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.
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.