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Lundry: Graphing the Stimulus

Topics: Alex Lundry , Charts , data visualization , Edward Tufte

Alex Lundry is a political pollster, microtargeter, data-miner and data-visualizer. He spends most of his time searching for big ideas hidden inside of big data. He has visualized historical tax receipts,White House visitor logs, ideological estimates of Supreme Court justices (called a "very cool graphic" by the Washington Post), and hundreds of thousands of survey interviews. In 2009, Politics Magazine named him a "Rising Star."

President Obama's recent appointment of Yale professor Edward Tufte to the independent commission charged with tracking stimulus funds underscores the growing importance of data visualization in both public policy and political debate.

Tufte is inarguably the modern era's leading authority on data visualization, the transformation of raw data into graphical form. These visuals - graphs, charts and other types of information graphics - are frequently responsible for remarkably stunning revelations and deep insights that may otherwise have been obscured among large and cumbersome spreadsheets or databases.

The federal stimulus is just that - an incomprehensibly enormous $787 billion piece of legislation being distributed across 50 states, 435 congressional districts, 28 federal agencies and over 160,000 individual projects. President Obama's challenge is to convincingly show the American public that their money is being well-spent.

Thanks to a neurological phenomenon called the pictorial superiority effect, the human brain is hardwired to find visualizations more compelling than a spreadsheet, speech or memo. So it's no wonder that Obama has turned to a data visualization guru for the monitoring of his administration's largest legislative accomplishment to date. Meaningful visualizations of stimulus data can make the project more transparent, accountable, and could ultimately even impact the legislation's perceived success.

Transparency, allowing the public to see the who, what, when and where behind stimulus funding, will help alleviate any perceptions of waste, inefficiency, or unfairness. Indeed, the most common criticisms of government spending are that it is unequally or unfairly distributed across communities, that it goes to unworthy projects, or that it simply isn't doing those things it was meant to do: stimulate the economy and create jobs. But states like California have already engaged with design firms to visualize the disbursement of stimulus funds, mapping dollars to projects and locations, in turn increasing voters' investment in the bill as they see its direct benefits to their community.

Data visualization can also make the federal stimulus more accountable, revealing fraud, abuse or even honest mistakes. A case in point: the public outcry over the recent revelation that stimulus funding seemed to go to congressional districts that didn't exist. This seemingly innocuous data entry error quickly became an anti-stimulus talking point, whereas a simple visualization of the data could have revealed the problem well ahead of its entry into the news cycle.

Finally, there is also great political advantage to effective visualizations of the Stimulus Act. Convincing voters of its merit will take more than declarative speeches and number-drenched spreadsheets, and the Obama administration knows this. Their appreciation for the political power of data visualization was on display last month when it released a graph of weekly job losses since December 2007. The bars, color-coded by presidential administration, tell a distinct, if not debatable, story about the stimulus' impact. The visualization took the internet by storm as pro-stimulus voters shared, linked, blogged and tweeted the image, and anti-stimulus voters denounced it as infographic propaganda, all the while scrambling to create their own charts telling their side of the story.

These chart wars are only going to become more and more common in political discourse. President Obama understands this acutely - and this was certainly the subtext in appointing Edward Tufte to the stimulus board.

 

Comments
GARY WAGNER:

The problem is that both the stimulus supporter's and the stimulus critics' graphs are 100% factual. Both are designed to make a point but they use real data.

We are going to see some extremely creative ways to choose which data to display and how to display it. We will see the emergence of graph manipulation experts.

We also won't be able to trust any graph we see because it won't be the intent of the graph's creater to show people the data - it will there intent to lead you to a conclusion you wouldn't make by looking at the raw data.

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Gary - I couldn't agree more, and indeed I was hinting at that towards the end when I talked about the Obama jobs graph.

Data visualizations are inherently editorial. There are just too many marginal design and display decisions the creator has to make that ultimately add up to a graphic that has a certain point of view.

Voters need to get smart on visual thinking ASAP because political chart wars are going to become more and more common.

For more on this, you might also want to check out a 5 minute presentation I did at DC Ignite on the political power of data visualization: http://bit.ly/5fYbih

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All good points. I've actually been looking at many different opinions and versions of the Obama jobs graph - many of which I find creatively manipulated as well.

One thing that bothered me about it is that they cut "Bush Administration" down to a one year period. This allowed the creation of a visually powerful and aesthetic chart that's not necessarily false. For a wider look, here's a google chart of unemployment rate since 1990 - http://bit.ly/aTP09G. Not a 1:1 data comparison, but a look at the bigger picture would be more informative than a one-year period of an eight-year administration.

The graph could have made the same point while being more straightforward. It's too politically charged to deliver its message, which caused the uproar of equally manipulated charts.

The Tufte appointment is a great move and will hopefully yield visualizations that show the whole, objective picture.

-Andrew

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