[OpenSpending] Representing things in terms of other things?

Tony Bowden tony at mysociety.org
Thu Apr 18 11:58:31 UTC 2013

On 17 April 2013 22:37, Jonathan Gray <jonathan.gray at okfn.org> wrote:
> a more general discussion to see if people had any cunning ideas about
> how something like this might be done.
> Do you have any thoughts about how this could be done? ;-)

With a bit of overnight reflection, I think the key difference between
the three links you referenced is that the Guardian one falls into the
trap of trying to express things in terms of unrelated things, whereas
the BBC and carbon.to one are about expressing things in
easier-to-understand terms of the same thing.

I think that the second is almost always going to be significantly
better than the first.

The notion that people don't understand big numbers is largely a red
herring. It's true ... but it's irrelevant (and redenominating in terms
of weird units — whether a pint of milk or a nurse's salary — doesn't
address either of those points. Do people _really_ have a stronger
grasp of those than they do of a unit of cold hard currency?)

What really matters in most cases is direct comparison, often in terms
of movement and share. In terms of a country's budget, the raw numbers
are pretty much unimportant[1]. What really matters if how much the
(for example) health budget compares with (a) the defense budget
(etc); (b) previous years' heath budgets; (c) the health budget in
other countries.

Any or all of those can tell a useful story even without a currency
amount. In fact the raw amount is probably actually a distraction from
the more important information, and should ideally only be revealed if
someone wants to explicitly dig down into it.

The practicalities of this will differ depending on whether you're
trying to tell a particular story, or provide tools for people to
discover their own stories.

IMO the Mexican election infographic linked gets a lot of this wrong.
Presumably it's in the "telling a story" camp, but it's difficult for
me to know what that story is. (Some of this is probably because I
don't read Spanish, but one of the goals of an infographic is to make
that less of an issue, no?)  Showing how each party's spend compares
to the others is potentially useful — but I'm missing the wider
context of why that's interesting, e.g. if there's generally a direct
correlation between how much you spend and the share of vote received
— but one party doesn't fit that model for some reason. (And, again,
maybe the issue is simply that I'm not the target audience, and the
people who are can be assumed to have that context — but in my
experience that sort of assumption is more often false than true.)

And expressing that spending in terms of cars or handbags is really
weird. The actual amounts being spent only really matter if you're
making a case that they're they _wrong_ amounts — e.g. if you believe
that too much money is being spent on election campaigns. I can't tell
if that's what's being argued here, but if it is, this seems like the
wrong way to go about it. As a baseline I'd want to see the trend from
previous elections, and ideally I'd want to know how it compares to
other countries too[2]. Beyond that it depends largely on where the
money is coming from — if it's state-funded then comparisons with
consumer spending are even more bizarre than if it's funded by
citizens directly, and in the latter case it depends on whether there
are caps, or businesses can donate etc — thousands of people giving
$50 each to a campaign is very different from a couple of big
businesses giving millions to bankroll their favourite party. Any
variation here could conceivably have an interesting story to

But if the key point isn't the raw amounts of spending, then why do I
care what they are?

Tools to browse the data should enable me to play with all the key
permutations and comparisons. But a graphic needs to distill that
information for me into something with an obvious message. It should
have the explicit goal of telling a specific story, to a specific
audience, for a specific purpose. That goal could be to surprise me,
to excite me, to intrigue me, to anger me, or to provoke me into some
specific action — but please, please, please don't bore me or confuse

And, unfortunately, a great number of the visualisations I see these
days fall into that latter camp. Most of them seem like little more
than someone simply trying to turn a set of numbers into a picture,
with no thought to why those numbers are even interesting in the first


[1] Unless that's the key focus of the piece, which it almost never
is. No-one simply says "We shouldn't be spending £720bn." They say "We
shouldn't be spending £720bn if we're only bringing in £610bn" or "The
£720bn shouldn't be spent like _that_, it should be spent like
_this_", etc.

[2] Though I admit that I often seem to be in a minority on this one.

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