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March 10, 2010

Edward Tufte and the stimulus

The Administration has sought the help of Edward Tufte in designing Recovery.gov. Tufte is the genius expert on how to present information visually. His books are visually stunning and persuasive. As a result of his guidance, Andrew Romano writes in Newsweek, Recovery.gov is "perhaps the clearest, richest interactive database ever produced by the American bureaucracy." It quickly tells you, for example, that very little of the money has been spent so far and that tax cuts are a bigger component than "contracts, grants, and loans."

It seems important for Americans to know these things, so that they can properly judge the use of their $787 billion and the Administration's stewardship--and perhaps also improve the performance of government through their advocacy. But in general, we are asking ever more of citizens and expecting them to be able to absorb ever more information. Disclosure of stimulus funding is one example; another is the Supreme Court's assumption that shareholders can discover the political positions of companies and withdraw their investments when displeased. (Apart from other problems with this decision, the duty to survey companies' political positions will impose steep new cognitive demands on citizens.)

I think better displays of information are promising and should be saluted. But using public information also requires skills and motivations (no matter how clear and attractive the graphs may be). Civic skills are very unequal and inadequate in the United States, and motivation is uneven. Although some individuals just happen to enjoy using public data, most people are motivated only when they are recruited into organizations or movements that have political or public agendas. Such movements are scattered and relatively weak today. So the paradox is better information, presented better, to a smaller number of interested people.

March 10, 2010 4:23 PM | category: none



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