Reviewing an NYTimes Infographic

Recently the New York Times ran an infographic on the proposed 2011 Federal Budget.  It’s a nearly perfect use of the treemap capability in data visualization where the size of the boxes is proportional to the amount of spending. If you click on a region it zooms in revealing a bit more information than is visible at the high level. As you mouse over various regions you get even more detail. You can also elect to see only the discretionary spending, though in this view it would be nice if the total budget changed to reflect the sum total discretionary part. It’s even color coded to reflect increases and decreases over the previous year’s budget.NYTOriginal
As informative as this chart is and as powerful as the treemap technique is, the information content in this graphic is about as much as a tabular listing of the various departments and the budget each of those departments is receiving. Yes, the relative sizes of the boxes allow us to quickly see which departments are receiving the most amount of money, but as a news item I’m left a little cold. There’s not enough context to this graphic to make me care beyond the “tinker with the pretty buttons” stage.

One way to increase that context would be to add an input box where I could enter my 2010 tax bill. The infographic then could shift the dollar amounts and turn it into how much of my tax dollars are being spent on various programs. Seeing how much I’m paying for interest on the national debt or National Defense may make me wonder if my money really is being spent wisely.

But while that simple technique provides some context and heightens my interest, it is just as transitory as the original. Shortly after tax season I doubt I’ll care and again I’ll get wrapped up in the headline news cycle of congressmen complaining about various parts of the budget, defecit and debt. But this is our national budget, we should look at it periodically just as we would our household budget. The NYTimes should trot out this graphic every time they run a story on a federal budget item.

Indeed it could prove useful as an index page into budget related stories. I’ve created a mock-up of what I’m envisioning. Click on the image below to be taken to an interactive version. The idea here is that as you mouse over various budget items you’ll be presented with the latest news article about that budget item. Frequently we’ve heard exchanges where one congressman complains about excessive spending in one area while another congressman points out that the amount of excess in that area is a drop in the bucket compared so the spending in another area. Reporting on those news stories while simultaneously referencing this graphic would be an inspired use of the treemap technique.IntroGraphic2

2 comments for “Reviewing an NYTimes Infographic

  1. March 3, 2010 at 11:54 am

    Great idea! I love the idea of tying the particular items to stories about them – but I’m not sure I necessarily want to see the WHOLE story as a mouseover – it crowds out the other info (change from last year), would be awkward for longer stories, and what do you do if you have more than one related story? A link (with a descriptive title) would suite me just fine. Then you run into the problem of how can they click on the link since it follows your mouse and release events are already doing something else, and anything more complicated than that might not be so user friendly… but it’s something to think about!

  2. numbersguy
    March 3, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    Hi Emily,

    I agree completely. When I envisioned this I thought the original NYTimes graphic would be small enough to have the articles appear exclusively on one side and the treemap on the other. Instead of redoing the NYTimes graphic from scratch I decided to run with it as is and made the text boxes as you see them.

    I may modify some of the mock articles to be headlines just to get that point across too. I’m not against it, just didn’t think to include it in the sample.

    I also envisioned legislators using this sort of technique in an augmented reality sort of way… Imagine being in your seat in congress while another rants on about excessive spending on a budget item. How cool would it be if the listening legislator could hold up their iPhone, capture some audio and have an app voice recognize the section of the budget under discussion, display the treemap and …

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