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Hello, 18F!

As of next month, I’ll be a proud employee of the U.S. government.

In February I join the ranks of 18F, a digital startup-like team embedded in the federal government. Just shy of a year old, 18F collaborates with federal agencies to make digital products that serve the people. For so many reasons, this is a logical next career step:

  • 18F is mission-driven.
  • After organizing Hack for Western Mass for two years, this is a chance to be a professional civic hacker.
  • Some scary smart people from all over the country work at 18F.
  • I’ll get to work from Western Mass and maintain my outside-the-Beltway perspective.

At National Priorities Project (NPP), I championed the cause of better data about our government’s spending, and 18F is working with the Treasury Department on that. NPP uses several federal APIs in its apps, and 18F is helping to grow these services. NPP is a proponent of government transparency, and 18F works in the open.

In other words, this is an extraordinary opportunity to move from advocacy to execution. Thanks to everyone who encouraged me to take the leap, and hello to 18F. I can’t wait to join you.

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Goodbye, NPP

NPP Lunch, by ED and photographer Doug Hall

The NPP Dream Team by ED and photographer Doug Hall

Last month I left my role as Director of Data and Technology at National Priorities Project.

For more than 30 years, this small non-profit has made the complex U.S. budget understandable to ordinary people. As someone who likes breaking down barriers to entry, that mission resonated.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to contribute to NPP and proud of the work I did there, from open-sourcing data on the cost of tax breaks to tracking budget dollars in the states to advocating for better federal spending information. And I’m grateful that NPP supported my involvement in Western Mass data community projects like Hack for Western Mass and the Five College DataFest.

I highly recommend working on a small, mission-driven team at least once in your career—it’s life-changing. When the success or failure of your projects have a direct, meaningful impact on your organization, it’s a whole different ballgame. When you not only have to deliver the work but sell it too, you learn some skills. When generous people from around the country send money to support what you do every day, it’s humbling. Oh, and being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize is also very cool.

Everything I learned at NPP led to the next logical, exciting step. I haven’t said anything publicly because it won’t be official until the background check is done, but if everything goes as planned, I’ll continue working for a better U.S.

Thanks, NPP, for four great years and for the invaluable work you do. See you at the next anniversary party!

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Transitioning to Open Government Data

Earlier this fall, I was on a panel at the Association of Public Data Users annual conference. I do love going to DC and being in a room full of people who know what the Consolidated Federal Funds Report is.

The point of the presentation was:

  • Open government data is really exciting and has so much potential.
  • If it’s going to replace traditional sources of “designed” government data, people will be left behind.

Josh Tauberer’s 2nd Principle of Open Government Data says that data should be provided in its most granular form:

This principle relates to the change in emphasis from providing government information to information consumers to providing information to mediators, including journalists, who will build applications and synthesize ideas that are radically different from what is found in the source material. While information consumers typically require some analysis and simplification, information mediators can achieve more innovative solutions with the most raw form of government data

As a data person, I support this principle 100%. That said, it’s a huge change for organizations used to getting pre-packaged government information. Congratulations–you’ve just been promoted to mediator!


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The Demise of Government-Created Statistical Data?

Washington MonumentLike most data people, I prefer order and logic. So it was a huge shock when I joined a federal budget research organization and started learning about the orderly and logical process by which the U.S. government creates an annual budget. An orderly and logical process that Congress mostly disregards.

Really, the whole politicized debacle offends my sensibilities as a citizen and as a data professional.

Furthermore, the recent zeal for budget cuts has resulted in budget cuts that affect our ability to make smart budget cuts. Specifically, I’m talking about attacks on government-created statistical data—data that’s* used by lawmakers, social service organizations, and businesses to make decisions and allocate increasingly-scarce resources.

Two examples I’ve written about recently:

  • Is Federal Spending Transparency on the Decline?: a guest post for the Sunlight Foundation’s blog about the demise of the Consolidated Federal Funds Report and why that makes it harder to understand federal spending.
  • American Community Survey Under Attack: the House recently passed a spending bill that prohibits the Department of Commerce from funding the American Community Survey (ACS). The yearly ACS replaced the decennial census long-form questionnaire, and its data helps* state and local governments determine how to distribute funds, among other things. See here, here, and here for more information about the widespread usefulness of the ACS.

Of course, order and logic sometimes need to be tempered with a dose of pragmatism. But when our governing body is governed almost entirely by short-term thinking, we should think about not electing them again.

*Language evolves!

