Charting the US 2011 Budget

The NYTimes has done something about the US Budget and its huge deficits that is most commendable – it has made the sprawling size and growth of the US Federal Government budget understandable. Not Business Week, not Forbes, not the Wall Street Journal nor any other of the Titans of the Business Press have done anything close to this. See the screenshot below or go to the NYTimes page.

Now this chart is teeming with information about the budget. First, each square or budget block represents a major budget item and its spending . This spending amount and its size relative to the total budget is reflected in the proportional size of the block – so viewers can see at once what are the big ticket items in the budget versus the smaller costing programs like Energy and Transportation. And to see if these programs were big ticket items in the past budget, just click on the blue button on the top which says Show 2010 Budget and you get last years budget in the same layout.

But there is more – lots more interactive info here. Hover your mouse over any item like Defense and the key programs in Defense spending will popup a detail window which show the spending for individual programs within the Defense departments spending.Move your mouse around and other program details will conveniently popup.

Also the budget blocks are color coded. Reddish blocks indicate programs where spending has gone down from the previous year while greenish blocks indicate spending increases. The darker the color, the greater the decrease [darker red] or increase [darker green]. Very useful to see where the spending is shifting to and from. In short this give NYTimes readers a very useful view of how their tax dollars are spent and what programs are gaining or losing funds. But the fundamental problem is the gap between spending and the tax revenues to pay for those items.

All of this is done in Flash and the response time is remarkably good [in Linux and Windows, no results in Mac]. It was surprising to see how powerful the charting is in Flash – particularly the interaction.

Budget Deficit View

Then the NYTimes tops the above chart with the Budget Puzzle – a very nifty piece of Web Scripting which allows the public to see how difficult it is to balance the budget. Again see the screenshot below or go to the explanatory page at the NYTimes:

Again this chart allows users to interact with the US Budget in novel ways. One can cut programs by checking the box next to various items. In the above screenshot, ye Editor has eliminate all earmarks; but this bad practice does not allow for substantial savings. That will require cutbacks in key programs like Defense and Medicare where the popularity of the programs puts a big brake on what can be cut.

Even more interesting, the NYTimes allows reader+budgeters to also cut/raise taxes in key areas. As it turns out these tax changes have some of the largest beneficial effects on the deficit. As well the chart tabulates how much deficit reduction is done by budgets cuts and how much by tax changes. In general this chart gives NYTimes readers more than a simple glimpse into the complex task of government budgeting.

This time the coding is done both in JavaScript [the sliding results block among other effects], but also Flash for some of the neat effects. So despite the Apple ban on Flash, NYTimes is still proceeding full steam ahead with outstanding charting and interactivity using Flash. I have seen some HTML5, primarily on the video page; but this leader in mashables and compelling Web page industry, is sticking to Flash craft – and doing outstanding work.

Summary

So the NYTimes used Web widgets and mashables in such a way to set a very high standard for coverage of the Federal budget in a both a complete and easily understood way. What would make it even better is if there were a similar block chart of the Federal tax revenues and their sources. This would then complete the picture and allow readers to see much more clearly [pixel perfect clarity so to speak]who is paying for what. Yes it is true, the various deductions and exceptions in the tax code make this a challenging task; but the payoff for the electorate knowing what is happening with their taxes is most welcome. Thus, the NYTimes could become truly an “all the news fit to print” resource.