A few weeks ago, we brought you the story of Jonathan Schwabish, the intrepid Congressional Budget Office employee who’s trying to harness the power of data viz for the benefit of our elected officials in Congress. Inspired by one of Edward Tufte’s data viz courses, Schwabish started taking the dense, doorstop-heavy reports that came through his office and distilling their most salient findings into concise, easy-to-follow charts--visual crib notes, essentially, that he hopes will encourage members of Congress to delve deeper into complex issues. It’s a noble project, to be sure.
But it’s not like Congress is totally unfamiliar with the power of a good visual aid. Far from it. Members of the House and Senate routinely come prepared with graphics of one sort or another when they make their arguments on the floor, and thanks to a dedicated C-SPAN employee who’s been archiving screen caps of those moments on Tumblr, you can follow along with all the Congressional data viz action right from home.
"The origin story is really quite simple," explains Bill Gray, a producer at C-SPAN and the caretaker of Floor Charts. Last November, a Huffington Post reporter was tweeting about a floor debate in which Illinois Senator Dick Durbin was making use of a placard bearing a giant bottle of 5-Hour Energy Drink. The HuffPo writer mentioned that someone should be documenting these types of visual follies, and minutes later Gray had taken it upon himself to do just that.
Since then, the site has seen a steady stream of new content. With over 800 posts, it’s a fairly exhaustive repository of charts that have popped up in both the House and Senate. Some of the visuals are simply poster-sized enlargements of Powerpoint slides; others are charts and graphs of varying efficacy dealing with things like the national debt and entitlement spending. Sometimes, devoid of their context, the visuals just end up as delightful non-sequiturs--or, depending on your outlook, proof that some of our congresspeople are indeed off their rockers. In all, it’s a highly amusing look into a strange little corner of congressional protocol.
But not a new one. Such charts have long been a fixture of Congress, Gray explains--a few months back he posted a snapshot of Joe Biden, flanked by a nice big poster, from the early '90s--though these days they’re easier for TV viewers to spot than ever, thanks to recent enhancements in the floor’s camera setup. Still, the producer’s been combing C-SPAN’s archives in his free time in search of more vintage visuals to add to the collection.
Gray says his colleagues at the network know about his side project, and even help him out on occasion when he might be missing good content. "I’ll get an e-mail every once in a while on a day off, or if I’m out of the office if an especially good chart or poster is on the floor," he says.
The fact that Gray resists adding commentary of any sort has probably helped ensure the project’s longevity. It would be easy to cherry-pick some of the, um, less accomplished visual aids and say, "Oh, those idiot Republicans" or "Oh, those idiot Democrats" or "Oh, those idiots in Congress," but Gray maintains his interest is purely that of an objective archivist. "I’ve got what I call the 'C-SPAN itch,'" he says. "Pointing the camera, recording, and sharing--then leaving it up to the public."