Evaluating the charts and graphics in President Obama’s “enhanced experience” version of the State of the Union

In addition to the speech, President Obama’s State of the Union involved an “enhanced experience” with plenty of charts and graphics. Here are some thoughts about how well this data and information was presented:

But sometimes, even accuracy can be misleading, especially when it comes to graphics and charts. On Tuesday night, President Obama gave his State of the Union address and the White House launched an “enhanced” experience, a multimedia display with video, 107 slides and 27 charts…

Overall, Few said Obama’s team created well-designed charts that presented information “simply, clearly and honestly.”

On a chart about natural gas wells:

“This graph depicting growth in natural gas wells suffers from a problem related to the quantitative scale, specifically the fact that it does not begin at zero. Although it is not always necessary to begin the scale of a line graph at zero, in this case because the graph was shown to the general public, narrowing the scale to begin at 400,000 probably exaggerated people’s perception of the degree in change.”

On a chart about “energy-related CO2 emissions”:

We found that the data behind this chart match up with what the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports in its table of U.S. Macroeconomic Indicators and CO2 Emissions. But the y-axis is too compressed and as a result the chart exaggerates the trend a bit.

On a chart about American troop levels in Afghanistan:

Annotating discrete data points as this chart does can be helpful to tease out the story in a bunch of numbers, but that’s not a replacement for properly labeled axes. And this chart has none.

It seems like the data was correct but it often was put into a compressed context – not surprisingly, the years Obama has been in office or just a few years beforehand. This is a basic thing to keep in mind with charts and graphs: the range on the axes matters and manipulating these can change people’s perceptions of whether there have been sharp changes or not.

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