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Numbers Aren’t Enough: Providing Context

In my first post, I wrote about making information useful for ordinary people. It’s been a pleasure and an honor to guest blog here for the past month, and as the month of October is nearly gone, I figure it seems fitting to come back to this subject as my reign as “Blogger of the Month” comes to an end.

Large numbers in particular are difficult to comprehend and the world of government information is full of them: earmarks range from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of dollars, Barack Obama’s fundraising totals have eclipsed six-hundred million dollars, and the $700 billion dollar bailout package had pundits scrambling to describe things that cost $700 billion. The difficulty of explaining just how big some of these numbers are was seen to an absurd end when CNN presented a calculation as to how many McDonald’s apple pies could be purchased for each US citizen with such a sum.

One of the most useful ways of putting information in context that I’ve seen involving government information or anything else are the sparklines at

These graphics show the statistics of each lawmaker in context, as well as the general shape of the distribution of Congress as a whole. Knowing that a congressperson requested $147 million in earmarks may sound like a lot, but seeing that it puts them outside of the top 100 may provide some useful and much needed context to these numbers. The shape of the line also shows if there is a smooth trend or a sharp jump with a small handful of lawmakers raising or spending drastically more than others.

Hopefully more and more presentations of government information will follow the lead of the terrific and attempt to surround information with relative context so that government information isn’t simply available, but understandable.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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