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Data Visualizations with Flare

Two weeks ago, the White House released President Obama’s FY 2013 budget request. Using the numbers scrubbed by NPP’s crack research team, I created a few visualizations using the Actionscript/Flash-based Flare data visualization library (h/t Washington Post and Nathan Yau).

Flare was ideal because it includes sample code for a stacked area chart with tooltips–exactly what we wanted. I had some concerns about the Flash output, but many of our website visitors use browsers that don’t support SVG (IE8), so tools like D3 aren’t an option just yet.

Here’s a preview of what we’ll include (not the final version).  The first example is built with normalized data:

[kml_flashembed publishmethod=”static” fversion=”8.0.0″ movie=”” width=”620″ height=”550″ targetclass=”flashmovie”  fvars=” datafile = “]

Apologies, but you need Flash to view this content.

Get Adobe Flash player


For the second example (total federal spending by category), we wanted to convey the overall size of the budget over time, so we didn’t normalize the data. As a result, the huge numbers caused some formatting issues, but it’s still an interesting story–especially the 2009 spike. Also note the rise in healthcare spending over time: 7% of the budget in 1976 and 25% in 2013.

[kml_flashembed publishmethod=”static” fversion=”8.0.0″ movie=”” width=”750″ height=”600″ targetclass=”flashmovie”  fvars=” datafile = “]

Apologies, but you need Flash to view this content.

Get Adobe Flash player


Flare makes it easy to lay out the data and create the animated transitions, and after making a few tweaks to the Flare library and the stacked area sample code, I’m happy with the way these turned out.

That said, I’d be reluctant to use Flare again. It isn’t being actively developed, and there’s nowhere to turn for help when you get stuck (also, the whole Flash thing). Visualizations are evolving, and the tools to create them–no matter how good they are–evolve too.

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No Excuses for Ugly Excel Charts

2/2/2012: Corrected the revised bar chart by setting the horizontal axis minimum to zero. Thanks to Jon Peltier for catch.

Excel remains the de-facto graphing tool at National Priorities Project. A simple chart is often the best way to convey information about federal spending and budgeting, and Excel is the common language among our researchers and IT team.

Using Excel, however, is no excuse for ignoring style and the best practices of information display. So many organizations put out amazing, well-researched publications and then tack on default Excel graphs as an afterthought. But graphs are often what people look at first, and they deserve to be first-class citizens in the editing process.

I created some Excel chart templates for NPP, drawing on two sources for inspiration and practical advice: the classic Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte and The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics by Dona Wong.

Tufte is big on eliminating “unnecessary ink” that distracts from the information, and Wong advocates requiring the least amount of work on the reader’s part. With their advice in mind, I modified Excel’s default bar chart from this:

Excel bar chart - default

Bar chart: Excel default

To this:

Excel bar chart - modified

Bar chart: new template

  • Smaller gap between bars
  • Don’t make readers guess the numbers; if possible, label the bars directly
  • Direct labeling means you don’t need the noisy gridlines or even the x-axis
  • Remove the y-axis tick marks for even more noise reduction
  • Get rid of those zeros by showing data in millions or billions
  • Make sure the entire length of the bars is shown (in this case, by setting the horizontal axis minimum to zero). HT Jon Peltier.

The pie chart got a similar treatment. The Excel default:

Excel pie chart - default

Pie chart: Excel default

The new template:

Excel pie chart - modified

Pie chart: new template

  • Label the pie slices directly—don’t make people use a legend to decode
  • Avoid the default Office color palette and develop your own (ours is based on colors from our website)
  • A white line between pie slices emphasizes the boundaries

Excel isn’t perfect, but it’s out there in the world, and you can’t ignore it. Luckily, a little extra effort goes a long way.

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Be Accessible to the Dummy Demographic

I’ve always considered writing to be one of my professional strengths, and I’m passionate about making technology accessible to people. So when writing about government data for National Priorities Project, I try to make sure the language is easy to understand and non-wonky (wonk is the political equivalent of  nerd). After all, our mission statement says that NPP “makes complex budget information transparent and accessible.”

So when writing a brief paragraph to introduce a new dataset in the Federal Priorities Database, I thought I nailed it:

Federal tax collections represent the amount of federal taxes paid in a year.  The IRS publishes this information by state, breaking it into ten categories.  Because part of our job is to make government-published data more useful, we condensed these ten categories into three: taxes paid by businesses, taxes paid by individuals, and total taxes collected. We believe that these broad categories better reflect what most people want to know about tax revenue and are less confusing than the original data. In fact, the individual taxes calculation played an integral part in a recent publication, Federal Spending Keeps Iowa, New Hampshire Afloat.

