you might think that U.S. debt is out of control and has never been higher. But if you look at debt as a percentage of GDP, you can see that in fact debt was higher in the 1940s during World Ward II.

So Elefint created an infographic to try to tell multiple stories and show context. Designers chose to symbolize the line by which party controlled the Presidency, House and Senate. Looking at President, it’s natural to infer that in recent times, Republican administrations appear to be more responsible for running up U.S. debt. But when Congress is added, that narrative becomes much more nuanced. Finally, by adding the recession periods to the graph (in gray), it becomes apparent that perhaps debt always increases after a recession, regardless of which party controls the Presidency or Congress.

It’s important to remember that data doesn’t teach us everything and it’s easy to miss the whole picture without the proper context. Matthew also stated the importance of direct labeling and telling a story — but noted that there doesn’t always have to be a linear story to each visualization — each person will see what they want to see. Moreover, he brought up the idea of “Return on Design” and mentioned crafting pieces that can be “productized” and reused.

Tyler and I also presented a session at the conference. We outlined the bike theft and pedestrian crash analysis we worked on at Azavea — offering numerous spatial analysis tips along the way. The workshop portion was devoted to a hands-on demo of QGIS mapping, including the QGIS2Leaf plugin. We also demonstrated web mapping in CartoDB, including setting up infowindows with Google Streetview images and the Torque library for animated heatmaps. We’ve posted the presentation and workshop instructions online and we hope to see everyone next year!

The Changing Map of the Arctic

When we think of geopolitical conflict quite a few areas come to mind, but one quite significant and often overlooked area is the Arctic. As the landscapes of the northern latitudes transform — most significantly due to climate change — geographers and mappers will have their work cut out for them recording those changes and helping to explain what they mean for the rest of the world.


Former Alaska Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell gave a talk about mapping the landscape of the Arctic at the 2015 Annual Association of American Geographers Conference on Tuesday in Chicago, IL. Treadwell has a long history of involvement with business and environmental interests in Alaska and the Arctic region. Prior to being elected Lt. Governor, he served on the United States Arctic Research Commission and managed the Exxon-Valdez oil spill response for Cordova, Alaska.

Changes in the geography of the Arctic related to climate change will have many profound impacts. For one, oil exploration is sure to increase with less sea ice to contend with. Bathymetric mapping explorations are continuing to cover more of the sea floor as well. As sea ice recedes, shipping channels are opening up, including a link between East Asia and Europe that previously required routing ships through the Panama Canal. These journeys can now be completed more efficiently and throughout a longer portion of each year by re-routing through the Arctic.

Climate change and shifting geography in the Arctic also has implications for the U.S.-Russia relationship. Russia has made it well-known that it would like to expand its territorial claim to the Arctic, and as Treadwell pointed out in his presentation, Russia is much further behind the U.S. in releasing scientific data to the public. Treadwell emphasized the need for a science agreement with Russia so that the data they collect be made available for research. As of late last year, Russia was planning to apply to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to expand its claim on the Arctic by about 463,000 square miles. This great graphic from The New York Times shows the current territorial claims from each nation with a border claim in the Arctic.

Finally, Treadwell emphasized the importance of maintaining place names and languages. There’s an incredible amount of data contained in historic place names. Alaska’s legislature recently made twenty native languages official, granting them parity with English.

Above all else, Treadwell urged geographers and the public at large to pay attention to what takes place in the Arctic, though it might seem far away to those living in the lower 48, it’s extremely important to our future.