CBO, NASA and White House add to growing infographics trend

It did not take long for the Congressional Budget Office’s new infographics of federal budget trends to circulate around the Web. Within two days the CBO infographics were pinned on at least a half a dozen Pinterest social network bulletin boards.

The CBO’s release of three bold new data visualization images on April 17 is part of a growing trend of infographic popularity affecting federal agencies and the Web in general. As one example of that, the rapid growth of Pinterest, which is a network of bulletin boards displaying user-selected images, is being viewed as an example of huge interest in graphics and other images.

NASA recently used infographics extensively in its open government 2.0 plan and the U.S. Census developed an infographic to highlight major changes in the nation’s demographics from the 1940 census to the present.

The White House, Social Security Administration, Federal Communications Commission and U.S. Administration for International Development all have published infographics on the Web in recent months, according to USA.gov.

But some of the federal agencies still may be experiencing a learning curve when it comes to visualizing data. While the CBO’s colorful interpretative images were spread around the Web and on Pinterest, a representative of the Sunlight Foundation watchdog group said the federal agency still has to improve its graphic presentation and to utilize best practices applied by other designers to make its data more clear.

“Two days ago the CBO released some new infographics about the Federal Budget in an attempt to show where revenues come from and where they are spent. Their undertaking, although valiant, falls a little flat,” Ali Felski, creative director for the Sunlight Foundation, wrote on the group’s blog on April 19. “Where these infographics go wrong is in their non-use of common graphics to represent the information more clearly and their lack of common design practices.”

Despite the shortcomings, more and more federal agencies are likely to be using infographics. According to Google Trends, the term “infographic” began rising in popularity on the Web in recent years and was searched roughly seven times more often in 2011 than in 2009.

“The idea of sharing large amounts of complex data in a friendly, visual manner is not new. However, the rise of infographic popularity on the Internet is astounding,” wrote Mike Supple Jr., senior social media manager for Milestone Insights Inc., in a recent blog entry.

The CBO released its first infographic on the federal budget in December 2011. The three additional images highlight information including the sharp growth in Medicare and Medicaid spending and the heavy reliance on individual income taxes to fund the federal government.

Other recent CBO data visualizations include infographics on the Troubled Asset Relief Program, Social Security and an outlook on the budget and the economy.

CBO officials were not immediately available for comment about the design issues for the recent infographics.

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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