Glimpses of Data: The CBO’s Snapshots

Arguments in data visualization are so fierce because the stakes are so low is a great zinger that I’ve heard a few times recently. But it’s not always true. Data visualization influences important decisions every day. The Congressional Budget Office’s new snapshots are but one example.

The role of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is to provide information to members of the U.S. Congress so they can make better decisions. The usual way of doing this is through reports that are prepared on a variety of topics.

Snapshots are like tweets: they contain a small amount of information, but are crisp, to the point, easy to consume, and link to more in-depth information to be found elsewhere.

Snapshot of Unemployment Benefits

The CBO does not make policy recommendations, which makes creating charts with a purpose and message a much bigger challenge. You won’t find any monsters here, but the points are still clear and easy to follow.

Snapshot of Child Nutrition Programs

Rather than overwhelm the reader with numbers, snapshots are constrained on purpose, with exact numbers largely missing. That’s what the reports are for, after all, that can be found at the URLs at the bottom right of each snapshot.

Snapshot of the Highway Trust Fund

Eventually, the idea is to print these onto 4“x6” index cards, which seems to me to be a crucial component of the campaign. Having them pop up on the CBO blog is nice and all, but they will have much more impact when they are clipped to congresspeople’s and senator’s memos, shoved into pockets, and just lying around on tables and desks to be picked up randomly.

Snapshot of Guarantees of New Residential Mortgages

It may well be true that many arguments in visualization are pointless and petty. But in some cases, the stakes are high.


I’m honored to have been asked to provide input during the design phase of this effort. Like with all my secret government work, the CBO will neither confirm nor deny my involvement.

Comments

  1. jlbriggs says

    Nice post.

    I would argue that the stakes are (almost) always high.

    Arguments about proper approaches to data visualization may be spawned by charts that don’t actually matter. But having those arguments is important at any level, because terrible charts are made at every level.

    Imagine if this data was being presented for such high level decision making on such important topics, and in the form of mulitlevel donut charts, or mcandles-esque block/bubble/treemap abominations.

    It’s not much of a stretch at all to picture.

    Popular techniques for data visualization often drive how things get done at higher levels, precisely because it’s viewed as something that is petty and unimportant.

    Good design counts. Whether we’re talking about an airplane, a website, or a chart.

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