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.

Lots of American cultural values on display in State of the Union speech

While State of the Union Speeches can contain specific information and plans, they are often great places to spot American cultural values and ideals. Democrat or Republican, the themes are often similar. (Of course some topics are more contentious than others but these speeches tend to try to appeal to a broad demographic.) Here is the text of the full speech.

Some of the ideas contained in the speech:

-Americans who work hard should be able to get ahead

-There is an American Dream of a middle-class lifestyle

(Here is a summary of these first two: “They understood they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share – the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.”)

-American will win out in the end

-American workers are the best in the world

-More and better education will help our country move forward

-Our troops are heroes and embody the best of America

-May God bless the United States of America

Any other big common ideas you can spot?

A variety of opinions on Obama’s “sputnik moment”

One particular historical reference in President Obama’s State of the Union address has attracted some attention. Amidst a section urging America to innovate, Obama said (according to the White House transcript):

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon.  The science wasn’t even there yet.  NASA didn’t exist.  But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.  Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race.  And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal.  We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology -– (applause) — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

Some liked this reference, others did not. The Atlantic sums up some of the reaction here.

This is the problem with historical analogies. On one hand, Sputnik stirs up certain emotions and memories for the American public. American history books suggest this was a consequential moment as America altered its course to keep up with the Soviet Union. On the other hand, this moment was over 50 years ago, it came during a unprecedented period in American history, and there is no more Soviet Union.

It would be interesting to see poll data on what viewers thought of the Sputnik reference. Is this something that resonates with a majority of Americans? Does this idea of an outside threat (whether it is the Soviet Union, or Japan, or China) motivate people?