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Visualizing Federal Data

At the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) we have a long history of using data graphics in our reports and congressional testimonies to explain our findings. From photographs, tables, and charts in the 1950s; to computer-generated data graphics in the mid-1980s; to the complex interactive graphics we’re just starting to use this year, our graphics have been critical in helping decision makers understand relationships and see trends in federal data.

Joseph Campbell, GAO Comptroller General, 1954-1965
GAO employees using teleconferencing in modernized space in a regional office 1980s

The static data graphics that we produce today are reviewed just as rigorously as everything else in our reports. Every aspect of a GAO data graphic is checked to verify its accuracy, and for more complicated graphics, the methodology used to create the graphic is also checked. The advanced maps that we produce go through a formal coding review process. Hundreds of our static data graphics can be found on Flickr and can be used for research or reporting.

A graph from a U.S. GAO report: DEFENSE LOGISTICS, titled: Figure 2: Percent of Shipments Meeting Time-Definite Delivery Standards.

Over the past year, we have begun producing interactive graphics for some of our reports. Interactive graphics help us transparently release large data sets. For instance, an interactive graphic in a recent report visualized more than $14 billion in grants that were distributed over a five year period to community police centers across the nation. Within the graphic, users can hover over their cities on the map to see the federal grants they received, they can switch to a table view and sort the data, or they can download the full data set.

Graphic from an interactive map showing the 2010 grant awards info for City of Binghamton, New York

Throughout GAO.gov we now have about 40 interactive graphics, mainly focused on topics related to the federal debt and the federal, state, and local fiscal outlooks. This content is highly relevant to public debates, and is now in a format that people can easily see, explore, and use on computers, tablets, and smartphones.

Partial federal debt graph, titled Historical Events Affecting Federal Debt Held by the Public (1797-2012)
Federal debt pie chart, showing 2010 state and local expenditures fiscal outlook

We hope you have a chance to explore the interactive graphics on GAO.gov soon!

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