You’ve heard of the “Six Degrees of Separation” game, usually played with Kevin Bacon as the “destination” actor? The goal of the game is to link any actor in Hollywood to Mr. Bacon, using as links other actors and the movies in which they have both appeared. In the example below, Elizabeth Taylor was in “The Flintstones” with John Goodman, who appeared in “Beyond All Boundaries” with Kevin Bacon. (If you want to play around with the idea more, click here.)
This is a popular culture variation of a game that mathematicians have been playing for years, which is to find their “Erdös number,” which documents the number of co-authorship links a particular mathematician is from Paul Erdös, a prolific Hungarian researcher. As in the Bacon version, all the links create a network graph of collaboration.
This game can also be played with political contributions. For example, check this out:
These are the connections from corporate political action committees (PACs) to candidates made by individual contributions during the 2012 election season. Triangles represent candidates and circles represent PACs. The candidates are color coded: red for Republicans and blue for Democrats, and the opacity of the edges is scaled by amount of PAC contribution. More information about the graph is available from NodeXL, the free Excel plugin used to generate it.
As a project, why not have students make graphs using NodeXL of contributions to particular elected officials or of contributions from particular donors? Take them to opensecrets.org or to the Federal Elections Commission to do some research with their APIs. Investigating the support system created by money in American politics can explain a great deal about the decisions that get made, and the policies that are implemented. In particular, the Independent Expenditures data from the FEC, which reports expenditures for communications “expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate that are not made in cooperation, consultation, or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, a candidate’s authorized committee, or their agents, or a political party or its agents.” It should be eye-popping, especially in a presidential election year!