How Master Information Designer Edward Tufte Can Help Obama Govern

Late last week, President Barack Obama announced that he would be appointing a gentleman named Edward Tufte to the independent panel that advises the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board (i.e., the team of inspectors general who track how stimulus funds are spent). It wasn't a particularly sexy announcement; no thrill went up Chris Matthews's leg or anything. But in its own quiet way, the news was heartening for anyone who believes that government can and should communicate more clearly with the American people—especially when it comes to the much derided (and misunderstood) Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Among fans, Tufte is known as "the Da Vinci of Data." After receiving a B.A. and M.S. in statistics from Stanford and a Ph.D. in political science from Yale, the Beverly Hills native launched his academic career by signing on to teach courses in political economy and data analysis at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs. Over time, he became increasingly interested in information design—charts, graphs, diagrams—and in 1982 he took out a second mortgage on his home in order to self-publish his first book on the subject, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.It redefined the field and was later named one of Amazon's 100 best books of the century.

Four major volumes and dozens of consulting gigs later—think IBM, NASA, The New York Times—Tufte now spends much of his time crisscrossing the country and teaching one-day seminars on how to organize dynamic, multidimensional information on a two-dimensional surface. "Successful stock-market speculators, visionaries, creative stars of advertising agencies, the Dilberts of the business world, the heads of Fortune 500 companies, and even Bill Gates all know Tufte and showcase his works on their bookshelves," explains one admirer. "His design principles are present in every well-planned Web site, sophisticated magazine, and major U.S. newspaper as well as in brochures, train schedules, and even hospital invoices."

Curious to find out how Tufte hooked up with Obama, I gave him a call earlier today on (what else?) his iPhone. Tufte's philosophy is simple but powerful: get rid of ornamentation—"chartjunk," in Tuftese—and let the data speak for itself. (For a demonstration, click here and scroll down.) On the phone, Tufte told me that he was contacted by the recovery board's Webmaster about a year ago. It turned out that the official had attended one of Tufte's seminars and been duly impressed. His request? That Tufte help to sketch out a site that would chart how every single dollar of the $787 billion stimulus bill was being spent. Tufte's initial impulse, he says, was to suggest "the metaphor of a good news Web site like Google News or " rather than a "government statistical agency"—that is, "a high-intensity information reporting system that has a kind of independent credibility." Anything that smacked of marketing or propaganda was to be avoided at all costs.

"This is about visual thinking and visual evidence," Tufte says. "It's not about commercial art. The last thing in the world that's needed here is a designer. What's needed is an analytical, statistical, quantitative approach. Reporting is different from pitching. Artists who design for marketing purposes inherently have problems with credibility. This is something very different in spirit. It's about accountability and transparency—with heavy, heavy amounts of data."

The result is the current incarnation of—which, as anyone who has spent significant amounts of time scouring government Web sites for information will tell you, is perhaps the clearest, richest interactive database ever produced by the American bureaucracy. You can follow the money by state, congressional district, ZIP code, recipient, and federal agency; you can find out how many jobs have been funded and how many projects have been completed; you can even chart how the cash flows through the various strata of government. Most important, you can do all of this without smashing your laptop against the wall in frustration. "I don't think there's any other Web site that's tried to explain $787 billion in spending to a great many people," Tufte says. "It's a very interesting problem. That's why I wanted to take part."

It's clear at this point that at least some of the public's animosity toward the stimulus stems from miscommunication; more than 90 percent of Americans, for example, believe that the Recovery Act hasn't created a single new job, even though it funded nearly 600,000 in 2009, and many more since then. These misconceptions are a huge political problem for Obama, who has repeatedly claimed that the stimulus was both necessary and effective—and he's unlikely to dispel them with yet another speech. Good information design could conceivably provide the public with a more accurate picture of the bill's accomplishments.

Right now, Tufte isn't quite sure what his new, more official advisory role will entail. "It's a kind of personal adventure," he says. "I imagine I'll learn a lot." Ultimately, it would be unreasonable to expect charts and graphs to unite the American people behind a bill they've already decided to despise. That probably—OK, certainly—won't happen. But at the very least it's reassuring to know that someone dedicated to letting the data speak for itself is now in charge of helping it speak as loudly and clearly as possible. "The dream is that someday the recovery effort would be a template for providing transparency and accountability in all government spending," Tufte says. "This is a start."