In my research for the Death and Taxes poster I come across all sorts of charts and graphs. The are graphics produced by people in the pentagon, a half trillion dollar enterprise. While some are simple and to the point, others have gone off the deep end of visualization methods.
Next week I will be interviewing someone from the “Engine Room”, which is a initiative started two years ago from the Department of Defenses’ comptrollers office that deals specifically with analyzing budgetary information and briefing creation. Basically they make charts and graphs from large amounts of information that members of congress and the president can understand.
The Engine Room is a very welcome program for anyone who has seen what Major Generals can do with PowerPoint and some clip-art. But just to put into perspective some of the good work the Engine Room is doing, let us take a trip down the rabbit hole of the pentagon graphics machine.
First I would like to mention that the graphics coming out of each branch of the military are vastly different. The Army’s are all quite uniform sticking to bar graphs and pie charts and all with a matching color scheme. The Navy’s graphics are less polished with a focus on line charts and the occasional concept map. The Air Force however that really goes over the top in their visualization methods, from baffling to well, more baffling, their graphics really show off what can be accomplished when you lose sight of your audience and forget that sometimes the best way to convey information with with a paragraph or two of text.
Let’s start off with the Army. Here is what 75% of their charts have looked like for the past 5 years.
It’s simple and stright forward. Their pie graphs are also well done.
Clear and functional with a break out box for those sub 5% items. Occasional you will get a graph that really didn’t need to be visualized. This bar graph – table hybrid below shows how unexciting two nearly identical sets of data can be.
The Navy uses a variety of visualization methods with some more effective than others. Their standard method is the line chart as seen below.
Not very polished, but useful, although a legend could have been included with this one. Sometimes they will mix in a bar chart as well.
One chart they use a lot is the 3D area chart.
Again not very polished, but effective.
Here is where it get’s a little tricky. The Navy uses a table to chart the production of various planes and ships, except they use a strikeout to denote changes. It can end up looking a bit like a bowling score card.
Here is a more complex one.
The Navy also dabbles in concept visualization too. Here is one that looks simpler than it really is.
And here is one that looks as complicated as it really is.
At least there is some production value there, with gradients and such. There was one graph in the Navy documentation that looked like it really did not belong there. This one below, drawn with MS Paint, was inserted into some paragraph text.
Now on to the Air Force when things really start to get out of hand. First to prepare you for the craziness of the Air Force documentation, let me show you what a typical document cover looks like.
This one is from a few years ago but it’s really got everything Air Force in there as if there was a requirement to depict all aspects of the branch in clipart form.
The Air Force graphics are not all over-the-top. Here are a few that have little flare but are none the less, odd.
This one is easy to understand, but at first glance it looks a bit like a graph depicting the flight of boomerang.
Now the lines charts get a bit more complicated.
I am sure there could have been a better way to represent this data than weaving multiple lines together like a sloppily knit scarf.
It get’s worse.
This area chart seems to be crossed with some metaphor visualization methods as well as a magnetic poetry set – Air Force Jargon Edition. I must note that these images are not cropped, if they lack legends, keys, or explanations it is because they were not included.
Occasionally you will see a bar graph in the mix.
Considering that most of this chart is about future projections which are flat, I am not too sure as this really needed to be visualized.
Where the Air Force really goes the extra mile is in the non-traditional methods of data visualization.
This one looks pretty snazzy at first, but I suspect that this image existed indepentantly and the document creator just added labels on top of it. Does this really tell us anything?
Here is one of the most useful charts I have come across.
It’s simple and shows just what’s involved in the ‘budget’ aspect of the Air Force. It doesn’t really show how they are involved, but that may be asking too much.
Not to say there isn’t an attempt to convey complex themes and information…
…there is. The above chart may not make a lot of sense to the layman, or even the any-man, but to the creator of the chart it means something. Perhaps the chart is an accurate depiction of a very complex organizational strategy. Or the chart depcits something of less complexity in an obfuscating way. Or the chart depicts something that doesn’t need to be depicted. I can’t say for certain, but its totally baffling to me.
It doesn’t have to be complex to be confusing.
This looks like it should be straight forward. But is the diagonal line on some type of axis? Just what is going on here? Even with all the acronyms explained, I suspect this chart is still confusing.
Here is one that looks promising.
We have a quadrant overlapped with some area data. What I don’t quite understand is if this is a concept driven chart, is there any data to support it? Usually quadrant charts involve axises. Here there are no axises making the shapes, and sizes of the various items rather arbitrary.
Here is another one that looks simple, but the arrows seem to raise more questions then provide answers.
It certainly doesn’t help that it’s titled, “Air Force Budget Quadrants” when there are no quadrants, unless I am missing something.
This one may look really busy, and it is, but there is plenty of information in there without being overly confusing.
The key could use some help deciphering the red, blue, and aqua colored radar coverage though.
There is a particular document that uses mostly PowerPoint created charts, and it can get a little out of control.
What is generally lacking in these charts is some uniformity. Providing a clear path will help the reader absorb the information. Generally these particulary graphs are chock full of bits of clip art and different colored boxes and arrows. It really obstructs the informational aspect.
Occasionally, it literally obstructs the chart, like this one where a plan wing is covering the graph. Don’t ask why, this is a half trillion dollar operation here.
This ‘chart’ looks like a fun time.
But is it telling us anything?
And just who is doing these graphics anyways?
Are these informational?
Or is it just fun and games?
I won’t rant about how our tax dollars pay for these images and how we deserve better. But what I do find alarming is that these documents are used to brief major decision makers. These decision makers may know a thing or two about policy and politics, but if decoding and understanding the armed forces budget is the goal of these documents, then there is a huge failure here.
Not only are these graphs of limited use and poor quality, but they are terribly inconsistent across the branches. Is the Air Force’s budget any more difficult to understand than the Army’s? Only the largest of corporations deal with budgets this big; over a hundred billions dollars annually. You can only imagine the quality and caliber of the charts and graphics coming out of their reports which themselves cost millions to produce. Why does the Department of Defense, which is an economy the size of Turkey, put out such inconsistent and poor visualizations?
Well fortunately there is an effort to improve this front. As I mentioned earlier, the Department of Defense Comptroller, Tina Jones has started an effort call the Engine Room which is quickly turning militarty budget reports into a standardized art form. Next week we will be interviewing a member of their team to try to get some answers to these questions and learn about their process. Stay tuned to the feed.