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Visualizing the Future of American Jobs

BY Nick Judd | Friday, September 9 2011

When President Barack Obama addressed a joint session of Congress Thursday night, he did so with eye-catching visual aides — visible only to folks who watched the White House's live online feed of the speech.

Because everyone was watching Obama last night, that is perhaps the one tool that will get the most attention. But it bears mentioning that all of the most sophisticated communicators who are trying to push their message on jobs are doing so on the Internet around the president's speech, and for them, Twitter is just the surface for their strategy. The conversation around the Obama jobs bill is happening on Twitter, sure, but also on Facebook, in quickly uploaded YouTube videos, with charts and graphs, and in data.

The White House launched a full-throated online communications blitz for Obama's speech, pointing people to the enhanced video feed; announcing a preferred hashtag, #JobsNow; launching a new Twitter account that exclusively carried Obama's quotes during the event; and integrating Facebook into the now-standard post-speech live video Q&A with administration officials. But administration officials weren't the only online communicators looking to insert themselves into the conversation — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, bought several sponsored Tweets on the #JobsNow hashtag. This means that for the entire evening, people watching thousands of #JobsNow tweets scroll past would see the Chamber's message persistent at the top of their screens — namely, their position on economic policy actions.

"We've had success previously on that and figured it was a way to get into the conversation and just get some attention," U.S. Chamber of Commerce blogger Sean Hackbarth told me today.

Ahead of the speech, House Republicans took to YouTube videos to frame the conversation around jobs. House Speaker John Boehner's office released video of a press conference Boehner held before the speech, as well as video interviews with business owners to talk about what they see as damage regulation could do to their businesses. Deregulation is a prevailing House Republican line in the jobs debate.

"Right now its turning out to be that we're in the worst economic recession that we've ever been in, and the EPA is requiring us to spend lots of money to comply with these regulations that we don't have right now," says Spencer Weitman, the owner of a cement business in Alabama, in one of the videos. "And the regulations are a moving target. Every time we think we've got them understood they change or pass another law which affects those regulations."

In a round-up of social media expectations around Obama's speech, Jen Preston offers more about what Republicans and Democrats were expecting to do on Twitter and Facebook going in to the speech.

But another really interesting part about this jobs debate is that the tools are out there for people who aren't in the new media shops of big political parties to participate. Ahead of the jobs speech, the developers at Development Seed released this map of unemployment in the U.S., created with their free and open-source tools using free, open-source data:

I asked the mapmaker, Development Seed's Dave Cole, how he felt about essentially competing with some of the people who use their TileMill mapping software in order to produce something this timely.

"There's definitely sport in it," he admitted, although he first said that there was plenty of room in digital mapping for many people to innovate. "We want to do a really great visual that kind of communicates ... everybody's cheering each other on to see who can make the next great map."

Cole was watching how the White House communicated visually during the speech, too.

"It's nice to have the White House kind of breaking this stuff down and giving you more memorable visuals," he said.

Of course, the White House's visuals are tailored to fit the White House's arguments — and what makes projects like TileMill worth watching is the way they allow more people to be just as visually compelling in their argument as the White House new media team, with the help of government-issued open data.

Cole says he'd like to open up a line of communication with the White House about that data and how to make it better, especially as the United States as a country gets deeper into complex conversations about the state of its economy.

"We really feel that as Congress is making hard decisions about what to fund, and the White House is making decisions about what data ashould be released and in what format, we're the people using that stuff. We want to be heard," he said. "We want to start closing the feedback loop. So, you've got the government releasing data, you've got design shops like us picking up that data ... we want the loop to be closed so we can start talking to the people releasing the data to talk to them about what works and what we want to see more of."

This post has been updated to clarify the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's messaging around President Barack Obama's jobs proposal.

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