On 12.11.2019 I participated in first EU DataViz conference held in Luxembourg City. I had a presentation entitled “EU elections: the case for a harmonized treatment of European election data” in the first set of thematic sessions
The presentation was filmed and can be found HERE(at 2h:51m:48s)
I took the liberty of publishing the presentation in the form of an article below. Enjoy!
I’m here to share with you what I’ve learned creating the most detailed maps of the European Elections ever.
Part I – Each election has its map
Today, when elections happen, news sites use maps to easily illustrate the result and patterns in the vote.
So (for example) when elections happen in the United States we see a lot of maps published in various news sites such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, including non-American ones, like the Guardian. They vary in detail, aesthetic, subject matter – presidential elections, congressional, presidential primaries – , and approach the vote from various angles.
We also see detailed maps when other big democracies vote, like India for example (on the left), the world’s single largest elections, with over 1 billion voters. You see beautiful detailed maps of Brazil as well (here on the right) made by Gazeta do Povo for the last presidential elections they had.
But when the European Union holds elections – second largest elections in the world, with more than 400 million eligible voters – we often get maps like these. These 1-county-1-color maps simplify the vote to the extreme. You do get to see the whole union, but with virtually no detail.
If not we see this alternative: complex maps that focus on the reader’s member state. So El Diario does a detailed cartography of the Spanish vote, without showing other countries. And Le Monde shows only how the French voted, and not the rest of the Union.
There is something missing. A map that merges the best of both: a pan-EU look but on a detailed level.
These are the only two maps of these kind.
The map on the left was created by me, as a personal project, for the 2014 elections. It took 6 months of on-and-off work. The one on the right was a collaborative work with Julius Tröger and Zeit Online, in June 2019 right after this year’s European elections. It is the first time an online newspaper published such a map.
Here it is on full screen.
(Apologies for cutting off Finland and Sweden). Almost 80.000 administrative units, mostly municipalities. A historic first.
Part II – Why are there so few maps like this?
So why did it take until now for someone to make these maps? Well the problem is that election data is organized by national authorities. There is no harmonised data to an EU format, done either by national or EU authorities. What this means is that the national news sites will process only familiar data (i.e. data formats they are already familiar with, from national elections).
And I encountered this a lot while working on my maps.
For example you would think member states publish data on the website of Election Authorities. Some do, some don’t. Sometimes it’s published on a open data portal, and sometimes it’s on a private site.
You would think that the data is made available for download. Yet sometimes it isn’t. And to get all the data I had to write small programs to scrape those websites page by page.
Which becomes harder the more complicated the site is. Simple HTML sites are easy, but some of these websites have complicated JavasScript interfaces that makes them pretty to look at, but also makes getting the data a headache.
Most of the times if you manage to download a file, it’s a simple Excel file of CSV. But in the case of the Netherlands it was a more complicated XML type file (which most people might not be very familiar with).
The data also changes based on the type of elections.
Most of Europe votes on list systems –each with its own twist: for example Luxembourg is somewhat special with 6 votes per person -, but some states or regions (like Malta, Ireland and Northern Ireland) use Single Transferable Vote, where candidates are ranked. This means no detailed data on the municipality level, since data is first centralised and then counted.
Voting abroad is another layer of complexity.
Sometimes votes abroad get allocated to where the voter is from, if they vote by mail, and sometimes it’s counted in a category apart. While in some countries embassy votes get added to the votes in the national capital, skewing the data there.
And even if the data is available to download, and even if the file is a clean Excel file, it’s not sure the data is geo-referenced with the relevant municipality code. Municipality codes (called Local Administrative Unit code by Eurostat) helps with attaching the data to the map’s shapefile.
If only the municipality name is available, one can run into a lot of problems. Especially so if there are spelling variations (like accents) or language variations when a municipality is in a bilingual area and it has the national name in one dataset, and the regional name in another.
Thus it is always better that these datasets have the relevant municipality codes.
So while doing this work, mapping these elections, I thought a lot about how difficult and time-consuming it is to visualize the European vote (and it shouldn’t be more difficult than the US or Indian elections.). So here is what I think could be done about it, because something should be.
