Visualizing Ambivalence in the Public Sphere

America’s hallmark institutions of public debate and decision-making display a surprising consistency in the ways that they record and represent ‘public opinion’: they are binary, either/or measurements. You can vote ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ Republican or Democratic, ‘approve’ or ‘disapprove.’ These approvals and disapprovals are then added together, percentages calculated, and the resulting picture, we are told, is public opinion.

Most individuals, however, do not live their lives in the either/or. They live them in the mix of considerations and feelings—positive and negative—that daily occur for them in their lives. Our project, “Visualizing Ambivalence in the Public Sphere,” is about recording and representing these mixed feelings in smart, practical ways that can reach and persist in the broader conversation. This includes designing better ways to capture and measure ambivalence on issues of public importance, harnessing both the lessons of social media design and recent advances in smartphone experience sampling. It also includes designing more appropriate algorithms for aggregating individual-level data to represent public opinion, and designing compelling visualizations to accompany them. Finally, it includes studying the implications of this (we think) more accurate way of capturing public opinion on how we target policies to represent the interests of the public.

For more information, contact Galen Panger at the UC Berkeley School of Information.