Visually Blog Data Visualization Charts from the U.S. Congress Floor: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly | Visually Blog

Data Visualization Charts from the U.S. Congress Floor: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Jon Salm

published on May 12, 2014 in Social Media

Perhaps the most popular way to keep a presentation engaging and effective is to include a visual aid. And like many in corporate America, members of Congress must hold meetings, pitch their colleagues, and present research for discussion. Enter Floor Charts, an expertly curated Tumblr that shows off Congress’ charts, graphs and diagrams for those unwilling to sit through hours of C-SPAN coverage.

Creator Bill Gray, a former C-SPAN producer and current media relations strategist at The Center for Public Integrity, started the site in 2012 and quickly saw it gain popularity. Floor Charts was included in Time’s 30 Tumblrs to Follow in 2013 and has been covered by Politico, Roll Call and Business Insider, among others.

We asked Floor Charts to show us the good, the bad and the ugly of Congress’ data visualization efforts.

The Good:

Floor Chart - Good Example 1

–       Member of Congress: Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif)

–       Topic: Gun Control

–       Why it’s good: Unlike some charts, this simple chart gets the information across clearly and effectively, with no y-axis manipulation.

–       Floor Charts Says: “Lately you’ll see back and forth on social media channels like Twitter about bar charts that completely misrepresent data because of scale. Even at a glance, this one looks balanced”
Floor Chart - Good Example 2

–       Member of Congress: Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio)

–       Topic: Job Creation

–       Why it’s good: An effective use of color communicates job creation trends successfully.

–       Floor Charts Says: “Rep. Kaptur is pretty reliable when it comes to the job charts like this. If it were bad dataviz (partisanship aside), she’d have heard about it. You also can’t miss the point she’s getting across – a negative to positive swing.”
Floor Chart - Good Example 3

–       Member of Congress: Representative Shelia Jackson Lee (D-Texas)

–       Topic: Budget Cuts

–       Why it’s good: Including both percentages and raw numbers along with simple and easy-to-read text keeps the entire chart easy to understand.

–       Floor Charts Says: “Congress loves nothing more than pie charts, it seems. Not only does this emphasize the data in more than one way (money and percentage), you understand it without hearing the actual member (in this case Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee). Isn’t that their goal?”

The Bad:

Floor Chart - Bad Example 1

–       Member of Congress: Representative Ralph Regula (R-Ohio)

–       Topic: Pell Grants

–       Why it’s bad: The chart’s y-axis starts at $2,000, which makes Pell Grant amounts under a Democratic Congress seem artificially low.

–       Floor Charts Says: “My own pet peeve: the yellow chart fad disappeared for a reason (and throughout 2004 at least, it came up a lot).”
Floor Chart - Bad Example 1

–       Member of Congress: Representative Nick Smith (R-Mich)

–       Topic: Taxes

–       Why it’s bad: At Visually, we’re big on the anti-3D chart front, since the angle of all 3D pie charts distorts the data.

–       Floor Charts Says: “3D charts, especially in standard definition, are just asking for problems (font size being the main issue). This would have been perfect as a regular pie-chart, as exampled above by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee.”
Floor Chart - Bad Example 3

–       Member of Congress: Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla)

–       Topic: Transportation Funding

–       Why it’s bad: A manipulated y-axis is bad, but an overly busy design and color scheme might be worse. Remember, less is often more when it comes to design.

–       Floor Charts Says: “In my world, a chart isn’t an executive summary. Who knows what the acronyms on the X-axis stand for? Can you even read the Y-axis numbers clearly? And is that a math equation at the top?”

The Ugly:


Floor Chart - Ugly Example 3

–       Member of Congress: Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-Md)

–       Topic: Inflation

–       Why it’s ugly: The big mac jingle is famous for a reason, but Van Hollen and his staff seem to be missing a few key ingredients in the burger on this chart.

–       Floor Charts Says: “IT’S NOT A BIG MAC. Regardless of whether this debate spawned an entire article, double-check your facts before you pay for the poster.”
Floor Chart - Ugly 2

–       Member of Congress: Unknown

–       Topic: Oil

–       Why it’s ugly: Spend a minute with this chart or spend an hour, but its true message will never come through.

–       Floor Charts Says: “I send this to everyone that asks about my favorite Congressional chart. I don’t understand the metrics behind peak oil, and I certainly don’t understand this chart. Rollercoaster ride, anyone?”
Floor Chart - Ugly 3

–       Member of Congress: Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.)

–       Topic: International Trade

–       Why it’s ugly: This chart is effectively showing a lot to a little, which is not the same as showing a ratio of 217 to 1. The mid-90’s clip art doesn’t help its case, either.

–       Floor Charts Says: “Road trip to Korea, right? Is that orange car equal to 2,854 total cars? Why are Korea and the U.S. roughly the same size?”
While there are plenty good, bad, and ugly Congress floor charts to go around, Gray is quick to mention that there is no predictable pattern when it comes to chart activity.

“The most surprising trend I saw was that there’s no trend at all,” Gray said. “I expect Senator Sheldon Whitehouse to bring up climate change, Senator Tom Coburn to walk through government overspending, and Congressman Walter Jones to talk about our veterans. But the trends tend to end there.”

For more information, check out Floor Charts on Tumblr and follow the action on Twitter.
Jon Salm is an associate client analyst at Millward Brown Digital in New York City and a freelance data journalist in the marketplace. He has a bachelor’s degree in English from Washington and Lee University. You can follow him on twitter @S4LM3R.


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