Part III – Three ways forward
1) First possibility is a top-down approach: Hard policy of mandating that a version of national data follows a pre-determined format. Anyone who is familiar with the format can interpret it.
Advantage is that every country does things the same way, but since we are talking about 28 states that need to agree on the format, it might take a long time.
2) Second is what I call “The Bridge”: Nations publish their own versions of the data like before, and an EU authority (maybe Eurostat?) publishes a harmonized version, thus bridging the space between the member states and third parties.
Advantage is that harmonizing happens centrally but Eurostat must keep up with each state’s changes and shenanigans.
3) The third one would be Eurostat publishing just a “nation by nation guide” for third parties where it details how to access and harmonize data.
This is obviously the most cost-effective solution, and it requires a minimal intervention from the European Union. But on the other hand, it is others who will be harmonizing the data, so it could very well lead to inconsistencies.
But one solution needs to be implemented as there is need for this data. National and European institutions have already reached out to us.
By voting together, we are a single political space, although we do not see ourselves as such, partly because we are not represented that way in the media.
This is where dataviz comes in.
If we have harmonized EU data readily available, we will use this data, which means more visualisations in the media, and we will see ourselves represented more as a European Comunity.
This article is a repository of all the etymology maps I’ve ever done. Most of these maps were made between 2014-2019 and have originally been posted to Reddit, often to the /r/etymologymaps subreddit.
A few word of warning:
The base map used to make these maps used to have errors. For example, the Russian-speaking areas of Latvia are wrongly to the north-east instead of south-east and way too big.
The main dividing line for these maps is linguistic (read: “mother tongue”), not administrative or political.
Minority languages are often given proeminence. It was important to show as many languages as I had data for.
I know German nouns are capitalized. I took a design decision to not capitalize them because I didn’t like having some nouns capitalized, and some in minuscules.
First thing’s first, what is a European Political Party (or a Europarty)? According to Wiki:
A European political party (formally, a political party at European level; informally a Europarty) is a type of political party organisation operating transnationally in Europe and in the institutions of the European Union. They are regulated and funded by the European Union and are usually made up of national parties, not individuals. Europarties […] express themselves within the European Parliament by their affiliated political groups and their MEPs.
Now they are important because they also field lead candidates (called “spitzencandidates”), who, according to a decision by the European Parliament and the precedent set in 2014, are the only ones who the EP will accept as a candidate for President of the European Commission.
This series of maps are born from the annoying habit of the mass media of treating the European Elections as national affairs, and only focusing either on patterns within nations, or on overall national results when looking at the entire European Union.
Following the variety of examples of “county level results” we see when the US holds elections, I decided to to create a similar map of Europe (and all its overseas territories where elections are held).
This being the EU, where “varietate” comes before “concordia”, there was an immense variety of problems when trying to have a uniform vision. Each country holds elections its own way (the whole restriction is that it has to be ‘proportional’), stores the data in its own way and is divided into administrative divisions differently. Not to mention the immense variety of national and regional parties, hence the need to group them by European-level affiliation.
So the baseline was trying to map the results by Europarties on the municipal level, which depending on the country are either LAU1 or LAU2 level divisions (see here), but in some countries that wasn’t possible. Ireland, Northern Ireland, Malta and Slovenia could only be mapped by electoral constituencies (which in the case of Malta is the whole country).
So without further ado, here are the maps, by European Political Parties:
Later Edit – Two more maps: the winning party and share won by the coalition backing the current European Commission
Maps made in QGIS, with lots of python and pandas in the data-wrangling phase, including xml parsing (bleah!). A good dose of post-processing in Inkscape.
On a personal note I’d love those meddling bureaucrats in Brussels to lay out a minimum standard of collecting, storing and making available election data on a local level, as I would love to see a bit more detail in Malta and the island of Ireland.
Also, Cyprus, answer your emails!
PS. Other articles will follow, cause I have lots of data 😀
The chart above is born out of the feedback that an earlier chart received on-line. I had made a Functional Chart of the EU, in which I tried to “bring home” the political setup of the European Union, by showing where each institution gets its mandate from, and what each institution would be called if instead of being a supra-national entity it was a nation-state. To this end I emphasized that, for example, the Council of the EU (i.e. ‘of Ministers’) is actually the “Upper House” of the EU Legislature.