I have a few trusted readers in the office, so I sent the text around for some quick feedback. About five minutes later, one of them appeared at my desk, saying that my language was non-accessible and “made her eyes roll back in her head.” Wow. Hard to hear, but she followed up with some specific suggestions that resulted in a much improved, non-eye-rolling version:

We recently took some data from the IRS and made it even better. We call it Federal Tax Collections, and it shows federal taxes collected in a year. Although the IRS helpfully provides these numbers for each state, they break the amounts into ten categories, not all of which are useful. For example, do any but the wonkiest people need to know how much railroad retirement tax was collected in 2010? To make things easier, we condensed these categories into taxes paid by businesses, taxes paid by individuals, and total taxes paid. We think these broader groupings are less confusing and more practical. Our recent publication, Federal Spending Keeps Iowa, New Hampshire Afloat, shows the individual taxes category in use.

Thank goodness for honest feedback! It seems obvious, but the lessons here are easy to overlook when you’re cranking through a to-do list.

  • No matter what kind of deadline you think you have, it’s always worth the time to get other eyes on something your organization will publish, even if it’s just a small blurb, and even if your colleagues are busy. After all, it’s in everyone’s best interest to show the world your best stuff.
  • Make sure your trusted readers include, as my friend calls herself, the dummy demographic, a term of affection for readers who aren’t experts in your subject matter.
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Student Experience and EDUCAUSE 2010

Earlier this year, I took a new job within Wharton Computing: “IT Director of Student Experience,” a position that acknowledges the need for a dedicated liaison between students and the various contingents of our large IT organization.

Students are challenging constituents because they’re transient and incredibly busy—there’s little opportunity to develop long-term relationships.  Aside from that challenge, the whole not-coding-for-a-living thing has been an adjustment.  Now when I do something wrong, there’s no error message to explain the problem.

But so far it’s been a fun ride.  Last week I had the opportunity to attend EDUCAUSE 2010 and, along with a colleague, tell the story of why we created the Student Experience role and what we hope to accomplish.  I’m especially proud that Spock, The Dude, Harry Truman, and Wile E Coyote make appearances the presentation.

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Higher Ed Web Symposium: Don Norman and Cory Ondrejka

Cory Ondrejka's outstanding Angry Dinosaurs keynote

Last week, the third annual Higher Ed Web Symposium was held at Wharton.  Despite being a speaker at the inaugural symposium in 2008, this was the first year I’ve been able to enjoy the event as an attendee.

The keynote sessions were especially outstanding.

Don Norman, a user interface legend and personal hero of mine, spoke about Living With Complexity, also the title of his upcoming book.  Basically,  he argues that complexity is good for us as long as it’s accompanied by good design.  Mr. Norman is a personal hero because so many principles from1988’s The Design of Everyday Things still hold true.  Also, because his work is a comfort whenever I’m confused by an elevator or walk into a glass door.

Watch Don Norman’s talk here.

Cory Ondrejka, a Second Life co-founder, blew away the audience with his Angry Dinosaurs talk on Day Two.  In 75 minutes and 300+ slides, Cory talked about institutional incompetence and hacks for accelerating change by citing examples from the music industry, the newspaper business, and the 19th century US Navy.  A fast-paced, fascinating talk.  I’ve already watched it twice.

Watch Cory Ondrejka’s talk here.  It has implications for everyone in an organization, not just designers and technologists.

To all of my colleagues who organized the Higher Ed Web symposium and its virtual counterpart, congratulations and thank you!

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Daniel Pink and the Evolution of Learning

link to Daniel Pink's keynote

Daniel Pink's keynote

On May 13th, 2009, Wharton Computing sponsored the inaugural Evolution of Learning Symposium.  I’m proud to have served on the planning committee for this successful event that featured a keynote by Daniel Pink and a panel discussion by some great educators:

  • Chris Lehmann, founding principal of Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy
  • Doug Lynch, Vice Dean of Penn’s Graduate School of Education
  • Karl T. Ulrich, professor of Entrepreneurship and e-Commerce at the Wharton School

It was pretty amazing to sit in a room and listen to these brains hash out some of the issues facing higher ed (and by extension, K-12) right now.  A complete recap, including speaker videos, photos, and a copy of the obligatory live Tweets* are available here.

*For the record, still not a fan of the live Tweeting.

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