Why I Love Pie (charts)

This week will have a number of posts. Two of which are related to my NTU module, and an extra one because I feel like I don’t give this blog enough love. =(

This post will be answering a question posed to me, where I’m supposed to consider how Edward Rolf Tufte’s “Ten Commandments” (as I like to call it. No offence meant to anyone!) is applied to the US Government’s attempt to provide a transparent accounting of the money spent as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (passed in 2009). This culminated in the creation of the Recovery.gov website  (http://www.recovery.gov/Pages/default.aspx).

The example I would like to look at would be how the Congressional Budget Office created a data visualisation to describe the breakdown of funds allocated to three main areas: (1) Tax Benefits; (2) Contracts, Grants and Loans; (3) Entitlements. The page I will be looking at, may be found here: http://www.recovery.gov/Transparency/fundingoverview/Pages/fundingbreakdown.aspx

Before I continue my discussion, I must admit that I’m a little lazy (ok, not a little. A lot.), and I’ll be discussing the data visualisation mainly through words. So please leave the link open, and refer to it occasionally as you read this. (Not the most effective means of communication, I know. But I have essays to write, and taking the time to ‘print screen’ and crop out the relevant graph just seems like too much work!)

Now, the reason why I chose to look at the break-down of funding allocation is because that is probably the most overlooked aspect of the site, and possibly holds the most amount of information and data. Since funds are allocated to those three main areas that I mentioned earlier, we have to remember that there are sub-sections, and sub-sub-sections to those sub-sections. (Confused yet? Well, thank Tufte for what I’m about to say next!)

So with this hydra-like, vertiable Gordian’s Knot  of information to unravel, what can one do? Well, what this particular page did is to provide one with a general over-view of the data, while spreading the remaining data onto a second page! While it requires a little bit more work to go into another page to see a further breakdown of, say, what each individual Education department got out of the USD$86.7 billion given, the initial page provides a comprehensive overview of which sub-sections of Tax Benefits; Contracts, Grants and Loans; and Entitlements got.

By assigning a particular colour to each of the three divisions – Green for tax benefits; dark orange for contracts, grants and loans; and purple for entitlements – and then utilising the same colour scheme to create bar graphs illustrating different sub-sections. Deliberately kept simple, the bar graphs simply utilise an X-axis labeled ‘Total Tax Benefits’ etc, and a Y-axis marking how many billions of dollars.

Below each bar graph, the name of each sub-section is indicated next to a bar corresponding to the approximate length of the sub-section’s representation on the bar graph itself, coupled with a brief description beneath the sub-section’s title. For example, under Tax Benefits, the largest bar belongs to “Individual Tax Credits”, and a representative bar is placed to the left of the title “Individual Tax Credits”. Beneath it, a brief description of how these “Individual Tax Credits” will help are provided, e.g. First-Time Homebuyers. Transportation Subsidy. Education benefits. Earned Income Tax Credits. In this manner, the list goes from which sub-section gets the largest share of the budget given to that particular section, to the smallest sub-section.

This hierarchial manner in presenting information is important in allowing the website vistor to understand the information at a glance. For vistors who wish to learn more about which sub-sub-sections/departments got how much, they may click on a hyperlink provided within the title itself. For example, if I were interested in finding out if a ‘Child Tax Credit’ would be given more funds than a ‘First Time Homebuyer Credit’, I would click on the hyperlink provided within “Individual Tax Credits”, and I would be redirected to another page, which presents the information broken down within a table. Although the information is no longer listed in graphical format, it is still clear and intuitive enough that one can easily tell that ‘Child Tax Credit’ was given USD$7.7 billion more funds than  ‘First Time Homebuyer Credit’. From there, one may understand that the U.S. Government places families with children as a bigger priority than first time homebuyers.

To reiterate, this ‘drill down’ format displaying information is especially useful in understanding how such a massive recovery package can influence you at almost every level. Simultaneously, in order to prevent vistors from becoming confused and ‘turned-off’ by the sheer amount of unfiltered data being given to them, a simple, uncluttered bar chart is given – allowing us to understand all this information at a glance.

Which obliquely brings me to my post title… This is the reason why I like pie (charts). And yes, I know that that website didn’t use pie charts, but come on, let me make a bad joke, all right? Yeesh. =P


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