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This crazily complex image shows the online footprint of all 50 states

It’s so much data, the scientists behind the image had to invent a new type of visualization.

The U.S. is a collection of bureaucracies that’s bafflingly complex. But political scientists need to find ways to visualize the structure of the government so they can understand how–and if–it works. A new paper proposes a novel way to do this: By mapping the connections between all the government bodies on the state level through their online presences.

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In a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that the way a state’s websites and online services link to each other strongly resembles the structure of the government–and are more closely tied to each state’s economy than to location, income, or political ideology. “We find that interstate similarities in these structures vary significantly according to the industries in which citizens work and to a lesser degree with income and location, but not with voters’ recent ideological preferences about the proper roles and extent of government,” the researchers write.

[Image: Kim Albrecht]
To aid in the study, data viz researcher Kim Albrecht visualized 32.5 million web pages and 110 million hyperlinks to understand how they all link together. His network graph of all 50 states’ government websites and how they’re hyperlinked is the most striking of the paper, with 50 clusters clearly visible within a glorious tangle of connections. “For me, networks are one of the most intriguing and most challenging structures to visualize,” Albrecht tells Fast Company via email. “The problem is to find meaningful layouts for these tangled structures.”

By using both visualizations and statistics, Albrecht and the researchers were able to find meaning in these wildly complex networks, transforming the 32.5 million web pages into 166 categories that reflect what service each web page is providing to the state’s citizens. State-by-state visualizations show just how many services many state agencies have their hands in and how the agencies interact.

[Image: Kim Albrecht]
Not everything Albrecht tried worked–some of the network graphs show no clear connections or patterns at all. That led him to create a new kind of visualization, where the amount that a website is connected to others is represented on one axis of the graphic, indicating with a quick glance which services are more complex. “This graphic lead the research in new directions and my colleagues found that the government network has a strong hierarchical structure embedded within it,” Albrecht says.

Tellingly, it’s a state’s economy that seems to determine its structure, rather than the ideas of its reigning political party. For instance, California and Florida have incredibly similar economies and government structures, even though the two states have very different political leanings. The researchers found the same pattern in Massachusetts and Georgia: Georgia’s government is more similar in structure to Massachusetts than its neighbor South Carolina. Perhaps it’s a sign that we’re really more similar than different–even in an ideologically divisive time.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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