Archive for Sunlight Foundation

Government Spending Visualization Misses The Mark

UPDATE: Wes at Pitch Interactive has left some comments with additional information on the data and visualization. I don’t agree with his opinion on the issue of contract spending (Does the federal government spend a disproportionate amount of defense? I don’t think the data supports that, but it depends on what your opinion of  “proportionate” and “appropriate” is.) , but you should definitely read his comments for a more complete understanding. He’s an excellent example of the government data transparency that we both endorse.

In the recent Design For America competition, a tie for first place was this very attractive visualization of Federal Spending.


When the image won the contest, it was listed as a visualization of all federal spending. After a back and forth, the author at Pitch Interactive changed the title to “Federal Contract Spending” and has stated that he will revisit the visualization so that it shows all federal spending as it is reported at Pitch Interactive has gotten beaten up a great deal over this visualization and they have been nothing but gracious throughout. So I just want to take a moment to say that I think their work is remarkable and that the problems with this graph are a series of very honest mistakes.

But one of the things my blog does is point out mistakes to increase understanding.

My biggest problem with the image is that it still perpetuates the stereotype that the federal government spends most of its money on defense. This image in particular drives that point home by ranking the spending areas according to their “media coverage” ranking where we can see the extent of media coverage each department saw (based on the New York Times API). “Defense” reporting is clearly out of proportion to Defense spending.

The first problem has been addressed elsewhere… it’s the issue of scaling the radius instead of the area of the circles. If the numbers were a correct representation of federal spending (more on that later), the circle visualization commits this “radius is not equal to area” visual error that really bugs me. I even gave it a couple pages in my book chapter (now available online for the low, low price of free) and mentioned it in my Microsoft talk on visualization because it is such a common mistake.

The other problem lies in the fact that, rather than being a visualization of federal spending, it is a visualization of federal contracts. If we use the graph below as a visual of government spending (taken from the graph above tracks only the dark green parts of the spending line.


As you can see, this kind of visualization gives a very false impression of spending because Department of Defense spending is run almost exclusively off of contracts while Health and Human Services (which actually spent MORE money than the DoD due to the fact that it distributes Medicare and Medicaid) looks like a tiny fraction. The most expensive department, the Social Security Administration, doesn’t even show up in the visualization due to the fact that the money is all direct payments.

The reason this bothers me as much as it does is because the point of a visualization is to clarify and inform. One of the biggest pieces of MIS-information surrounding the federal budget is the idea that Department of Defense spending accounts for the majority of all spending. The reality is that Defense spending is about 17% of all federal spending (42%, if you only count discretionary spending and completely ignore Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest on the national debt).

The original visual does the opposite of clarify and inform… it reinforces the misconception. The area that represents Defense spending is no less than 84% of total visual area! This isn’t just inaccurate, it’s exceedingly, painfully inaccurate. And, worst of all, it is inaccurate in a way that people will see it, allow it to reinforce their wrong perceptions and think that they know the truth.

But I’m a little bit shocked that the Sunlight Foundation didn’t catch these errors. It is clear to me that when Pitch Interactive gathered the data, they thought they were pulling ALL the federal spending and built the visualization off of that understanding. But Sunlight is supposed to be all about federal data. Anyone with even the most casual familiarity with the government spending data would immediately see that this visualization was in error.

Finally, it’s only fair that, after this criticism of this piece, I offer what I think is an accurate representation of the data. So I’ve re-built this visual with all the spending data and taking into account all the issues I’ve noted. Here is the fixed version of the graph (click for the large version).


Sunlight Foundation Design For America Winners

The Sunlight Foundation contest “Design for America” has announced their winners. To my disappointment, Recovery Review was not counted among the worthy, but you should check out the winners.


Congratulations to all of the winners!


Redesigning a Government Website WinnerIRS Re-Design


How a Bill Becomes Law WinnerHow Our Laws Are Made


Senate Rules Visualization WinnerGuide to US Senate Floor Procedures



Health Data Visualization WinnerCounty Sin Rankings



US Spending Visualization Winner (Tie)Spending vs. Media Coverage and Is Washington Bankrupting America



Best Design of Sunlight Data Winner (Tie)Cool Kids at the White House and Who Paid Them


image Visualization WinnerMaking a Full Recovery


Recovery Review Is Fully Live

Seriously, I’m going to get back to posting regularly now that this project is complete.

On Monday, I submitted Recovery Review for the Sunlight Foundation’s Design for America contest. (The project requires the installation of Silverlight if you don’t already have it installed.)

Recovery Review allows users to search and visualize stimulus data. It also allows user to flag data that they think is inaccurate. I think it’s a pretty cool little project, although I have a small list of things I’d like to improve about it. (The list isn’t comprehensive, but it’s a start.)

I’ve also started a blog for Recovery Review to go along with the project. Right now, the blog has some discussion of design decisions and the stimulus data.

One of my biggest frustrations is the fact that the data was updated on the website when I was right in the middle of my project. As a result, I’m running the project (at least until the judging is complete) on the old data, which represents everything up to 2009, Q4.

What is strange to me is that it looks like the data updates are a little frustrating. Anything about a particular project can change in the updates, from the amount of money awarded to the project to the date the project was started to the number of jobs the project “saved or created”. Sometimes these changes make sense. Sometimes they make no damn sense at all.

It looks like I picked a hell of a complex data set to work with.

Introducing Recovery Review (Alpha)

I’d like to apologize for something and then give a good reason for it.

The Sunlight Foundation is a fantastic organization that pushes for government transparency and every once in a while, they run a contest. This year, the contest is “Design for America“. It started in early March is meant to be a 10 week design contest with several categories for entries.

When the contest started, I didn’t think I had time to build the project I wanted to build because I had a major professional conference in April. But after the conference ended, I decided I might still have time to hack something together. And hack I did.

My project is called “Recovery Review” and is meant to be a way to crowd-source the task of checking the stimulus data.

Users can search through the stimulus data given a couple key variables and get a report of the stimulus projects that match their search. They can then expand the item to a full view (the “+” icon in the top right corner) and then flag the item if it has any inaccurate or questionable data. They can also add a link if there is a news article or blog post discussing that specific project.

So, please, be my test users if you have some time. Head over there and look through the data. If anything in the data seems inaccurate to you, flag it and add to our database of what items are accurate and what items are inaccurate.

And let me know here if you have any errors. I’m still working on refining parts of the project, but anything that breaks the project is going to be of the highest importance to me. Thanks!