Why Goolsbee's Good.

Today brings us another of Austan Goolsbee's white-board presentations, this one about the GM turnaround:

This combination of the current (a top White House aide in his shirtsleeves taping a web video) and the low-tech (a white board) is fairly compelling not merely because of the juxtaposition, or because of Goolsbee's smoldering charisma. It shows that he has a pretty good understanding of how to present data persuasively, at least in the first half of the video. Because creating data visualizations is so easy these days, we get both good and bad. There are oodles of tools out there that allow designers to create fascinating and informative visualizations, and an entire culture has grown up around data visualization. There are many sites that celebrate it -- see here, here, here, here, or here. On the other hand, many people don't realize that you don't actually have to use the default chart settings on Excel, which have brought the world enough ugly charts to reach to Pluto and back.

A lot of what you'll find on those sites I linked to leans more toward the pretty and less toward the useful, but the chart Goolsbee uses in the first half of the video shows how a chart can tell a persuasive story simply, and with no fancy software. His chart tells a story that's easy to understand, even apart from the specifics of the data. GM started out good, then got worse and worse. Because his chart is dynamic, he can introduce the change -- the government moves in, and bammo, we get the story's uplifting climax, with the large red bar he draws in. You don't need any pre-existing knowledge to grasp it, and the point it makes is clear and unambiguous.

When he turns his white board over, things get worse. He's trying to tell a story here too, but he forgets to make his chart dynamic. All he does is draw arrows to the plants he's talking to, when he could have used the opportunity to introduce some new information, like the number of workers being employed at these plants. So he was one for two, but the video nevertheless shows that as great as all the technology is, it's only a vehicle for the story the data have to tell. As I said, many data visualizations are more about creating a cool-looking picture than revealing something interesting about the underlying data. But the White House does seem to be doing its part to advance the cause of good charting.

-- Paul Waldman

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