Category Archives: politics

How politicians see Howard County

Howard County, Maryland precinct cartogram

Howard County, Maryland precinct cartogram. Precinct area is proportional to the number of registered voters as of the 2014 general election. Click for higher-resolution version.

tl;dr: The map of Howard County looks very different if you’re looking for votes. Cartograms help you see like a politician.

There are 118 election precincts in Howard County, Maryland, varying both in geographic area and in the number of voters they contain. Precincts in western Howard County tend to be larger, because the population density in western Howard is lower. Precincts in more densely populated areas of the county (including Columbia) tend to be smaller. If we’re interested in how voters behave across the county a conventional map can be misleading because the larger area of western Howard precincts causes us to overrate the importance and impact of those precincts. (This is similar to the US electoral map being visually dominated by large states like Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas that have fewer voters than small states like Connecticut and Rhode Island.)

The figure above is actually a map of Howard County electoral precincts, not as they exist in reality but as they might appear if their size were proportional to the number of voters they contain. More specifically, this is a cartogram in which the precinct map is distorted to make precinct areas proportional to the number of registered voters in each precinct as of the 2014 general election.

Allan Kittleman's victory margins by precinct.

Conventional map of Allan Kittleman’s election-day margin of victory in each precinct in the 2014 general election for Howard County Executive. Click for a higher-resolution version.

Let’s look at a real-life example of how cartograms can present a more accurate picture of election results. The next map shows Republican Allan Kittleman’s election-day margin of victory in each precinct in his 2014 race for Howard County Executive against Democrat Courtney Watson. (The margin of victory is expressed as votes per precinct, not as a percentage. Thus a value of 100 means that Kittleman received 100 more votes in a precinct on election day than Watson. The map does not include absentee and early voting results because they are not reported per precinct.)

Each precinct is colored from bright red (large Kittleman margin) to bright blue (large Watson margin) and all shades in between. (Incidentally, this type of colored map is known as a choropleth map.) Since precincts in western Howard County are both large and heavily Republican the conventional map exaggerates the extent of Kittleman’s election-day victory margin over Watson.

Cartogram of Allan Kittleman victory margins by precinct

Cartogram of Allan Kittleman’s election-day margin of victory in each precinct in the 2014 general election for Howard County Executive. Click for a higher resolution version.

To address this perceptual problem we can instead represent the exact same data in the form of a cartogram, as seen in the next map. Here the precincts of western Howard shrink in size to reflect their true contribution to the overall registered voter population. In particular Howard County Council District 5 now appears to be roughly equal in size to the other districts—which makes sense since county council redistricting had as one of its goals making the districts contain roughly equal number of voters. On this map Kittleman’s margin of victory still appears to be significant, but we can better identify precincts (like those in Columbia) in which Watson polled strongly on election day.

Cartograms can be used in place of conventional maps in any context in which each geographic subdivision has associated with it some common variable of interest. For example, suppose we want to look at elementary school overcrowding in Howard County. Looking at a conventional map (like the elementary school attendance area map provided by the Howard County Public School System) we might say, “Gee, there are a lot of elementary schools in eastern Howard. How could they possibly be overcrowded?” It would make much more sense to show school attendance areas as a cartogram in which the size of each attendance area was proportional to the number of students in that area. Each of the attendance areas could then be colored according to the extent of overcrowding at that school.

This sounds like a possible future project for me if and when I have time. Or if anyone out there would like to try this yourself, I’ve provided more detailed information on how to create maps like those shown above. See my three-part series “Creating Howard County Precinct Cartograms Based on 2014 Registered Voters” (part 1, part 2, and part 3) and my second three-part series “Allan Kittleman’s Election-Day Victory Margins in the Howard County 2014 General Election” (part 1, part 2, and part 3).

Useful datasets for Howard County election analysis

tl;dr: I release two useful Howard County election datasets in preparation for future posts.

In the coming days and weeks I’ll be posting some analyses of Howard County election results. Unfortunately the data released by the Howard County Board of Elections and the Maryland State Board of Elections is not always in the most useful form for analysis. In particular I was looking for per-precinct turnout statistics for the 2014 general election in Howard County, along with some way to match up precincts with the county council district of which they’re a part. That data is available in the 2014 general election results per precinct/district published by the Howard County Board of Elections, but unfortunately that document is a PDF document.

