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New Government Websites Empower Citizens And Take Industry Honors By Visualizing Vast Amounts Of Data

April 19

In the beginning, government created the Internet. But when web browsers caught on in the mid-1990s, graphics leadership soon passed to private enterprise and innovative non-profits. Yet the U. S. Federal government has the story that affects more than 300 million people, and two new websites are telling it in unprecedented ways. Using data visualization, Recovery.gov and Treasury.gov in collaboration with TMP Government are empowering citizens to understand complex issues. In the process, these sites are winning awards and establishing practices helpful to all web designers.

This transformation has happened thanks to the confluence of several factors: Strong concerns about the economy have made Americans increasingly data conscious. The present administration's dedication to transparency has called for financial sites like Recovery.gov and Treasury.gov to make data easily understandable by the average citizen. Finally, the creative use of data visualization has matured sufficiently to realize this goal.

TMP's work on these two programs has gained an unusual amount of attention. Recently, our Treasury.gov site won a Gold ADDY® from the Metropolitan Washington DC Ad Club, where it was judged among commercial entries.

Meanwhile, this year Recovery.gov, which had previously received a Gold ADDY® as well as many other awards (including a Webby), became a Finalist in the esteemed Advertising Marketing Effectiveness (AME) Awards, an international competition honoring the "world's most effective advertising," i.e., demonstrated groundbreaking solutions to challenging marketing problems. Beyond a "beauty contest" that sways judges by cleverness and flash, some 2,500 organizations submitted strategies and results as well as materials to a panel of prominent industry advertising creative leaders and brand managers from around the world. Only 75 made the cut, a handful of which were from the U.S.A.

In fact, one of our fellow finalists in the Government/Political category was a moving effort by the Government of Kosovo, entitled "The Young Europeans." The campaign by BBR Saatchi and Saatchi Tel Aviv updates the image of Kosovo from the troubles of the past to the opportunities of the future, emphasizing that its demographics are the youngest in Europe. For those of us who work in recruitment advertising, the campaign is definitely inspiring: http://www.ameawards.com/main.php?p=3,1&wp=info&id=405524

Seeing our "companion competitors" drew my attention to the enormity of our achievement, and "enormous" is an apt description. No government project had ever attempted what we did. In just two-and-a-half months, we had kept pace with the Stimulus Act by visualizing information so that Americans could trace virtually every dollar allotted.

Data visualization: "Simple design, intense content."

As part of a team led by SMARTRONIX, TMP redesigned Recovery.gov to provide easy access, in fact no-spin access to all data related to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. This act funded over 168,185 contract awards, all of which are tracked on Recovery.gov. It is the first time this level of transparency has ever been attempted by the Federal government. The site's mission is not only to provide the information but also to allow for the reporting of potential fraud, waste and abuse of Recovery funds.

From the beginning, we saw that Recovery.gov required data visualization modules to make sense of the thousands of awards across the country. A citizen should be able to look up their own area down to the zip code and see what projects are slated or in progress. Because citizens want to track projects as close to real time as possible, we had to create citizen-friendly visualizations as soon as possible.

It was our good fortune that President Obama appointed Edward R. Tufte, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Statistics, and Computer Science at Yale University, to the Recovery Independent Advisory Board. Called variously the "Leonardo da Vinci of Data (New York Times) and "Galileo of Graphics" (Business Week), Dr. Tufte reduces data visualization to a simple dictum: "Simple design. Intense content." In his well-known book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Dr. Tufte reiterates the importance of putting data into comprehensible visual form: "Furthermore, of all methods for analyzing and communicating statistical information, well-designed data graphics are usually the simplest and at the same time the most powerful."

In meeting with him, I gained valuable insights into the uniqueness of our task. To attain this simplicity and power, the very complexity of the information required paring back any extraneous expression.

Of course, we understood Dr. Tufte's vision. It is essentially what we try to do at TMP every day: reduce the complex to simple clear communications.

The Lights On Map

The Lights-On Map
(http://www.recovery.gov/Transparency/MapGallery/Pages/TufteLightsOn.aspx#), designed and created by Edward Tufte, gradually lights up to show the distribution of Recovery awards from February 17, 2009 to December 31, 2010. Each light represents an award. Simply enter your zip code and you will see it displayed on the map.

Data in the Cloud: A Government First

Redesigning Treasury.gov has continued our teamwork with Smartronix as well as the opportunity to stay on the leading edge. Here again, our mandate is to help the audience grasp a vast amount of data in flux. One of the most dramatic changes designed by TMP involves the use of dynamic data visualizations instead of customary tables of statistics. The new Data and Charts Center offers visitors raw data, graphs and charts on topics ranging from Treasury interest rates to the Recovery Act to the International Capital System. For example, investors can take in, at a glance, the Daily Treasury Yield Curve with a click, seeing rates for different maturities.

the Daily Treasury Yield Curve

Dan Tangherlini, Treasury Assistant Secretary for Management, Chief Financial Officer and Chief Performance Officer has commended our efforts in this regard: "The new Treasury.gov website is a major step forward in our efforts to improve the way citizens access the wealth of data and information Treasury produces on a day-to-day basis."

With this site, I feel that government has taken a major step toward transforming large amounts of data into easy-to-use information. Consequently, processing and displaying large quantities of information has also made Treasury a government pioneer in cloud computing.

Economic information changes rapidly. News organizations, businesses and citizens often want the latest in-depth coverage from the Treasury Department, which has key policy and data resources. To meet this demand, Team Smartronix developed Treasury.gov on a Microsoft SharePoint 2010 platform, running on Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), and accelerated by the Akamai Content Delivery Network. The site takes advantage of a powerful, secure infrastructure and a flexible enterprise search and content management system.

This technology remains in the background. Users are only aware of the ease in creating, displaying and assimilating content. The solution provides a robust workflow and collaboration capability that empowers more than 100 Treasury content owners to make updates at the individual office level as opposed to relying on a centralized departmental Web team. This approach marks a significant departure from the previous content management process. Consequently, this delegation of content ownership enables Treasury to provide more timely and relevant information to its constituents. And, thanks to data visualization, this content empowers them to be informed citizens.

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