What sometimes happened was that the complexity of the system was highlighted as proof that the EU is “difficult to understand” for the average Joe, contrary to the straightforward way national political systems function. Another angle of criticism was using some features of national systems as a sine qua non of a democratic system. To put it differently, the argument went: “My nation does X, and is democratic. If the EU does not have X, it is therefore undemocratic”, where X is a feature that is not actually present in all European democracies.
These two lines of criticism seemed to suggest that people don’t always realize how complex national political systems are and how diverse European nations are when it comes how they have evolved as political systems. I myself have learned that Romania’s way of confirming a government by a vote of both houses of Parliament in joint session is not, in fact, that common in our Union.
But there are wonderful details that I found throughout the Single Market states:
there is no explicit vote of confidence for the Danish PM
the Swedish PM is nominated by the Speaker of the Parliament, not by the King
Switzerland has a Collective Presidency
Cyprus has no PM
Sometimes ministers are nominated by the Head of State after consultations with the PM
The bigger European states tend to be complicated
Upper Houses are often very… original beats
So while the EU does have its quirks, there is plenty of diversity on the national levels as well.
On a side note, as I made the Functional Chart of the EU, I quickly became fixated with a particular type of chart one often sees on Wikipedia articles, mapping the way the electorate and the 3 powers of the state – executive, legislative and judicial – interact with each other.
There little information on-line on these types of charts. On a summary look, It seems to me that they are, in essence, a type of flowcharts, but I would welcome any further reading on the history of these types of charts.
And I also welcome any feedback in case of any mistake I might have slipped in.
Two years ago Andy Woodruff wrote a fun blog entry about land area plotted by latitude and longitude, where he proceeded to squish the continents’ area along the X and Y axes (just like Bill Rankin did with Earth’s population earlier).
His post was the catalyst for me to try mapping the next step: squishing an area towards a point.
In fact, there was an a question floating around my brain earlier about the EU: “If I sit in Brussels, the de facto capital, how much union is there in each direction?”
It might feel like the answer is : “Look at a map!”, but due to history and geography, the EU’s territory snakes around the Baltic Sea, the Western Balkans candidate countries, not to mention that big hole called Switzerland. On the other hand you have detached areas, such as the UK and Ireland, or Cyprus.
So I plotted the EU onto a an Lambert azimuthal equal-area projection where I took Brussels as the center, thus lines spreading out radially from the center wouldn’t be distorted, while the areas of the countries stayed constant no matter how far from the center. To add a bit of color, without making one for each of the 28 member state, I colored them by the year they joined the EU.
I then wrote a python script that in essence iterated along each line starting in the chosen center and ending on an outer pixels, and moved the colored pixels as much as possible towards the center. For finding the relevant pixels I used this adaptation of Xiaolin Wu’s algorithm, and it took some fine tuning before I got a good result.
So here it is: Brussels sucking the EU towards it…
And in .gif version (click to enlarge):
As one can see, I only used the main European territories of the EU plus the Macaronesian Outermost Regions (Azores, Madeira, Canary Islands), due to their geographical proximity to Europe, but I ignored the other OMRs such as French Guyana, Reunion or the ones in the Antilles.
In the end, the resulting shape is somewhat Rorschach-ish, and to me it kinda looks like a bat, or a sad bumblebee. I wonder what others see?
Found an interesting set of data via Alexandre Afonso’s blog, called the Chapel Hill Expert Survey which “estimate[s] party positioning on European integration, ideology and policy issues for national parties in a variety of European countries. Questions on parties’ general position on European integration, several EU policies, general left/right, economic left/right, and social left/right are common to all surveys.” It has data for various years in the 1999-2017 period, and below are the various political families* mapped on the political compass:
Made with python / matplotlib and assembled in GIMP.
*) – According to the explanations, political family here is not the EP Group or the Europarty but: “classification is primarily based on Hix and Lord (1997), except that we place confessional and agrarian parties in separate categories. Family association for parties in Central/Eastern Europe is based primarily on Derksen classification (now incorporated in Wikipedia), triangulated by a) membership or affiliation with international and EU party associations, and b) self-identification”.