PDF files are great for reading by humans, but lousy for reading by machines. They violate guideline 8 in the Open Data Policy Guidelines published by the Sunlight Foundation:

For maximal access, data must be released in formats that lend themselves to easy and efficient reuse via technology. … This means releasing information in open formats (or “open standards”), in machine-readable formats, that are structured (or machine-processable) appropriately. … While formats such as HTML and PDF are easily opened for most computer users, these formats are difficult to convert the information to new uses.

Since the data I wanted wasn’t in a format I could use, I manually extracted the data from the PDF document and converted it into a useful format (Comma Separated Value or CSV format) myself. Then since someone else might find a use for them, I published the files online in a datasets area of my Github hocodata repository. The first two files are as follows:

  • hocomd-2014-precinct-council.csv. This dataset maps the 118 Howard County election precincts to the county council districts in which those precincts are included.
  • hocomd-2014-general-election-turnout.csv. This dataset contains turnout statistics for each of the 118 Howard County precincts in the 2014 general election, including the number of registered voters and ballots cast in each precinct on election day.

Stay tuned for some interesting ways to use this data.

Thank you Tom Coale

tl;dr: Tom Coale deserves our thanks for showing us the best aspects of politics, in a world in which we so often see the worst.

Dear Tom,

True to your nature, I see you’ve already blogged about the election results yesterday and given us your thoughts on what was a hard-fought but ultimately unsuccessful effort in District 9B. I can’t let your post go without one of my own. I don’t for a moment regret my endorsement of you, and in particular I don’t regret the investment I made in your campaign through my donations. I felt they were an excellent investment in a campaign that by all indications was professionally run, focused on issues that matter to the people of Ellicott City, positive in all its aspects, and (most important) featured a candidate who was tireless in reaching out to his potential constituents, listening to their opinions, and promoting a practical vision for governing.

Please pardon me while I go a bit meta (in my usual way): As you may or may not know, a lot of libertarians and conservatives are enamored of public choice theory and its use of economic theories to explain why politicians behave as they do. Which is fine as far as it goes, but they often go on to use this as a stick with which to beat advocates of government action, claiming that public choice theory conclusively proves that all politicians are motivated only by their own self-interest, and thus can never and will never act so as to promote the public good. This, to be frank, is a crock of crap. It’s simply the flip side of the argument many progressives make, that market failures prove that capitalism doesn’t work as advertised, and ultimately is nothing but selfishness and greed incarnate.

What is true is that both democracy and capitalism work best when practiced by people whose personalities and experiences predispose them to have concerns for others beyond themselves and their “tribes”. Motivated in many ways by self-interest they may be (who would ever run for public office without a fair amount of ambition to provide a spur?), but there are lots of politicians (of all parties) who clearly are moved by a sense of civic duty and genuinely seek to improve the well-being of their constituents (just as there are many businesspeople for whom money is not the be-all and end-all, and who genuinely seek to improve the well-being of their customers). We in Howard County are blessed to have more than our fair share of such politicians, of whom you are one. I appreciate all that you have done for this county thus far, and look forward to seeing the fruits of whatever civic activities you may choose to undertake in the future. Thank you again, and the best of luck in your post-campaign life.

Your supporter and fellow blogger,

Frank

Making Howard County government data of value to us all

tl;dr: Before Howard County’s next county executive goes off on a high-profile “open government data” initiative, they (and we) should think more about what such a project can and can’t do, and how best to make it successful.

Among their other policy proposals, both candidates for Howard County Executive have proposed new initiatives to make data about the workings of county government more available to residents. Allan Kittleman has promoted what he calls “HoCoStat”, a “platform to hold government accountable” that “will link data to long-term impacts” and “measure … response and process times for various government functions.” Courtney Watson’s corresponding initiative doesn’t have a catchy name, but her “open government” vision includes a promise to “leverage technology to improve and maintain government transparency, efficiency and communication” by creating “an intuitive and interactive web portal that provides public access to information in usable and searchable formats”.

