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August 3, 2010

D4A Winner Profile: Visualization of Data from USASpending.gov

Pitch Interactive ‘s submission was one of two tying winners of Sunlight Labs’ Design For America contest in the Visualization of Data from the Federal Budget and/or USASpending.gov category. Wesley Grubbs provides some insight into why Pitch Interactive entered the contest and their thinking behind the winning entry. Check out the Q & A below.

Q: Why did you decide to enter the Design for America contest?

A: We have a lot of respect for the Sunlight Foundation and their efforts in helping people better understand Government data that is increasingly becoming more open and complex. Our work uses visual metaphors and design theory in an attempt to captivate an audience and tell a story. This contest focused on exploring new ways to explore data focusing on design and artistic talents and we saw this as a great opportunity for us.


Q: Why did you identify this topic to focus on?

A: We are intrigued by how our government spends money and the USASpending.gov. Website provided us with data to help focus on government contract spending. Contract spending is interesting because it alleviates accountability and also lifts some of the slow-moving aspects of the government spending approval process allowing contract spending to be more innovative and cutting edge. We initially wanted to show a break down of agency and company spending, but as we started analyzing the data, the Department of Defense spending was such an intriguing aspect of government spending because it dwarfs nearly all other agency contract spending.

Q: What were your goals for the design?

A: Using visual metaphors, we wanted to explore compelling ways of showing how much our government spends on contract spending and how much this issue is actually discussed in the media, a way to gauge our interests as a society. We try to avoid labels in our work and focus on the actual visual piece to speak for itself. The size and the position of the text correlates with the amount of spending (or media coverage). The text becoming illegible is purposefully thought through and shows how insignificant these government agencies are compared to the Department of Defense. We used circular shapes to help create a visual momentum feel and the overall shape mimics an infinity symbol, indicating that the way our government spends money and how much we discuss it is a continual process.

Q: What do you think the Design for America contest accomplished?

A: I think we are one step closer to opening the flood gates of entirely new ways of looking at information. The current main stream tools we use, such as the bar graph and pie chart were created in the late 19th century. When they were first introduced, there was a lot of resistance, especially from the scientific community, because people believed a visual representation of tabular data obscured the facts. Today, we widely accept these once revolutionary ideas as common tools. Now that data is becoming more available, complex and multi-dimensional, I feel we are at a cross road where we can incorporate design theory and a creative process to give a visual narrative that the data can tell. There is resistance in this movement, but thanks to the Sunlight foundation, new approaches to visualizing data are becoming more widely known, accepted and appreciated.

Q: How can the government better explain data and missions to the public?

A: Everyone looks at data differently just as everyone looks at art, nature, technology and each other differently. Traditional ways of looking at data, such as bar graphs and pie charts, work great for understanding some type of information. However, to reach a broader audience, we need to find more compelling and intriguing ways of understanding the complex world around us. Research has shown that using more visual metaphors in a data visualization makes that visualization more effective and memorable and I think it’s time for the government to take this seriously. The government needs to explore more innovative ways of explaining and visualizing data.

Be sure to check out the winning entry on Pitch Interactive’s site.