visualizing the campaign finance case

My colleague, Brandon Stewart, oriented me to this neat webpage,, an IBM-developed web site that allows you to upload data quickly and visualize it using a variety of techniques.

Many Eyes lets you use textual data, so I just tried it out using the majority and dissenting opinions from Citizens United v. FEC, today's Supreme Court's decision striking down existing campaign finance law. (Note: Let's just say it's not a bad idea to use publicly available, non-copyrighted data.)

The resulting visualizations are just terrific, and they actually go far in illustrating the substantive differences between the conservative and liberal Justices on the campaign finance issue.

The first figure represents the majority opinion (written by Justice Kennedy, a moderate-conservative), with the larger words representing phrases used most frequently in the course of the opinion. Obviously, what we see is a strong consideration of "speech" interests -- no doubt discussed in the context of First Amendment issues.


By contrast, take a look at the dissenting/concurring opinion (written by Justice Stevens, a liberal). The most frequently used words here are "corporate," "corporation," "corruption," etc. The actual phrase "speech" is much less frequent, suggesting that the liberal Justices were more concerned with corporations influencing elections than free speech issues.


It's amazing how much information we can glean from these visualizations, even without having perused either opinion. If anybody has thoughts on this, I'd be keen to hear them.

Posted by Maya Sen at January 21, 2010 1:16 PM