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Alumni creates NBC data visualization for 2020 elections

By Sara Petrozziello
Correspondent

The 2020 presidential election will remain in history as one of the most unprecedented elections throughout history. With the year’s intense news cycle, news outlets across the country were relied on by millions for quick and reliable updates. One graduate from the College spent many hours this past year working to help her major broadcasting company tell these stories in an efficient way. 

Samantha Swartz (‘14) worked to create real-time data visualizations for NBC news’ election coverage.

Swartz graduated from the School of the Arts and Communication with a degree in interactive multimedia (IMM). The Connecticut native always had lion pride in her blood, as her parents and grandparents also attended the College.

Swartz graduated from the College in 2014 (Photo courtesy of Samantha Swartz).

After entering the College as a music major, Swartz said she began to gravitate towards graphic design and interactive multimedia. She realized how much she enjoyed the building and developmental side of IMM after taking a web design course at the College.

Today, Swartz is working as a senior software engineer at NBC. In her first month on the job, Swartz worked on creating real-time data visualizations for the 2018 primaries. This past year, she took on the role of leading the engineering team for the 2020 presidential election.

“To develop data visualizations during elections, it takes a lot of dedication and energy,” said Swartz.

Due to the unpredictable events of 2020, Swartz and her team had much to consider while developing their visualizations remotely. Although they could not work together in person, the team worked together from home to create extensive data visualizations.

“We worked with our editors to try to give insight into not just the election, but all of the things that could have potentially impacted the election,” Swartz said.

Standard election visualizations include polling, representations of the House and Senate seats and live updates on national and state maps, according to Swartz. But this year, visualizations also included additional maps related to Covid-19, as well as ones that focused on early voting and mail-in ballots.

Swartz said that one of the hardest parts of her job was to make sure that the visualizations updated live, as the millions of visitors relied on them during the night of the election. 

“That is an enormous amount of load for a large amount of data,” she said. “It’s very easy for sites to go down, and I was very proud that NBC news stayed up all night.”

One of the biggest lessons Swartz has learned from her time in college is to never be afraid of taking on big challenges. 

“TCNJ taught me to tackle big complex problems, break them down into smaller pieces, and to ultimately have faith that even if I don’t have the answers at the beginning of the process, I will find the answers along the way,” she said.

For any student who may be interested in working as a software engineer, Swartz says that it’s important to stay curious. She also feels that ethics play a major role in her work, and that neutrality is imperative in order to maintain the reputability of any news outlet.

“When it comes to data visualization, it is always important to think about the ethics behind it,” said Swartz. “If you want to maintain neutrality, know that visualizations are inherently easy to bias. This is an important time to be thinking about how what you make can resonate with people and how your perspective is only one perspective.”

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