Top 5 Public Data Visualizations

September 2, 2015 12:00 pm PDT | Open Data

Nationwide, governments are busting out with open data portals. Instead of leaving agency workers, nonprofit advocates, independent innovators, and curious citizens to wade through burgeoning mountains of data, data experts are increasingly turning to visualizations to convey the stories inside datasets.

The nation is rich in diversity of people, circumstances, and regions, so not surprisingly we find engaging — and downright useful — visualizations all over the place. From Socrata’s Data Lens to individual artistic efforts, from NYC to Chattanooga to the skies above, here are five of our current favorites. Send in yours!

Chattanooga’s Budget Tree

The elegant civic brilliance of melding the city’s open data initiative with its town library keeps us in love with Chattanooga, day-in and day-out. Its Capital Budget Tree Map similarly draws us in time and time again: In a communal, village-green way, citizens can immediately grasp the relative sizes of the budget pie allocated to familiar and new projects.

Chattanooga budget visualization

A quick occasional look allows taxpayers to keep an eyeball on spending priorities, while those with more time or specific interests can use the video tutorials and portal tools to drill down for particulars about spending, timelines, and more — including funding sources and five-year budget plans for each capital budget item.

U.S. Wind Map

From the fabulous collaboration between Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg comes the U.S. Wind Map, as featured on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOOA) Climate.gov teaching page. The map, explains NOAA, “shows direction speed and patterns of surface winds across the U.S.” Updated hourly, the mesmerizing, even slightly haunting visualization dispenses with state borders and roads.

Powered by the National Digital Forecast Database, the map provides a living portrait of the “invisible, ancient source of energy surrounds us — energy that powered the first explorations of the world, and that may be a key to the future,” say Viégas and Wattenberg. The map “shows you the delicate tracery of wind flowing over the U.S.,” from gentle 1 mph breezes to gusts over 30 mph.

I Quant NY

The power of Ben Wellington’s open data blog, I Quant NY, comes from his understated, targeted, bang-for-the-buck work. This style extends to his visualizations — he deftly portrays his discoveries of small stories that have big impact on daily life in NYC. Wellington shows how anyone, whether they have a graphic designer on staff or not, can turn an important data story into a visually meaningful, compelling piece of work. Well — we say “anyone”; it helps that Wellington is a whiz in computer science and data analysis. One of our favorite Wellington visualizations: New York’s Noisiest Neighborhoods.

Socrata partners with NYC to produce the New York City Open Data Portal, which includes 311 data on citywide noise complaints. Wellington maps these out and notes, “In New York, there are two kinds of noise: the sounds of the city (car horns, loud neighbors, construction equipment, barking dogs) and the sound of New Yorkers complaining about it.” Wellington’s full analysis unearths the effects of parties and loud talking, and contemplates the days and times when people most desperately want their sleep. (Wellington will also be the keynote speaker at Socrata’s Customer Summit.)

Data Lens and NYC Open Data

The Big Apple, long a trailblazing open data town, offers citizens a gigantic amount of open data — over 1300 datasets. But the city’s partnership with Socrata makes it all user-friendly with Socrata Data Lens, “a easy-to-use tool allowing users to more easily understand the insights behind the numbers.” NYC is piloting several datasets in Data Lens, from restaurant inspections to car accidents to Wi-Fi locations.

NYC Data LensThe effort gives New Yorkers direct, visual access to the information they want. For example what if you’re caught between subway stops with a work deadline at your heels, needing a Wi-Fi connection? No problem: Come to street level and tap into the Wi-Fi dataset to find a spot on the fly, by map, price, and more — you can even consider the weather while you’re at it, with the breakdown between indoor and outdoor locations. Learn more about Data Lens. 

Aaron Koblin’s Data Art

We just love Koblin’s work. It’s tempting to simply point to his Sheep Market, and call it good: Click on sheep for a while (try it!), and you’ll find yourself pondering human individuality, wage equity, and other deep topics, while also enjoying the comic-strip fun of looking at a lot of wacky cartoon sheep. But stopping there wouldn’t do justice to another of Koblin’s visualization feats, Flight Patterns.

Koblin’s project prompts a better intellectual connection between the rumbles we hear overhead and the socio-economic realities jets influence here on the ground: How does airplane traffic affect our economy, not to mention the sensory experiences of people who live under flight paths and near airports? And are airport workers paid a living wage? We may not be aware “of the social, economic, cultural, and political importance of these technologies,” comments Koblin in CityLab. “By visualizing them, it may lead to a better understanding of the forces that are shaping our future.”

Koblin sums up well the storytelling power of visualizations in discussing Sheep Market. “It’s actually seeing the ways that people fail, the different intricacies and character,” he explains, that makes the data story, and “you see that in all data visualization, it’s the little variations that give the character and make it interesting.”

Curious about how your organization can use data visualizations? At the Socrata 2015 Customer Summit, Jon Schwabish will share how providing a digestible, visual look at data helps reveal the big picture, aiding decision-makers as they tackle emerging problems.


If you’d like to learn how to create your own compelling visualizations, sign up for our free online course on Visualization and Communication through the Socrata Data Academy.


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