Back in June, something amazing happened in Congress. During the annual long-term budget outlook hearing, Maryland Congressman Chris van Hollen raised a single piece of paper confidently in the air. He pointed at it, cited it, and used it as an anchor for discussion on the future of our economy.
This paper wasn’t a bill or even a full budget report. It was an infographic.
Today, it seems like much of that hearing was for naught; gridlock prevailed, and the sequester came to fruition. But that moment still represented a turning point in the way Congress understands the costs of public policy—all thanks to one go-getter in the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) who’s trying to visualize a more sensible future.
Like most people inside the CBO, Jonathan Schwabish is an economist by trade, with a few MAs and a Ph.D. to boot. Talking to him on the phone, I realize that he would make a great spokesperson for the organization. Because if he ever feels the urge to bury me in jargon, he never shows it.
"Our client, if you will, is Congress. Some members have a plan to change Social Security in some way, and they ask us how this is going to change the system, or an individual’s benefits? And we go through and estimate the effects," Schwabish tells me. "Congress asks us, ‘What’s this going to cost?’ Food stamps, farm subsidies, anything you could think of."
Before attending a one-day Edward Tufte course a few years back, Schwabish had no background in visual communication. But that one seminar "opened his eyes" about the way the CBO was presenting their research to their client. Schwabish snowballed his interest into a basic graphic design course, and at the course’s conclusion, the teacher wanted Schwabish to create a pamphlet. Schwabish designed an infographic for CBO instead. And since then, he’s been spending about 25% of his time making infographics alongside an expanded team of colleagues.
To build their projections, the CBO deals in some remarkably advanced statistics, including a massive human simulator called CBOLT. The software probably looks like a giant spreadsheet, but I like to imagine CBOLT as a miniature diorama filled with 300,000 Lego citizens. They get married, lose/gain employment, pay Social Security, go on disability, have kids, and even die—all in an extreme fast-forward, as far as 75 years into the future. It’s from projections like this one, based in part upon real citizen data, that the CBO is able to hand Congress confident articulations as to just how changing Medicare benefits will affect Americans 20 years from now.
There’s just one catch: When CBO digs into a problem, they really dig. Their reports, constructed by some of the world’s most learned economists over several months, become 70-page, highly technical deconstructions of an issue’s finest minutiae. And that thick report is what’s handed to our members of Congress to comb through and shape policy. "People get really involved in their report, so they get in the weeds a little bit," Schwabish explains. "We ask what is the base fact? What is the single sentence, the headline, you want people to know?"
Indeed, even the term "infographic" is a bit too catch-all compared to Schwabish’s extremely specific opinions regarding graphics for congressional use. Whereas companies like Periscopic—which has actually consulted for the CBO’s infographic program—build complex, interactive visualizations of data, Schwabish is after timesavers. For instance, he’s pioneering a tool he calls Snapshots, which are bite-sized charts that could be printed on 4" x 6" index cards. They present one core idea—the brass-tacks figures behind a discussed policy. "Members of Congress want that number right away," Schwabish says. "I even try to think of Twitter-like headlines when I create these graphics."
In all fairness, Schwabish is the first to admit that such simplification often does the research little justice. The CBO’s economists didn’t fill their 70 pages of report with nothing, after all. But for the members of Congress who weren’t going to read the report (the vast majority, I wonder?), the graphics are a means of delivering the most relevant bit on a topic.
"I view it as, there are hopefully people who may not have been interested in the report, but now they are, because something in the infographic piques their interest," Schwabish says. "And there’s another group who was never going to read the report, and isn’t going to read the report, but maybe they’ll still get something out of the document."
I ask Schwabish what the government looks like 20 years from now, whether advanced infographics might replace the reports themselves and infiltrate the government as a whole. He’s skeptical. Data visualization is a separate skill set from stats and econ, he stresses, and unless data visualization becomes part of the core curriculum learned by these graduate students (which isn’t a totally outlandish idea), it’s unlikely that government departments can afford the extra expenditures for specialists.
And that’s a shame. Because so long as just a few politicians are tasked with voting on a multitude of specialty topics that, quite honestly, have little natural overlap with the skill and knowledge sets required to be elected to office, we should be spending whatever it takes to ensure that they actually understand the issues they’re debating so fervently.
But then again, I guess even the simplest of infographics is probably still more complicated than just voting by party. (I kid! I kid!)