Some thoughts on straight lines across UK maps

A good little debate on Twitter today about the fidelity of some of the maps Ampp3d have been using.

We’ve taken to representing YouGov’s regional survey variations with clearly non-geographic lines drawn across the country, dividing it into several bands. It makes for a much simplified map.

Ampp3d’s straight lines

Martin Stabe, a much-admired peer from the FT, very much disagrees with this approach. It would be easy for us, he argues, to get a more accurate geographic representation of the data, and it’s a “cop out” not to do.

I’ve got to say, I think this is one of those cases where we are both probably right.

Martin Stabe is right. Draw straight lines on a map, and you are either some colonial in the 1800s or 1900s divvying up territory, or you are crudely simplifying something. It isn’t an accurate representation of YouGov’s survey regions.

And obviously I think we’re right too. The straight lines help to convey how unrealistic the data is. Dividing the UK into just five regions, as YouGov do, means the regional breakdown can only ever be a rough indicator, and using rough borders highlights that. I’m more anxious, for example, about there being no way to represent the differences between urban and rural support for the parties in these figures than I am if a few pixels of Northumbria creep into Scotland.

I’d never countenance doing it for actual election data, but this is a small sample indicating “voting intention”. In particular, we feel that merging “Wales and the Midlands” into one bloc flattens a lot of nuance out of the polling, and we want people to see that fuzziness.

Additionally, the simplified map reduces better for small thumbnail previews on social media. Making the lines wiggly on the map makes no difference to the story it tells, but does make it fiddlier to read at lower resolution.

But there’s definitely a problem with it when we post on Twitter. In an article, we put a caveat around the representation:

YouGov break their polling regions down into the following: London, “Rest of the south”, Wales & the Midlands, North and Scotland. We’ve drawn indicative bands across the map of the UK.

If you are upset that you think Derbyshire or Yorkshire are the wrong side of the Midlands/North line, sorry, we’re unclear how YouGov determine that, so we’ve opted to be a bit fuzzy about where the borders sit.

Also, Northern Ireland, apologies, the YouGov poll doesn’t break your results out, or specifically ask about the DUP, Sinn Féin, SDLP or the Alliance, so we’ve not been able to feature them.

Every time we post them on Twitter in isolation, a couple of people will pull us up on it. It’s usually a fellow data nerd. So it’s a choice: make the lines wiggly and perhaps indicate a level of confidence in the regional fidelity of the data that we don’t have, or find a different way of conveying the data.

What do you think? Is it a simplification too far?