As someone who’s written my share of data-heavy blog posts you might expect that I’d be wildly cheering these plans on from the sidelines. However as someone who’s also seen my share of technology hype cycles, of which “big data” is only the latest, I also feel compelled to throw a little cold water on at least some aspects of these proposals. To be specific:

Yes, open government, big data, and related topics are hot and sexy. But in the end the goal of Howard County government is to making Howard County a better place to live for its residents. In that respect providing access to government data (and in particular building high-profile web portals, dashboards, and so on, to display that data) is a means, not an end. This applies more generally to accountability, transparency, and all those other nice things candidates are promising and activists are demanding. We shouldn’t confuse process with products: Transparency is nice, but transparency in and of itself is arguably useless.

Second, as James Howard noted in a recent post, Howard County isn’t really big enough for big data. To take but one example, systems like those created in New York City, Baltimore, and so on, are often touted as enabling better law enforcement, for example by identifying detailed geographic patterns in particular types of crimes. But those large cities have lots of crimes, enough that any patterns in the data stand a good chance of being significant. Given the generally small number of crimes in Howard County, it’s quite possible that a lot of the patterns in county crime data simply represent statistical noise and don’t add a lot of information beyond what Howard County police already know based on their lived experience. That’s certainly true for very low-frequency crimes like murder. In 2013 there were only four homicides in Howard County, and I personally knew three of the victims. Is there any significance to that fact? None whatsoever—it’s simply random coincidence at work.

Next, data without context is not that useful, and may be actively harmful. A good example is school test scores. As Julia McCready recently pointed out, it’s unclear that school test scores are actually useful for identifying “good” schools versus “bad” schools. It’s quite possible that test scores for a given school are simply reflecting the characteristics of the students who go to that school, and not whether that school is better than others in educating students. A system that doesn’t provide context for data is a system whose data is likely to be misinterpreted and misused.

Related to the previous point, data without (policy) experimentation is also not all that useful. Data in and of itself isn’t necessarily that informative about what policies should be implemented, because it doesn’t necessarily indicate which underlying factors are driving the results we see, and how we migh achieve better results. Determining that typically requires actually making some policy changes to see what happens, and doing so in a controlled manner that permits some statistically valid conclusions to be drawn. (See for example Jim Manzi’s book Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society.) But making policy changes is hard enough in the first place; doing randomized controlled trials of different policy options (especially when one option in a proper trial is “do nothing”) is even more difficult. (It’s the same phenomenon as with drug trials: No one wants to be in the group taking the placebo.)

Finally, all the data in the world won’t necessarily change people’s minds about what policies to adopt. People of all political persuasions are quite capable of holding on to their opinions and political positions no matter what the data indicates (and note that I myself can be as susceptible to this as anyone). Smart people in particular (the kind of people who like to visit data portals and are arguing for their creation) are really good at finding reasons to doubt what the data appears to be telling us. So if in the end we switch from arguing about policies to arguing about data and methodologies, have we really achieved anything?

Despite all I’ve written above I’m not a total skeptic about the possibility of Howard County doing more to provide access to government data. I’d just like the county government and in particular the new County Executive to embark on this task with a proper sense of humility. In particular I have the following recommendations:

First, start simple, start small, underpromise and over deliver. Do we really need to spend potentially millions of taxpayer dollars on a high-profile system that’s at a relatively high risk of failing to meet its goals? Why not incrementally extend existing efforts? For example, there’s already a site data.howardcountymd.gov. Does anyone use it? If not, why not? Could this site be relatively inexpensively improved to make it more valuable and attractive to Howard County residents? Could data already provided by other county agencies be consolidated onto this existing site?

Next, for many if not most cases I suggest that the county provide only data, and let the private and nonprofit sector add value to it. A lot of the data generated by Howard County government is of interest to relatively small groups of people. Why bother spending a lot of time and money creating a fancy data portal just for those groups? Just give them the raw data, in as simple a form as possible, for example as so-called “comma-separated values” or CSV-formatted files that can be loaded into any desktop spreadsheet program or open source statistical package. Then let those groups decide how best to analyze the data and prepare it for public dissemination. If the county wants to do more, “teach people to fish”: work with the Howard County Library System, Howard Community College, and local volunteers to organize classes for businesses, nonprofit organizations, and local activists in how to use common “data science” tools and how to build data-driven web sites.

If the county does want to provide its own system, please, please, please don’t do so under an arrangement that gives an outside contractor a measure of control over the data, how it’s distributed, and what can be done with it. If the county releases data then that data should be available to everyone, in a form everyone can use, and for whatever purposes people want to make use of it.

