Image courtesy of the Government Printing Office.
The United States' federal budget is one of the most impenetrable, labyrinthine documents in existence. Known for its confounding innards and exceptional length, it's a tome that many legislators probably don't read in full, much less America's voting citizens. Which is a shame, since the information contained in the budget is an indispensable tool for informed voting and legislative decision making—a means of holding politicians and bureaucrats to account.
Enter Solomon Kahn, a man who works in analytics and business intelligence at Paperless Post. He aims to make the budget accessible to all. Yesterday, Kahn unleashed his US Budget Visualization (USBV) tool. Organized by years going back to 1976, USBV allows users to click on a particular fiscal year, where they immediately see important numbers and facts.
Screenshot of the US Budget Visualization tool for 2013.
The actual data visualization is arranged in colored boxes, which users can double-click on to open up more detailed data on specific bureaus. If a user wants to know how Health and Human Services money is spent, for example, they can proceed through the department and see how many federal dollars are allotted to the Federal Hospital Insurance Trust Fund.
As a quick reference tool, USBV is incredibly useful and easy to use. And Kahn hopes to expand the project (via Kickstarter) to explain what all of these "cryptic budget items... actually do." Kahn and I spoke via email about the genesis of the project and how he built it. He sees it not simply as a means of deciphering budget data, but a mechanism for charting the evolution of the US federal budget over time.
Motherboard: Many know the US budget is impenetrable, but what specifically motivated you to pursue this US Budget Visualization project?
Solomon Kahn: I was frustrated because I wanted to explore the US budget, but there were no tools to allow me to do that. There were places to find how much money was spent in a department, but nowhere I could discover what it was being spent on, and no way to put that information in context. For example, how much of the US Department of Education budget is for student loans versus primary and secondary education? What percentage of the US budget goes to education? When the government collects taxes, what percentage are individual income taxes versus corporate income taxes? How important is the estate tax?
This is incredibly important information because, more than any other document, the US budget gives people transparency into exactly what the government is doing. Politicians can say whatever they want during election season, but the budget is the ultimate arbiter. Every single president might say that education is the number one priority, but when you see that it’s only 1.41 percent of the 2013 budget, you can more accurately judge that statement.
The SEC requires every public corporation to have easily accessible financial statements, but the US financial statements, while public, were in a format that no regular person could decipher. As a result, nobody I knew had actually ever seen a copy of the US budget.
More than any other document, the US budget gives people transparency into exactly what the government is doing.
At my job at Paperless Post, I’m in charge of analytics and business intelligence, so instead of complaining, I decided to build a tool to solve this problem and make the budget accessible to everyone.
How did you go about building the visualization tool?
I built the visualization using d3, which is a data visualization framework. I got the budget, inflation, and population data from various government websites. The project took about six months to complete. Along the way I got lots of great feedback from friends, family, and colleagues.
Is there a partisan motivation in what you're doing, or are you just interested in open government as a matter of principle?
This visualization is completely non-partisan. The information is equally important whether you are a democrat, republican, liberal or conservative. This visualization covers the budget since 1976, so it has seen every permutation and combination of political control.
This is what actually happened, not how motivated politicians want to explain things. I have no strong political leanings, but even if I did, this is just raw data. One of my biggest frustrations in politics is that politicians can get away with being vague about super important topics because we, as citizens, don’t have the data necessary to judge what they are saying. Imagine a CEO going to a company's board of directors and asking them to make decisions without seeing the company budget. That is what we ask of US citizens every election.
Although I’m certainly interested in open government, the purpose of this was to create a tool that normal people can use to make better-informed political decisions. This data has always been “open” but was never in a format where people could actually use it.
Where have other US budget visualization projects failed, in your opinion? And where do you think that yours best succeeds?
I don’t think other visualizations have failed. Anyone working to help show the US budget to people who have never seen it is doing great work. I think my visualization best succeeds at giving people the tools to easily answer their own questions about how the US spends and makes money. To accomplish this, it incorporates two elements that I haven’t seen in other budget visualizations: the ability to take any single item and see how it changed over time, as well as the ability to explore the underlying components of that item.
When you actually go through the budget, every 30 seconds you’ll scratch your head and ask, “What does that thing actually do?”
It also incorporates the ability to switch between per capita and total amounts, as well as inflation adjusted or total dollars. Lastly, no other budget visualization allows people to toggle between the income coming in and the expenses going out.
With the data you've already visualized, what are some things that people might be struck by as they move through the various years and folders like "Expenses" and "Inflation Adjusted"?
So much! I learned that food stamps are part of the Department of Agriculture. I learned that the US spends more money now on defense than we did at the peak of the Cold War, even after adjusting for inflation. I learned that education was only 1.4 percent of the budget; and, of that, only 20 percent went to primary and secondary education.
I learned that health care taxes are out of control. We have more than tripled what we pay in health care taxes per person since 1976, even after adjusted for inflation! Without inflation it’s 16 times what we paid in 1976. These are just the tiniest fraction of the many incredibly interesting insights about our government in this visualization.
Tell me about the upcoming Kickstarter campaign. You say, "Our next step is to take all these cryptic budget items, and explain what they actually do." How will you do this, and how monumental a task is it?
When you actually go through the budget, every 30 seconds you scratch your head and ask, “What does that thing actually do?”
For example, starting in 2007, we began spending $100 million per year on something called the “Electric Reliability Organization.” What does that mean? Why did we start it in 2007? What is its purpose?
Or you might see that we currently spend $7.2 billion per year on the “Railroad Retirement Board.” What is this? Why are we spending that money? These are questions that anyone who goes through this data is bound to ask, and that we as citizens need to know.
The purpose of the planned Kickstarter campaign is to go through every single budget item and answer the questions that any normal person would ask about that item. To accomplish that, it’s just lots of hard work. The data is out there, and when it isn’t, you can file a freedom of information act request. That’s why we’re planning a Kickstarter campaign—to finance all those hours of hard work and research.