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Should Data.gov visualize? Probably not.

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A few people who saw our Data.gov design post asked for ways to visualize the data on Data.gov. As an organization that's such a proponent of data not only being free, but also using design to provide context to the data, why don't we advocate for data.gov to have visualizations for citizens to make sense of the data?

We didn't just leave it out because we didn't think of it. We left it out on purpose, along with lots of other feature ideas and concepts. We think that providing a centralized repository of government data in modern developer-friendly formats is a hard enough problem for government to solve. Vivek Kundra and his team should be focused on making data available and making it as accessible as possible to people via a small, uniform set of developer friendly formats (say: JSON, XML, KML and CSV).

We think that building a system for delivering that data in those formats across the federal government and building a mechanism for people to report back errors, integrity issues or simply comment on the data is far more important than building visualization tools on top of this data. Why?

This chart should explain it:

In short: because other people will do that and probably do it better. If the goal is to get the data in front of the most eyeballs possible, government should be providing the data in usable formats and focusing primarily on that. External entities will always give the data more exposure and treatment than government can.

The second reason why government should avoid spending time on adding visualizations or other bells and whistles to Data.gov is because it actually hurts transparency. Visualizations, like any other form of news product, can be editorial-- even inadvertently. If government puts more of a priority on producing great visualizations and user experience than on providing quality accurate data with a great feedback loop, then it runs a pretty good chance of not adhering to the goal of being actually transparent.

You can see this on Recovery.gov right now. You get a sense that there's a lot of data underneath, but they've spent a lot of time on user-interface development. Check out, for instance, the agency summary page for the SSA. Looks great! Neat Charts!

The raw data tells a different story though. In this case, the data is powered by spreadsheets available at the bottom of the page. Open one up and you're likely going to see something like this:

financial_and_activity_report_20090410SSA-1

So you can see why we're significantly less interested in government "totally nailing" putting bar charts on a website and far more interested in saying "hey, eye on the ball! make the data come out clean, and reliable, and give us a way to tell you when it isn't."