Mar 272011

Google, Eyebeam and Fast Company are hosting a data visualization challenge:

Every year, Americans fill out income tax forms and make a payment to the IRS. It’s an important civic duty, but it is also a lot of money. Where does it all go? Using data provided by, we challenge you to create a data visualization that will make it easier for U.S. citizens to understand how the government spends our tax money.

When I learned about the visualization challenge, I’ll admit I didn’t actually know many hard facts about government spending. I knew the military and national defense were huge expenditures, but wouldn’t have been able to accurately place them in relation to other large expenses, such as social security.

I decided my level of knowledge would likely be similar to that of potential visitors, so I used that as a strength. Building a tool which helps me better understand the budget should be equally useful to others.

When improving efficiencies, engineers know that you focus on the biggest portion of the problem first. If you manage to reduce your largest budget item by 10%, you could potentially recover as much as cutting many other expenditures in half. It’s convenient to focus on seemingly ridiculous expenditures, but in the end you may be expending a lot of resources to recover menial quantities of cash.

My end product broke the budget down by function and displayed it as a tree. The user explores government spending by clicking through this tree. Selecting an item, such as “Social Security”, prints further information about that budget item. You can play with the live version of my submission, but here’s a screenshot:

Screenshot of Data Visualization Challenge Submission

I’d estimate I spent roughly 75% of my time on technical issues and 25% working with the visual aspects. Considering this is a visualization challenge, that puts me at a disadvantage. But I just didn’t have the technical framework in place early enough, so I had no time for finishing touches.

As a perfectionist, I’m frustrated that I didn’t leave more time for polishing. There were several features I really wanted to see. In particular, I wanted to experiment with visual representations of the detailed data that is shown after you click on a budget item. I also had plans to add visual indicators to the tooltips that hover over each budget node.

On the technical side, I hadn’t done any serious JavaScript programming for a long time. I very much like the way the libraries and community have evolved since early 2000 – especially jQuery! I expect I’ll be coming back to these sorts of projects more frequently, as I found this to be a pleasure. I often find web development to be rewarding, as great results can be achieved so quickly.

Update (2011-04-13): The finalists have been announced – there were some very interesting and useful submissions. Have a look at the finalists or the full list of entries. My entry is currently standing at 3.5 stars, so I don’t feel like it was a total waste.

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