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August 16, 2011

Filed under: politics»national

Poster Politics

One of my pet peeves are those big, intricately-designed infographic "posters," partly because I think they tend toward smugness, but also because they're very good at setting up a simplistic narrative from a series of loosely-related statistics. They lead the reader from one isolate number to another, often without establishing a clear connection between them--and because they're just giant JPG images, they don't lend themselves to easy fact-checking via links to source data. If there's one thing I've learned at CQ, it's that the policy situation is rarely that simple.

So of course, look what the White House is doing now.

It was probably inevitable that politicians would jump on the visualization bandwagon at some point, and given Congress's penchant for signs that would look underdesigned at a Lyndon LaRouche campaign table, it had to come from the executive branch. It isn't surprising that this administration--with its affection for social media as a political tool--would be the one to take action. But somehow I didn't expect it so soon, or to look so polished--several of these wouldn't be out of place in the New York Times.

I am not so much concerned that the government is creating slicker graphics--in these troubled economic times, I'm happy to see any jobs being created, even for designers!--as much as I think this is a good chance to consider "ethical" information design. What the White House is doing is different from data that comes from the CBO or the GAO, because it's rhetoric, not research. And while I don't necessarily think that the administration is lying to us with each graphic, even my hackles are raised by the matter-of-fact presentation of political data through flat, opaque graphics. Here are some measures I'd like to see the White House, and other political actors considering data visualization, take in the future:

  • Release the data sets and tools. This is a no-brainer. These are interactives made by government employees on the public dime. We should be able to view the datasets that they're using, and the equations they're running to extract visual information from them. If the data is online, as with CBO data, the page should link to it. I should not have to know how to hunt through government agency sites to verify a White House visualization. Which leads to...
  • Eat the (government API) dogfood. For all the government data out there, it is still often an oddball collection of badly-documented, infrequently-updated files in a wide range of formats, many of which are not easily machine-readable. There are legal requirements for agencies to publish data, but a White House that actually uses that data adds a whole new incentive (as well as a feedback loop within the government) to make information easy to retrieve, use, and understand.
  • Create interactives, not JPGs. This may just be my bias as an interactives programmer, but I think they're more interesting than static pictures, and I think they're harder to tilt ideologically. That's especially true if we can see the source--examine how the numbers were translated into their visible representations.

I admit, these suggestions aren't necessarily good for the White House from a political perspective. But then, as a citizen I'm not really interested in what's good for the White House from a political perspective. I'm interested in national policy and a more informed debate--which shouldn't be mutually exclusive with political influence. You can still make shiny graphics for a rhetorical goal without sacrificing transparency and honesty. The question is whether politicians will do so, or if they'll use the public's general cluelessness about data visualization to their own advantage.

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