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Saturday, September 29, 2018

K.I.S.S. in Graph Design

I ran across this post from Data to Viz. My title is misleading because their post is much more than a call for simplicity.

However, it's intriguing that their solution to many common problems comes down to "stop being fancy and make it a bar chart".

Friday, September 28, 2018

Is There Still Value in Political Polling?

A colleague sent me a link to Why Polling Can Be So Hard by Nate Cohen.

It's interesting and not very long so you should read it.

I'll summarize one of his major points: Voter registration data is important to pollsters but different states store different data for each voter. For example, Wisconsin is known for having minimal data. Of course, Wisconsin was pivotal in the 2016 elections.

However, I found the comments just as interesting as the article. They are largely negative. Some people refuse to participate in polls or intentionally lie. Again, you should read the comments yourself, but they don't look good for the future of polling. I recognized myself in the article and the comments.
  • I live in Wisconsin. I don't want my voter registration to have ANY data about me beyond the minimum legal need. Information privacy matters and I don't care if our minimal data makes pollsters' jobs harder.
  • I don't answer a call when I don't already know the caller. If you're not in my contacts and your call is important then you can leave a message.
  • I'm suspicious that excessive polling and reporting on polls is no longer predicting what will happen as much as it's changing what will happen. Whether it's the band-wagon effect or the Hawthorne effect, I think it's a problem.
  • Speaking of the Hawthorne effect, campaigns now use their own extensive polling to craft their message. Polling doesn't just change voter behavior, it changes politician behavior.
Perhaps polling is a victim of its own success. When it was new and not overly intrusive, it provided useful information (value). Economic theory says that value attracts new participants and will continue to attract participants until there is no longer any value available. In perfect competition, there are zero long-term profits. 

Early polling methodology was pretty standard and easy to replicate - perfect competition. To break out of perfect competition, organizations need something to differentiate their output. If a poll is supposed to accurately predict the vote, how can one poll differentiate itself from the others?
  • Accuracy? There should be value in being more accurate but you need to come up with better, non-standard methodologies. You also need access to different or better data. Then it's still hard to show that you're more accurate.
  • Speed? Is there value in being the first to publish results? If you're the first by days then there could be value. Maybe even being first by hours. But minutes?
  • Frequency? If one group publishes a weekly poll, then you might gain value by publishing a daily poll. But how far can this go?
I think that all three of these approaches have been tried but they lead to the problems that voters complain about: information privacy and bombardment with polls.

The pessimist in me fears that polling and reporting on polling have become so ubiquitous that we're nearing the point of zero value. Worse, we might have reached negative value and polls are doing more harm than good.

A less pessimistic view suspects that the value of polling isn't gone (or negative): it's just changed. Maybe polls no longer tell us what we think they are. That creates new opportunities for the Nate Cohen's and FiveThirtyEight's of the world to find that new value.