Winning ways to visualize federal data include bubbles, blocks and clocks

Data Viz Challenge showcases cool visual displays for spending data

Many people have difficulty understanding number-filled charts and graphs that show how federal agencies spend their money. To make that a little easier, Google and Eyebeam.org sponsored the Data Viz Challenge, which encouraged developers to create the best visual graphic representations of agency spending.

The winning ideas, which ranged from the straightforward to the unusual, include:

  • “Budget Climb” ($500 finalist) — pictures agency spending as a 3-D field of blocks. Each block is a single agency. To find out how much each agency spends, the user’s job is to virtually jump around the field and climb the blocks.
  • “Visualize Your Taxes” ($500 finalist) — pictures federal agency spending as colorful floating balls. In a video with electronic music, the balls grow larger or smaller depending on how much money that agency spends.
  • “Every Day is Tax Day” ($3,000 runner-up) — portrays the federal budget as a giant clock, with seconds and hours as amounts of agency funding.
  • “Where Did My Tax Dollars Go?” ($5,000 grand award winner) — provides several explanatory charts along with a colorful pie chart. (However,  users have reported difficulties loading the application today.)

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Participants had five weeks to build their projects, and more than 40 entries were received. Judges announced the winners on Tax Day, April 18. Government spending data for the challenge was provided by WhatWePayFor.com.

“We found it frustrating that there was no easy way to browse the federal budget, and even if you looked at the numbers, it was hard to relate to spending because it’s in 'billions' and 'trillions' of dollars,” wrote Louis Garcia and Andrew Johnson, founders of WhatWePayFor.com, in describing the Data Viz Challenge. “Our goal is to make government spending more understandable so that our citizens can be better informed, exploring objective data rather than listening only to political rhetoric.”

The Obama administration has been releasing large amounts of federal data via the Data.gov website. At the same time, data visualization tools have become more important in distributing that data. For example, in recent months, the World Bank's data on countries' poverty and wealth indicators has been presented in several videos on YouTube using data visualization tools.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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