Related to the previous point, treat providing data to the public as a core government function, to be budgeted as such, and not as an adjunct task for which an agency needs to pursue “cost recovery” or even (heaven forbid) tries to make a profit center. It is not the business of government to be “in business”, especially in an era when the marginal cost of disseminating raw data products via the Internet is so low. Budget for collecting the data and preparing it for public release at no charge, not for implementing complicated schemes by which access to data can be controlled and sold.

Government data ultimately belongs to all of us, a public resource for all to use, and government itself is not necessarily best equipped to analyze, present, and build on that data. Let’s have Howard County government data be made available to all in a way that makes the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars and leverages the creative energies of the multitude of organizations and individuals in the private and civic sectors. I think that’s an approach that anyone can get behind, no matter their political affiliation.

A public service announcement

tl;dr: Vote for Tom Coale for Maryland House of Delegates, District 9B.

Before I publish my main post for today, a brief public service announcement: If you live in District 9B and haven’t yet voted, please consider giving Tom Coale your vote for Delegate. For the most part this is a nonpartisan blog, and I have a pretty strict policy of not endorsing candidates for office, even for nonpartisan positions like those on the Board of Education. The only exception I’ve ever made (and likely ever will make) is for Tom. I think he would make a great representative for the people of Ellicott City; my only regret is that I live across US 40 from District 9B and can’t vote for him. (Although if Tom wins this election and performs at the level I think he’s capable of, I think in future I and a lot of other people will in fact get our chance to elect him to something else.)

Campaign signs 2014: Final results

The Maryland 2014 primaries are now over, and it’s time for me to wrap up and name some final winners. I’ve had a busy past few weeks with a dozen posts critiquing more than six dozen signs (plus one car magnet). In case you want to revisit signs in any of the primary races, here’s the complete list of posts (rearranged from the order in which I posted them):

Note that I’ve updated the Board of Education and House of Delegates District 12 posts to add pictures of signs for Allen Dyer and Eric Ebersole respectively.

I already selected winners (or in some cases, multiple winners) for signs in each race. Now it’s time for me to name winners in some special category, as well as an overall winner for all signs I saw.

mirabile-delegate-9a-largeThe first category is for the best slogan. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m not too hot on including campaign slogans on signs, and certainly there were a number of signs in this election where the slogan wasn’t doing much more than taking up space. However on Frank Mirabile’s sign the slogan “Time to Stand Our Ground” is both memorable and does something useful, namely letting the more partisan voters in a party primary know exactly where the candidate, uh, stands.

stewart-delegate-12-2014-largeAfter seeing lots of signs I get tired of looking at conventional color schemes, either the American colors red, white, and blue or the Maryland colors red, white, black, and yellow, and I yearn for a change. I thus decided to have a “color my world” category, in which the winner is the large Nick Stewart sign and its orange on blue color scheme.

miller-delegate-9a-2014-small-changedSome signs I thought were almost but not quite what they could be. In some cases (as, for example, with Ryan Frederic’s sign) I don’t know enough about graphic design to determine how the sign could best be improved. In other cases I thought just a relatively small change would do the trick. Hence we have the “most easily improved” category, with the winner being the small Warren Miller sign once the (in my opinion) superfluous design elements in the upper left and right corners have been removed (as I’ve done here).

broccolino-states-attorney-2014-largeFinally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for (or not, as the case may be): My pick for the best Howard County campaign sign of 2014. Those of you who’ve been reading this entire series will not be surprised at my pick, the large Dario Broccolino sign. This sign made me go “wow” the first time I saw it, and I haven’t seen another sign to top it since then.

With that I’m concluding this series, at least for now. I did collect pictures of signs for the gubernatorial race and the race for Attorney General, but I just ran out of energy to post and critique them; maybe later. Also, if I have time and the inclination I’ll post closer to the general election if there are any new signs that didn’t show up in the primary.

Finally, some thanks: First, thanks to all of you who’ve come to this blog to read these posts; I appreciate your attention, and hope your time was worth it. A further thanks to those of you who stopped to comment, who sent me pictures of signs, or who pointed out where I could find them; I love hearing from readers, and thank you for taking the time to contact me. And last but not at all least, thanks to all the candidates who put themselves out in the public eye and ran for election to public office. As I wrote before, you had to endure people commenting on your public appearances, counting up your Twitter and Facebook followers, and making videos about your direct mail pieces. And thanks to me, not even your signs are safe from criticism. Thank you for bearing it all in good grace, and being willing to serve the citizens of Howard County and Maryland.

