CBO and other government agencies produce huge amounts of data every day. They typically compile them into reports and glean out the important trends that will advise and inform policy makers. Traditionally these reports involve simple line and bar graphs with a few pie charts. However, the explosion in info graphics and interactive data has put pressure on them to present the data in a more user friendly visually appealing way. Jonathan Schwabish, an economist at CBO, has led the way in trying to modernize how CBO presents their data.
This week at a presentation at CBO on info graphics and data presentation, Schwabish presented what he has been doing to bring CBO up to speed. Schwabish himself is not a designer, but he tinkers with multiple programs to try to transform the data into visually pleasing and intuitive forms. The product of his work has been an improvement over the traditional graphs and pie charts of past CBO publications, but he is far from catching up with thousands of info graphics we see flooding the internet everyday, just check out digg.com. His info graphics and designs, aided by an outside graphic design consultant, look cheap and garish. In many ways, his focus on the visualization of the data has undermined his original goal of presenting the data in a clear and intuitive manner. Most of his web based infor graphic reports include color combinations that are hard on the eyes and completely distract from the data. I commend his efforts, but his unsuccessful attempts at design speak to a larger void that most data oriented organizations and agencies face in Washington D.C.
A common stereotype of economist and statisticians is that their reports and articles are boring, muddled in the details, and hard to understand. This creates a disconnect with the reader who ends up skimming the report to get to the meat, the data. However, even the presentation of the data is often counterintuitive or disorganized. In these reports there is an obvious need for intuitive design and a simplification of the date. Into this void step graphic designers, however, most graphic designers have no formal training in economics or statistics and cannot encapsulate the important parts of the data. This is a problem for policy makers who rely on the data and reports as a foundation for any piece of legislation or reform.
Designers and statisticians are in a unique position in Washington D.C.. Here the data actually matters for policy and any kind of political action, but it also needs to be presented simply and intuitively so that legislators can quickly understand it and see the real uses of the data. Many times, this requires that reports be printed and put physically in the hands of legislators. The printed page can severely limit the potential for design, but at the same time it provides a platform and incentive to create the most clean, simple, and intuitive data visualizations.
The unique demands of Washington require a design team that understands the data and can draw visual representations of the core policy implication of the data. This requires economists to break out of MS Excel and designers to break into statistics. Until a hybrid position forms, we will continue to see uninspiring and confusing reports that severely lag the advanced info graphics and charts that have flooded the market with data visualizations of almost everything we do.