Data Visualization Improves Government Services
The 21st century has brought about a huge change in how large organizations see and deal with data. In decades past, a lack of data was one of the biggest problems facing both business and government, with decision-makers often having to make choices in a vacuum, or lacking critical information.
Today, the problem has become the opposite. Thanks to modern digitalization, most organizations are now drowning in data – often to the point that it becomes difficult to sort through it to find the important facts, figures, and performance indicators necessary to make clear-headed decisions. Communicating this data and associated ideas to the public can also be a challenge when there is now so much information to sift through.
The solution to these issues lies in government data visualization. Techniques originally designed to help large businesses understand their operation, market, and customers are now proving to be just as effective for government offices. Greater use of government data visualization is enabling better choices, better communication, and better outcomes.
What Is Data Visualization?
Simply put, data visualization is the process of taking raw data – typically numbers – and presenting it in a way that is more easily understood by people. Basic presentation tools such as graphs and spreadsheets are a common form of visualization, but modern systems also for much more robust presentations.
One of the best examples, and one of the most notable, was when the Obama Administration published their proposed 2016 budget in the form of an interactive tree map. This took the proposed budget and broke it up into rectangles according to sector and spending type, with the size of each box corresponding to its proportional chunk of the budget. As a user zoomed in on a particular box, it would expand to reveal its contents – which were likewise chunked up to quickly represent their portion of the whole subsection.
As a result, a proposed budget document that ran hundreds of pages was condensed into an easily-understood format that both legislators and voters could access and explore. It’s hard to overestimate the time savings this represented. Someone interested in exact Social Security expenditures, for example, could zoom in on that particular block in seconds, rather than having to sort through a huge and confusingly-worded document.
The Benefits of Government Data Visualization
So beyond specific examples, how can data visualization improve government functions?
1 – Easy comprehension of large-scale data
When looking at raw numbers for a large government agency, or country-wide statistics, it’s genuinely difficult for even experienced data analysts to fully grasp the size and scale of the topics under discussion. It’s even more difficult for laypeople or newcomers to government.
When data is presented in visual formats, it becomes much easier to grasp – but without compromising the data itself. This isn’t about “spinning” numbers, it’s about adapting them into a format that encourages easier comprehension. Various visual tools such as size, scale, proportion, and placement can all be utilized to help illustrate important facts and principles.
After all, not everyone can instantly convert fractions in their head – but even children can look at pie graphs and understand what’s being communicated. Bureaucrats and congresspeople should similarly benefit.
2 – Improved decision-making
When large-scale numbers and data are easier to comprehend, this creates the potential for much better decision-making at all levels. Policy-makers, for example, can quickly dig into numbers for both voter opinions, as well as the economics of the area being considered. Also, when data is rendered through visual tools, it becomes easier to perceive trends that could escape notice if they only exist as numbers.
Or, on the other hand, this also makes for an excellent advocacy tool. Graphics are typically trusted by viewers more than raw numbers, so those pushing for a certain policy will have an easier time communicating their ideas and convincing people critical to the adoption process. There’s less risk of a good idea going ignored because it was misunderstood.
3 – Better public communication
Often, government struggles to help people understand what is being done, and why. This is made more difficult when partisan factors are attempting to distort or undermine policy initiatives.
So, being able to display data and outcomes in an easy-to-understand format improve public communication and advocacy. It becomes simpler to get the public on your side or illustrate how minor inconveniences now will lead to better results down the road.
This can be invaluable in making policy into reality.
As such, it’s little wonder that government data visualization is becoming such a widely adopted tool, and it will undoubtedly continue to grow in use in the years to come.