September 22, 2010 By Karen Wilkinson
As the midterm election season heats up and the balance of the U.S. Senate awaits voters’ marks, Google this week unveiled an online mapping system that tracks projected winners in a number of federal and state political races.
“Voting information in the United States is so incredibly dispersed and there’s great value to the public if it can not only be centrally located, but also easily accessible,” Google Maps Product Marketing Manager Jesse Friedman said. “This [map] is a living, breathing thing that follows the contours of what’s going on.”
The company says its goal is “to make tracking the blues and reds a little easier for armchair pundits.” Google partnered with four nonpartisan, political analyst sources to launch the service. Users can view House, Senate and governor race projections from Cook, Rothenberg, CQ-Roll Call and RealClearPolitics. The information is presented on a map that’s updated whenever the sources make changes to their data, Friedman said.
The map initially shows Senate race projections from one of the four sources, but users can quickly switch to House or governor races, or switch among the political analysts.
“Election ratings is an incredibly imprecise science, but it’s the closest thing we have to a decent analysis of how things look,” said Friedman, who spawned the idea of creating such a map. “What we find fascinating is if you click on a given state or district, you’ll see wildly different predictions from even the most trusted sources.”
Without having hard numbers to illustrate the map’s popularity, Friedman noted Wednesday afternoon that there have been hundreds of tweets directly linking to the map and blog post since its launch. “It’s definitely getting quite a lot of play on the Twittersphere, especially yesterday after we announced it,” he said.
The idea to create an election ratings map came from Friedman, who says he has “armchair political interests,” but was frustrated with trying to find solid political data on the Web. “I also didn’t know which places to go to — I don’t live in D.C. — so I don’t have these sorts of names rolling off the tip of my tongue,” said Friedman, who lives in New York City.
But one of the more notable aspects of the map’s development is how Friedman took it from the idea stage to implementation. Google employees are allowed what’s known as “20 percent time” to work on side projects of their own creation, which is how Gmail originated, as well as the midterm election ratings map system.
“It’s an important part of our culture — it’s not that the directives come from the top down all the time,” Friedman said. “Sometimes if someone has an idea and you can convince a couple of people to work on it with you, go ahead and do it and see what happens — maybe it will be great and maybe it will be a flop, but you’re not going to innovate if you don’t try things.”
For Friedman, all it took was a bit of networking with the right folks at Google — politically savvy staff members, engineers to help create the map and someone to strike deals with the political sources — to get his idea off the ground.
The mapping system is embeddable, Friedman said. The new gadget is powered by Fusion Tables, which directly integrates into Google Maps API v3, the blog post stated, and built on free, commonly available Google technologies.
“Even if you’re not a programmer, there’s a lot that you can do with Fusion Tables to manipulate and visualize data,” Friedman wrote in the blog post.
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