Election-Night TV Perk: 3-D Maps - InformationWeek

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Election-Night TV Perk: 3-D Maps

CBS News on Tuesday night showed viewers new on-air maps that could display exit-poll data down to the county level and crunch voting patterns by demographics. The technology worked so well that the network plans to use it in future broadcasts.

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

Every half-hour Tuesday night, CBS News turned to chief White House correspondent John Roberts, who presented viewers with 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 three-dimensional renderings of voting patterns. The network also presented viewers with color-coded digital maps that showed the various methods--punch-card machines, paper ballots, and electronic touch screens--that Americans used to vote.

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 objectives: 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 local, state, and federal government bodies, 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 on 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.

Sophisticated mapping software is finding other uses as well. Google Inc. last month acquired digital mapping company Keyhole Corp., which could let Web users search for 3-D geographic images and street maps.

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 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.

ABC News also used maps that showed the technologies (or lack thereof) voters used to fill out their ballots.

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

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