This is the end of my one-a-day posts; I now return you to your regular (or I should say in my case, irregular) programming. I’m not sure when I’ll post next, or what I’ll post about, but if you’re interested in what more I might have to say please take a moment to click the “Subscribe via email” button or add my RSS feed to your newsreader. Till later!

Campaign signs 2014: Howard County Executive

Today is primary day, and the day I cover the last of the local campaign signs, this time for Howard County Executive candidates Allan Kittleman and Courtney Watson (both of whom happen to be unopposed in the primaries).

Here are the signs, in alphabetical order by candidate, along with my comments, according to the criteria I’ve previously discussed.

kittleman-county-executive-2014-small

I’ve previously written about the problems inherent in using all four colors of the Maryland flag in a single sign. This sign handles those problems as well as they can be handled, mainly by avoiding the red text on yellow background found in signs from Trent Kittleman, Frank Mirabile, and others. Instead this sign carefully restricts itself to the exact color juxtapositions found the Maryland flag: black with yellow, and red with white. More specifically, it restricts itself to what I think are the best color combinations: black text on a yellow background and white text on a red background.

Some other things to note about this sign: The typeface is clean and readable; it’s bold enough to stand out but light enough to allow adequate space between the letters. Using both upper and lower case in “Kittleman” means that the text isn’t quite as wide as it would be if it were in all upper case, and thus it can fit better on the sign. (“Kittleman” has nine letters, just like “Grabowski” and “Markovitz”; compare this sign to the Grabowski and Markovitz signs I discussed in my previous post.) The red banner-like design element in the upper right corner is well-done; note that on the left side of the element the yellow background seems to form an arrowhead pointing to the “Proven Independent Leader” slogan. The slogan itself points diagonally upward to the right to make the sign more dynamic (the same technique used on the Dario Broccolino sign). Finally, note that the horizontal line separating “Kittleman” from “Howard County Executive” is not just red on yellow (a poor combination) but is both red and white in order to maintain the preferred color juxtapositions I mentioned above.

The one thing that bothered me about this sign is that the “Howard County Executive” seems a bit thin. When I was walking around the neighborhood I had some trouble making that text out when viewing the sign from a distance.

kittleman-county-executive-2014-large

The design of the large version of the Allan Kittleman sign is the same as that of the smaller sign, except that “Howard County Executive” is now one line rather than two, is in a slightly bolder typeface, and (at least to my eyes) is more readable.

watson-county-executive-2014-large

Like Courtney Watson’s 2010 sign, this sign uses white text on a blue background to good effect: The text is very readable (especially “County Executive”), and there’s a good visual progression from oblique serif type and all caps in “COURTNEY” to the bold san serif typeface of “WATSON” to the sans serif mixed case of “County Executive”.

The one potentially problematic part of this sign is the design element in the upper left corner. Typical non-text elements in signs are either totally non-representational (e.g., lines or borders) or are common symbols that are immediately recognizable (e.g., stars, apples, flag-derived banners). This element is clearly intended to represent something, but it’s not immediately clear what that something is. My personal interpretation is that it’s symbolic of Howard County’s rural heritage: (yellow) sun above (white) road above (green) field; however I’m not sure the average person would see it the same way as I do. Nevertheless the colors are very nice and brighten up what would otherwise be a plain and unadorned sign. (Note also that subtle green line that separates “WATSON” and “County Executive” and echoes the green in the upper left conner.)

Now for the tough part: Which sign to vote for? This contest is certainly not as lopsided as we saw four years ago with Trent Kittleman’s sign vs. Ken Ulman’s sign; these signs are much more closely matched. Both sign designs are professional and effective but neither is perfect, for reasons explained above. On Kittleman’s side I think this the first black/yellow/red/white sign design I actually find attractive; on Watson’s side I really like the sign but consider it just a step down from the 2010 sign. In the end I’m going to take the coward’s way out and call this a toss-up.

This concludes my look at the campaign signs for Howard County local races in 2014. In my next post I’ll wrap things up and name some overall winners in various categories, including my choice for the best Howard County campaign sign of 2014.