With hundreds of races to analyze on a busy mid-term election night, MSNBC’s political guru Steve Kornacki will have a new computerized big board to help him try to explain what voters are saying.
The board, using cutting edge software developed by the NBC News Digital product and technology teams featuring senior product designer EJ Fox and Michael Small, is a far cry from the humble blackboard the late Tim Russert used during the historically close 2000 presidential election.
“You think about that moment. It was so spontaneous,” said Kornacki. “It was the closest thing to a perfect tie the country had ever seen and you’ve got to illustrate it somehow and that was all that was available.”
Kornacki said the board he’s using on election night on MSNBC and NBC two decades later is a little more sophisticated.
MSNBC has been rolling out aspects of it over the runup to election night, but Tuesday will be its real coming out party.
Kornacki said one of the new key attributes of the new “big board” is that it’s nimble.
“We can go into election night guessing what the stories might be, but it’s not until the votes start coming in that they reveal themselves. I think we’re set to pivot in whatever direction we have to go in.”
The board is also able to help tell the story of the many congressional races that are expected to be tight and provide detail and sophisticated analysis that have been difficult to deliver in the past,” he said.
During election night coverage, Kornacki will be at an on-set “nerve center,” with workstations that will deliver the latest numbers and details. The board will help show that to viewers.
Kornacki says he’s comfortable with his ability to point, pinch and drag to coax the right numbers, maps and graphics from the big board. “There’s always the chance of glitches and bugs,” he noted. “That can almost be a light break from the proceeding if we had to take an unexpected 10-second detour. Maybe that breaks things up for the audience a little bit."
“The big board is a commodity gaming PC, running an Intel i7 Quad Core CPU, and an ATI Radeon GPU -- so if you wanted, you could play Fortnite on the big board too,” said Kyri Sarantakos, CTO of NBC News digital. “On air, it’s paired with a mix of large touchscreen displays from Planar. The software is a HTML5 web app running in a Chrome browser on Windows 10 in kiosk mode, the graphics library D3 is used extensively for the visualizations and animations. Essentially, it’s super slick and super fast.”
The new board will enable MSNBC to zoom in on the tiniest districts and can label more cities, counties and district numbers. The system can also pull up historical data, showing how a particular jurisdiction voted in any election in the past 10 years to provide additional context.
"Coming out of the 2016 Presidential election, I saw an opportunity to improve upon our data storytelling on TV,” said Marc Greenstein, VP of creative production at NBC News. “Specifically, we wanted to create a unique tool for our on-air talent that would allow them to explain the details of this complicated election story in a simplified manner. Partnering with our digital teams at NBC News, we’ve created a tool that allows them to dive into live and historic data, make comparisons, and model scenarios on the fly.”
MSNBC has created a “Kornacki scorecard" view that visualizes how 60 of the most important races are doing. It can display various “what if” scenarios as the votes are being counted. It can also group districts into buckets, such as areas that President Trump won by more than 10%.
The big board also has a “Data Cross-Filter” mode created by data visualization wiz Shirley Wu that can show where different types of people live and how they voted in past elections, particularly the 2016 presidential election.
“Web technology now has better mapping and data visualization tools than traditional TV graphics platforms (like D3 for data mapping and visualizations, Vue.js for snappy animations and transitions). Therefore, we can now show an incredible level of detail and variate the data on the fly,” said Wayne Warner, Director of Engineering for NBC News Digital.
A miniature version of the big board will be available at NBCNews.com/thevote so voters can flip congressional seats at home.
Kornacki is prepared to stay up all night as the returns come in. In 2016, he was on air live until 4 a.m. ET. The election team took a couple hours off and returned to the set at 6 a.m.
“There’s a scenario where this thing is unresolved and California comes in and California takes a while, and by a while, I mean a couple of weeks. So there’s a scenario where it’s four in the morning and we don’t know where this is going to land,” Kornacki said.
“And there’s a scenario where by midnight we have a pretty good grasp on it. And I’ve told them whatever presents itself I’ll be there as long as they want me to,” he added.
“I think 2016 to me was just the ultimate reminder of how unpredictable this stuff is and what I like about where we are with this board is that I think it’s equipped to handle almost any situation we throw at it,” Kornacki said.