‘What Path Takes You to Congress?’

The work entitled ‘What Path Takes You to Congress?’ has been awarded the prize of Endesa Best of Show (Print). The work was published in The New York Times (USA) and part of the team behind the piece, Stuart A. Thompson, shares with us some of what went in to creating the piece and the challenges they faced.

Could you briefly explain the idea of the story? 

We wanted to illustrate the educational and career experiences that current members of the U.S. House of Representatives had before taking office, pointing out both the well-trodden paths (private school, law degree, experience in local office) as well as the exceptions and unusual cases (football players, pastors, bartenders). Only a small proportion of legislators have backgrounds that could be considered ordinary or “working-class,” and that unrepresentativeness affects the policies they consider and skews the laws our legislature passes.


What was the process of working on the graphic? 

Almost a year before the publication of the project, Sahil scraped House members’ biographical information from the official Congressional directory. He had a rough sketch representing legislators’ trajectories through college, graduate school, jobs, etc. as curving lines, but ultimately decided that the visualization would be too confusing and abandoned the idea.

Some months later, he showed Jessia the sketches, and she saw that it would be possible to make the idea work (with a lot of adjustments). From there, development was a back-and-forth process: Jessia conceptualized how to simplify and refine the design to get the main points across, and Sahil worked those ideas into an automatic layout when possible and built tools to adjust the graphic by hand when a code-generated layout didn’t work. We came to call this process of manual refinement “combing” the graphic, because it felt somewhat like combing an untidy head of hair.

Simultaneously, we realized that the official Congressional biographical information was limited and selective, and we worked to expand our list of members’ experiences by consulting other sources, academic research and the members’ offices. We worked with a researcher at the Times, Isvett Verde, compiling our data in a big spreadsheet from which the graphic was generated.

What has been the challenge of this story? 

Getting the Congresspeople’s information was difficult: our code-based scraper and parser proved to be far from comprehensive, so we had to assemble a lot of information by hand and double-check it all manually. In addition, we had to judge which experiences to include – we excluded summer jobs and adjunct teaching positions, among others – and how to categorize them – we created one category for “business and management,” for example, instead of breaking out “management consultants” separately.

On the technical side, the layout was complex and custom; there wasn’t a pre-existing library to generate this kind of graphic, so we had to build our design from scratch (learning a lot about curve interpolation in the process). We wanted to tweak the graphic manually by moving “nodes” and save those changes, but we still needed to update the graphic as the data changed, which required creating our own rudimentary editing interface.

For the desktop and print versions of the story, we chose a horizontal-scrolling layout, enabling the sprawling and detailed graphic to take center stage over the words, which walked the reader through the story’s takeaways. But this didn’t work well on mobile devices, so we had to design an almost entirely different, small-multiples vertical layout.

Sahil Chinoy and Jessia Ma

What do you think?