Down the Rabbit Hole of the Pentagon Graphics Machine.

Down the Rabbit Hole of the Pentagon Graphics Machine.

Posted on 15. Sep, 2008 by in charts and graphs, government, military

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.

Army Budget

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.

Oh, and there plenty of places where you can play a game of classic Risk with other players online.  Its a popular game, so why not.  Some have better  graphics and experience than others.  Most of the Risk sites are rated and review at play risk online if you are looking for a good time of strategy gaming.

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55 Comments

  1. Anna Lee Court, October 1, 2008:

    Who knew! What is the Air Force, in particular, thinking? Or not thinking? Better you than me to sort this out. Thanks and you present it inventively. Anna Court

  2. duston, October 22, 2008:

    Wow, this is downright scary. I think if someone at GE or JP Morgan presented these graphics at the end of the fiscal year they’d be quickly fired and escorted from the building.

  3. Chris Gerrard, November 17, 2008:

    So this is where all the money goes.
    or…
    Where does all the money go?

    The sad part is that for many people, the flash and gash of the most garish and ineffectual presentations make them stand out and be more appealing.

  4. Chris O'Donnell, November 28, 2008:

    The funny thing about this is that most of the information being charted is useless anyway… Spend all this time in meetings and a lot less doing useful things… Whatever those are… Defending terrorism.

  5. bob, December 2, 2008:

    christ almighty!

    they could go on the offensive with a few of those palette ‘harmonies’

  6. Ran Barton, December 4, 2008:

    Two quick things…

    Axises? Do you mean axes?

    Also, where the F-15 tail obscures the graph behind it, don’t you think that is an animated image that would make sense during a presentation but looks odd when seen as a still? Surely no one places that clip art on top of the chart.

    Thanks for compiling these. So much sound and fury, obscuring such important decisions.

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  15. Alexa_New_York, December 14, 2011:

    That’s fine for the House and Senate but for president, there is no way any conservative should vote for either Democrat that will be stuffed down our throats next year. The House is the grand prize. If we had someone like Jim Jordan as Speaker and more than the current 3 reliable conservative senators, the president wouldn’t matter.,

  16. Arianna_Illinois, December 14, 2011:

    It’s entirely possible that I copied that individual number across incorrectly (and that the index was correct), but when I did the query just then it returned a Technorati Rank of 37, so as you say there would be no change in the rank, but an improvement in your index.,

  17. Natalia_Delaware, December 14, 2011:

    I like the idea of a private blog if getting the RSS and reading posts was as simple as public. If there are too many hoops just to get notice of and read a single post it will get frustrating.,

  18. Allison_Hawaii, December 14, 2011:

    Good for Hannity, hammering Mc Cain. Mc Cain off as so slimey. He completely bought into the Obama narrative and talks about the great calamity to come if there is no agreement, and continues to blast the Tea Party.,

  19. Maria_Texas, December 14, 2011:

    I like the idea of a private blog if getting the RSS and reading posts was as simple as public. If there are too many hoops just to get notice of and read a single post it will get frustrating.,

  20. Anna_Minnesota, December 14, 2011:

    I also really enjoy the idea of a group blog mostly because I’ve always been a fan of group blogs a la 37signals. It’s a different take on things that I tend to enjoy, getting to see different opinions, group dynamics, etc.,

  21. Madeline_Nebraska, December 14, 2011:

    Honestly said, I don’t think you can do anything to fend off the attacks. I don’t think you got attacked because of something you did, but because lots of people admire you and your work. That’s apparently enough for some people to hate you. Only by unpassionating your readers, can you hope to actually stop the haters. I hope you will reject that option.,

  22. Riley_Oklahoma, December 14, 2011:

    The reality is that the establishment in the Senate HATE CCB, modest as it really is and see the new Boehner plan as an out, since they figure they will get Reid to make a compromise since it is only 22 Billion in cuts.,

  23. Jocelyn_West_Virginia, December 14, 2011:

    And a belated Happy Easter to you too! The fruit cakes being compared to bricks definitely makes my chuckle list…perhaps some fruity garnish around the display would have added more relevance. It is quite strange how the human mind works, and association is key to avoid possible misyunderstandings like this one! Classic!,

  24. Lauren_Virginia, December 14, 2011:

    I see two basic options for you: Reduce visibility and do something completely different, or stay visible and continue publishing your own stuff under your own name. All the options you cite can be assigned to one of these two categories. I dearly hope you go with the second option, even though I would totally understand if you decide otherwise.,

  25. Morgan_Vermont, December 14, 2011:

    That’s fine for the House and Senate but for president, there is no way any conservative should vote for either Democrat that will be stuffed down our throats next year. The House is the grand prize. If we had someone like Jim Jordan as Speaker and more than the current 3 reliable conservative senators, the president wouldn’t matter.,

  26. Kylie_New_Mexico, December 14, 2011:

    I think greater interaction among groups would result (mix up the tech bloggers and the marketers and the VCs and the usability people and, hell, even the sex bloggers) ;) and really spark some awesome conversations.,

  27. Jessica_Colorado, December 14, 2011:

    I was thinking the same thing about Alexa as there was quite a lot of movement. They might have readjusted their adjustment for “technology skew” – or what ever it was…,

