Can Government Learn from Data Visualization?

Jon Schwabish

published on December 19, 2012 in Design

Can better data visualization bolster government communications with the public, the press, and policymakers? The answer is “Yes,” but to ensure the results, government agencies need to improve both the way they use graphical displays in their written presentations and how their analysts present their work verbally to an audience. If communications of data, findings, and analysis improve, perhaps everyone’s understanding of the nation’s public policy challenges will improve as well, and the result will be not just better government but better governance.

There is no shortage of graphics from government agencies that fail on even basic good Data Visualization practices. As an example, take this recent graphic from the General Accountability Office (GAO):

At first blush — and at second and third — it is very hard to tell what’s going on. The pie chart on the left side (the perennial thorn in the side of data visualization) is somehow decomposed into the stacked column chart on the right side with the distribution on the left converted to a different distribution on the right. What about two separate stacked column charts? Or how about a slopegraph connecting the two? There are any number of different ways these data could be presented, but this one perhaps does the best job of not telling a story clearly.

This graphic is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

If you can ignore the 3D column chart—which distorts the data in such a way that the $1,800 value for the “Certification” category does not even reach the gridline for $1,800—you can try to figure out what is meant by the “MILLIONS/BILLIONS” label on the y-axis.

To begin, government analysts should use the most basic insights and strategies from the data visualization community. Here are 5 beginning steps that analysts can take to improve their graphics:

  1. Deemphasize gridlines, tick marks, and data labels.
  2. Keep labels and data close together.
  3. Avoid pie charts and 3D charts (and never use 3D pie charts).
  4. Consider fonts and colors carefully.
  5. And most importantly, Show the Data (because that’s why people are reading the analysis).

Another way government can do a better job communicating is to improve the presentation slides that analysts use when they speak to an audience. In her many books and tutorials, Nancy Duarte emphasizes connecting with the audience by starting a presentation with a story. And many presentation experts suggest minimizing the amount of text and maximizing the number of images. Unfortunately, not many government analysts and researchers are familiar with these tools and thus many slides are packed with dense text, bullet points, and mathematical equations. For example, take this recent testimony before select members of the House of Representatives:


What I take away from this presentation is that I’m not going to hear a word the speaker says because I’m too busy reading the slides!

Because people in the data visualization community are adept at presenting data, their verbal presentations also tend to be well-designed. Here are 5 beginning steps that analysts can take to improve their presentations*:

  1. Tell an interesting story, and start your presentation with a theme to help your audience connect.
  2. Drop the bullet points—illustrate concepts instead.
  3. Don’t give a document, give a presentation; don’t pack every piece of information into your slides.
  4. Design a cohesive color scheme and layout for your presentation.
  5. Be well prepared.

(*Derived from works by Nancy Duarte, Carmine Gallo, Jesse Desjardins, and The Presentation Designer)

In the end, I think government analysts have a lot to learn from the data visualization community and as static infographics, dynamic interactive data tools, and other data visualization techniques and products become more popular and easier to use, government analysts will hopefully catch on and improve their graphics and presentations as well.

Jon Schwabish is an economist and data visualization creator. You can reach him at or by following him on Twitter @jschwabish.

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