TV's Election Perk: 3-D Maps - InformationWeek
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TV's Election Perk: 3-D Maps

CBS News enhanced its coverage with map-making software that shows viewers who voted for whom--and why--in minute detail

In a bid to set their election-night coverage apart from dozens of rival television outlets and Web sites, the TV networks last week turned to software-driven graphics and other digital displays to give viewers better insight into voting patterns.

Every half hour during evening broadcasts, CBS News turned to chief White House correspondent John Roberts, who presented detailed maps of voter turnout based on demographic data such as race, income, and education from his post at the network's Election Data Center. As state- by-state results poured in, CBS filtered its exit-poll data through geographic-information-system software to give viewers 3-D renderings of voting patterns. The network also presented viewers with color-coded digital maps that showed the various methods--paper ballots, punch-card machines, and electronic touch screens--that Americans used to vote.

ESRI graphically presented voting results on Election Day.

ESRI graphically presented voting results on Election Day.

CBS News, a division of Viacom Inc., had in past contests showed what voters did, but the goal this election night was to show where they did it and why, says Dan Dubno, a CBS News producer and coordinator of the network's special events unit, who's known on the air as "Digital Dan" for his technical savvy. "We had technology that in three dimensions could display on a county level voting information and demographic data," he says. "The fusion of data helped us communicate complicated ideas in fairly simple ways."

To make that happen, CBS started working with GIS software company Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. last year to create software that could help the news organization meet its election-night objective: to accurately portray the national vote as it unfolded in a way that was visually striking. CBS used ESRI's software to design the televised map's textured look and ensure that it got refreshed regularly with CBS exit-poll data.

Correspondent Roberts used a touch-screen display running multimedia content software from Innotive Solutions International Inc. to transform the exit-poll data into graphics.

Most of ESRI's customers are government agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which use GIS applications to track crimes, create road maps, and analyze environmental risks such as flooding.

The challenge for CBS was to create artistic, yet easy-to-read maps that could be changed at a moment's notice, says Kris Goodfellow, a business development manager at ESRI. "There's probably no other environment where seconds matter as much," she says of the broadcast news business.

CBS's rivals also employed some technical tricks on election night. NBC News gave political analyst Tim Russert a Fujitsu Tablet PC, which let him use an electronic pen to write messages to viewers about election results directly on the slate-shaped computer's screen that also would appear on viewers' TV screens. Russert and anchor Tom Brokaw also used Tablet PCs to get current information on electoral-vote tallies as polls closed across the country.

Like CBS, ABC News used maps to show the technologies (or lack thereof) voters used to fill out ballots.

GIS technology now will be regularly featured in CBS news broadcasts, according to Dubno. Given the competitive nature of news, others likely won't be far behind.

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