A few days ago, the Sunlight Labs blog put a post up, titled "Should data.gov Visualize? Probably Not" [sunlightlabs.com]. In terms of provoking you to read, I have copied their title for this post as well.
Anyway, the post somehow caught my attention.
The first reason against providing government-backed data visualizations is as follows: "We didn't just leave it out because we didn't think of it. We left it out on purpose, along with lots of other feature ideas and concepts. We think that providing a centralized repository of government data in modern developer-friendly formats is a hard enough problem for government to solve. ... If the goal is to get the data in front of the most eyeballs possible, government should be providing the data in usable formats and focusing primarily on that."
The second even makes a connection between data visualization and "bells and whistles": "The second reason why government should avoid spending time on adding visualizations or other bells and whistles to Data.gov is because it actually hurts transparency. Visualizations, like any other form of news product, can be editorial-- even inadvertently. If government puts more of a priority on producing great visualizations and user experience than on providing quality accurate data with a great feedback loop, then it runs a pretty good chance of not adhering to the goal of being actually transparent. "
However, Sunlight Labs, which among other things, is
very busy redesigning aiming to encourage the discussion about the design of the government transparency website data.gov (see some preliminary screenshots here), seem to have quickly backed down its initial viewpoint, at least in a post the following day. The post "Are('R') You a visualizer?" now invites readers to provide constructive feedback: "Should we hire somebody that does good data visualizations full time? Should we have a contest for best data visualization? What kinds of data visualizations would be successful in our field?" Well, maybe Tufte can be head of the US Government Visualization Office?
Seriously though, what do you think? Are they correct in stressing that data.gov should not focus on data visualization, but rather providing clean reliable data to citizens?
This seems to be a very interesting question. Data.gov goes after the ideal of offering free, transparent governmental information, but what does "free" really mean, if it is not made readily accessible for a lay person? On one side, creating a data repository/API means that data.gov will specifically target the press, advocacy groups, political lobbyists, think tanks and maybe the occasional hobby software developer annex data junky with some free time. Or, in other words, organizations and businesses that are motivated by some sort of agenda and "editorial-- even inadvertently" visualizations. So, if not data.gov themselves, who will spend time, money and effort to create visualizations that empower the individual non-expert citizen to analyze personally relevant data?
On the other side, there might be the question what government-backed data visualizations actually will be able to accomplish. Put differently, have widely acclaimed projects like Gapminder or WorldMapper truly reached, engaged and involved a large, lay audience? In terms of the population of a whole country probably not, but one could note they did not having the backing, nor the relevancy, provided by the US Government.