  28. Abigail_Illinois, December 14, 2011:

    That’s fine for the House and Senate but for president, there is no way any conservative should vote for either Democrat that will be stuffed down our throats next year. The House is the grand prize. If we had someone like Jim Jordan as Speaker and more than the current 3 reliable conservative senators, the president wouldn’t matter.,

  29. Kaitlyn_Iowa, December 14, 2011:

    I’m not sure what you have against “The Five”. I mean, four of the five panel members are on the right. The only creep is Bob Beckel. I admit, his creepiness makes the show a bit harder to handle. But Greg Gutfeld makes up for it! I LOVE him!! Beckel will probably have a stroke or a heart attack on the show one day and they can just shove him off the stage and continue on.,

  30. Angelina_South_Carolina, December 14, 2011:

    I like the idea of a private blog if getting the RSS and reading posts was as simple as public. If there are too many hoops just to get notice of and read a single post it will get frustrating.,

  31. Leah_New_Hampshire, December 14, 2011:

    That’s fine for the House and Senate but for president, there is no way any conservative should vote for either Democrat that will be stuffed down our throats next year. The House is the grand prize. If we had someone like Jim Jordan as Speaker and more than the current 3 reliable conservative senators, the president wouldn’t matter.,

  32. Gianna_South_Dakota, December 14, 2011:

    Take me for example. I could support Bachman, Cain, Palin, or Santorum. in no particular order. Others would choose fewer plus Paul.,

  33. Sarah_Georgia, December 14, 2011:

    The reality is that the establishment in the Senate HATE CCB, modest as it really is and see the new Boehner plan as an out, since they figure they will get Reid to make a compromise since it is only 22 Billion in cuts.,

  34. Madison_Maine, December 14, 2011:

    I see two basic options for you: Reduce visibility and do something completely different, or stay visible and continue publishing your own stuff under your own name. All the options you cite can be assigned to one of these two categories. I dearly hope you go with the second option, even though I would totally understand if you decide otherwise.,

  35. Genesis_Wyoming, December 14, 2011:

    I do think that by working in a team, it will make it easier for you. The passion moves away from you and to the team of writers, the hate will move with it. Being a part of a groupblog would be a good solution.,

  36. Kylie_South_Carolina, December 14, 2011:

    I also really enjoy the idea of a group blog mostly because I’ve always been a fan of group blogs a la 37signals. It’s a different take on things that I tend to enjoy, getting to see different opinions, group dynamics, etc.,

  37. Madeline_New_Mexico, December 14, 2011:

    The reality is that the establishment in the Senate HATE CCB, modest as it really is and see the new Boehner plan as an out, since they figure they will get Reid to make a compromise since it is only 22 Billion in cuts.,

  38. Bailey_North_Carolina, December 14, 2011:

    It’s entirely possible that I copied that individual number across incorrectly (and that the index was correct), but when I did the query just then it returned a Technorati Rank of 37, so as you say there would be no change in the rank, but an improvement in your index.,

  39. Zoe_Missouri, December 14, 2011:

    Only reason I voted for him was SARAH. I wasn’t even going to vote until he picked her. I had voted in every election since the late 1960?s.,

  40. Jocelyn_Connecticut, December 14, 2011:

    Just look at the difference just 20-30 rock solid Tea Party conservatives have made in the House already. They’ve turned “1/3 of the government” on its head and started a war between the establishment party and the Tea Party.,

  41. Kimberly_South_Dakota, December 14, 2011:

    I was thinking the same thing about Alexa as there was quite a lot of movement. They might have readjusted their adjustment for “technology skew” – or what ever it was…,

  42. Kaylee_Idaho, December 14, 2011:

    In relation to the Technorati rank it’s pulled down via an API (geez I think that’s what it’s called) as is Alexa rank & the script calculates the index – I just need to record the figures in a spreadsheet for upload.,

  43. Lily_Massachusetts, December 14, 2011:

    What is really infuriating is his denial that he was attacking the Tea Party. He was “only reading a WSJ article” on the floor of the Senate. Hannity could have done a better job of hammering on THAT giant piece of brazen hypocrisy.,

  44. Valeria_Vermont, December 14, 2011:

    That’s fine for the House and Senate but for president, there is no way any conservative should vote for either Democrat that will be stuffed down our throats next year. The House is the grand prize. If we had someone like Jim Jordan as Speaker and more than the current 3 reliable conservative senators, the president wouldn’t matter.,

  45. Morgan_Minnesota, December 14, 2011:

    It makes sense about not continuing with “business as usual”

  46. Madison_New_Jersey, December 15, 2011:

    I think greater interaction among groups would result (mix up the tech bloggers and the marketers and the VCs and the usability people and, hell, even the sex bloggers) ;) and really spark some awesome conversations.,

  47. Ashley_Georgia, December 15, 2011:

    Take me for example. I could support Bachman, Cain, Palin, or Santorum. in no particular order. Others would choose fewer plus Paul.,

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    I think greater interaction among groups would result (mix up the tech bloggers and the marketers and the VCs and the usability people and, hell, even the sex bloggers) ;) and really spark some awesome conversations.,

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