Friday, May 27, 2011

Two maps, one election

Something a little different this morning. I was contacted this week by Sean, the blogger over at the Arbitrary Gopher and a scientist specializing in Human Genetics from Quebec. He put together a very interesting cartogram for the 2011 federal election. It was so interesting that I asked if he would write a guest post for ThreeHundredEight.
As a scientist I spend most of my time generating, looking at and graphing data. 

An election is also data. Campaign contributions, vote counts and seat distribution are all data. So how do we graph them? Well, most of the time election results are projected onto a map. A map is indeed a way of communicating data; data regarding distances and areas. Maps are not a very good graph for election results, however, particularly in Canada. 
A graph of an election result should tell us who wins the most seats. So, why do we graph these results on a map? A better graph would be to use a cartogram, which is a map that is transformed to show something other than geography. This cartogram includes all of Canada's current electoral boundaries, but then each riding is scaled according to the size of its population (based on the 2006 census). While it might look strange at first, most of us should be able to find our homes in it pretty quickly.
I think the main difference that this cartogram brings to the table here is in terms of the Liberals and the Greens. While in the first map we see the twin seas of Conservative Blue and NDP Orange, we don't see that the Liberal Party does in fact still exist in the highly populated urban areas of Canada, and we also don't see that the Greens now have a toe-hold out west. Moreover, it's easy to forget looking at the map just how vote and seat rich both southern Ontario and Quebec truly are. Finally, if you know some basic Canadian geography, it's pretty easy to see the results in all of the major Canadian cities. At a glance we can see who won this election, where they won it and by about how much. Fun graph right?

I will be graphing several of the amazing and publicly available national datasets as well as helping to make sense of provincial and even municipal elections in the near future. You can follow new results over here at
Thanks, Sean! As he says, the Liberal Party in the original map is virtually non-existent. You don't see that they won a good deal of their seats in the Toronto and Montreal regions, but in the cartogram you do in fact see the Liberal seats in Montreal and Toronto. And out West, you can see the NDP and Liberal toeholds in Edmonton, Regina, and Winnipeg that you can't really make out on the original map.

Another point worth making is just how distorted the map looks. A similar cartogram for the United States (see here), while also distorted, is at least recognizeable. With Canada's population so concentrated in the thin band close to the American border, we get the cartogram resembling a drop of water. Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver take up a huge proportion of the cartogram, whereas on the geographic map they are tiny. It's a fascinating way to look at the country.


  1. It's also interesting how easy Alberta is to pick out. Because its population isn't concentrated by the US border, it retains its shape better in the cartogram.

  2. Do you, Éric (or Sean, if you're reading), know where I can get size information about the electoral ridings? I'm curious about the maximum and minimum area covered by the ridings province by province, but I don't know where to look to get this information.

    Can you point me in the right direction?

  3. Also interesting in Ontario as if you look at the province as a whole it looks like the NDP won it due to their strength in Northern Ontario, while if you at only Southern Ontario where most live, it looks like a near Tory sweep as the Tories swept the rural Southern Ontario. Also you can see the divisions in the East with Atlantic Canada being more a mix of red and blue and some orange, Quebec being mostly orange with just a tiny touch of red, blue, and tourquoise while Ontario mostly blue with some red and orange streaks.

  4. There you go Eric !!

    Vancouver - Boston

    Nice try with Tampa, Maybe next year ?

    Only thing better would have been Vancouver - Montreal !!

  5. I'm not disappointed by the result, I was only rooting for Tampa Bay ahead of Boston. Not disappointed to see an Original Six team in the finals. Should be fun - unless you live in BC with the 5 PM starts.

  6. " Should be fun - unless you live in BC with the 5 PM starts. "

    Yeah that could be a bit of a bummer !!

    Still we get a break till Wed and not sure where the first game is ?

  7. Of course we know where the first game is, it's in Vancouver. Since the Canucks finished first in the league, they host the first two games in any/all series they play in.

  8. Goaltender Interference29 May, 2011 16:03

    I don't like to criticize something that took a lot of research and analysis. But it's very hard to locate anything on this cartogram, which kind of defeats its purpose. The only decipherable geographic units are Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, while all of the rest of Canada is just two blobs (Eastern Canada and Western Canada, I figure). I can figure out where the three biggest cities are only because I happen to know which colours are supposed to go where, but I could never find them by looking at the shape alone; eg. Where is Calgary on this Cartogram?

    By way of contrast, check out this cartogram-- The sizes of the units are hugely distorted, but you can still find things on it because the basic shapes are retained:

  9. Re: Goaltender Interference said...

    I see your point, but the map you linked to can't really be compared to what we're talking about in terms of election results, for two reasons:

    1. What would you be scaling the size of ridings to? I guess you could make an individual map for each party and scale ridings to support for that party in each riding...? But that isn't compatible with first-past-the-post.

    2. Unlike changing the sizes of (readily-identifiable) countries, scaling ridings wouldn't be much clearer. Who knows the shape of their riding?

  10. Re: Goaltender Interference said...

    1) Calgary and Edmonton are the two clear blobs in Alberta... The cities are the larger groupings at the center of the provinces.

    2) I can't shade in the countries like that without losing all the party information, and later quantitative status I'll be assigning them. And I guarantee that a simple scale transformation wouldn't help because 90% of ridings would no longer be connected to each other...


    3) Check out this cartogram ( ). I think that after one has looked at them for more than 11 seconds (thanks google analytics for telling me how long people stay on my site), you'll clearly see the biggest city in each province as well as a few of the smaller ones. Example, Calgary and Edmonton are the large clumps in the middle of Alberta.

    I'll try and work on something to outline provinces more clearly as many people have requested this.

  11. Goaltender Interference30 May, 2011 09:53

    If no one knows the shape of their riding, then it would make sense to make all ridings the same size and shape and arrange them on a more or less geographically-shaped map distorted for size. For instance, is easier to read and thus gives more useful information.
    We're all amateurs-- I hope that you will take this in the spirit of constructive criticism. It's so nice to have normal people do real electoral analysis rather than the silly, angry comments you get from talk radio and newspaper comment sections.

  12. Yes I've seen We're going to have to agree to disagree that it is more readable. The format is indeed good to read something simple like which riding won a plurality, but it's going to be confused when we start layering over more complex things like margin, campaign contributions or (hopefully) something like votecompass data... (density related, geocoded data) Maybe if I take up flash and find some R plugins to translate the data to that then I'll do something like that with a mouse over. Definitely a project for another day.

    Thanks for the comments, I appreciate the spirit in which they're made,



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