April 2017

A Trustworthy Source for Civic Enlightenment

The United States government is vast in scope and spending. It serves 321 million people across 90,000 jurisdictions, spending more than $5 trillion a year. The size of the government matches its mission, which is stated in the United States Constitution: “Establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; promote the general welfare; and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” As citizens, we seek to hold the government accountable to this Constitutional promise, yet we lack the tools to understand government priorities and evaluate effectiveness. In the absence of data, reasoned and informed debate on the role and scope of government becomes virtually impossible. Differences of opinion, once only natural in a democracy, become unbridgeable as objective facts are hard to come by.

Directing the early conceptual stages of the program, I worked with Dave McColgin, Sabella Flagg, Kris Fung, and Kevin Bleich to help make dense government data easy to understand, visually digestible and accessible for everyone. When USAFacts launched, more than 2.5 million people visited the site in the first 24 hours, a testament to the demand for a resource that helps people explore and understand government data and its impact.

Uniting an unprecedented amount of data in one place

USAFacts aggregates data from more than 60 different government agencies, from the US Census to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To manage these huge quantities of information, we designed a website framework that brings a structured, unified feel to the data, allowing for easy exploration and understanding.

The framework organizes the information around the central missions of government: establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. Visitors to the site start exploring the data at the highest level possible: overall revenue and spending. From there, they can dive deeper into more specific subject areas, like education or defense spending. Within these categories, users can dial in on the data from different perspectives and through different filters, drawing their own conclusions and forming a deeper understanding of government impact.

Bringing clarity and comprehension to complexity

Dozens of government agencies report data on different websites in a wide range of formats, from charts to tables to spreadsheets. Sifting through lines in spreadsheets to determine spending can be daunting even for experienced policymakers and journalists. USAFacts strives to make government data not just easier to find, but easier for everyone to understand.

To accomplish this, we designed a cohesive set of data visualizations that makes complex data clearer and more comprehensible. These visualizations scale across the website, bringing disparate data sets under the same unified organization and design. Data visualizations like flow diagrams and sparklines transform dense spreadsheets and convoluted charts into crisp, clean visuals so that numbers can be understood at a glance. These visualizations also offer interactive elements that help users digest the data, such as pop-up annotations and the ability to see changes over time.

Say you were concerned about reports of rising crime rates. Rather than digging through charts and tables to analyze the figures yourself, USAFacts would instantly show you that crime rates across the country are in long-term decline. Not only do you have access to the data, but the visualizations of USAFacts make trends and patterns clear so that you can quickly make sense of complicated information.

Placing data in context for big picture comprehension

Data visualizations can make information easier to understand, but without context, even good data can be misleading or misunderstood. Because USAFacts strives to reduce confusion and increase comprehension, it was crucial that the website presents information without stripping away the context that gives the data meaning.

To retain context, the USAFacts website is designed to allow exploration into detailed datasets while keeping the bigger picture in sight. When you explore a specific trend, USAFacts.org places related spending and measures within sight for perspective. For instance, you can view all employment data and then examine employment by age group, or compare education spending with graduation rates. The result is that unlike other data sites, the contextual design of USAFacts.org allows users to comprehend scale and relationships, in addition to facts and figures.

Designing for credibility and objectivity

Many times, data visualizations are used to tell a story—think of the common infographic, for instance. Because the goal of USAFacts is to be unbiased and objective, it was crucial that our design avoided storytelling and editorializing. We wanted users to draw their own conclusions, so we let the numbers speak for themselves.

Although the data visualizations are minimalistic and engaging, each has a source button so users can easily verify all information for themselves. The source button links to original data sets, provides information on publication dates and directs people to the government agencies involved so they can continue their research. A whole section of the site is devoted to detailed explanation of the choices and methodology used to organize the government data. As a result, the design of USAFacts reinforces the credibility and trustworthiness of the initiative.

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So, what do you think?