27/5/2013

Behind the Australian Financial Review’s Budget Explorer

 

By 
Edmund Tadros, data journalist at The Australian Financial Review.

 

The Australian Financial Review’s Budget Explorer was designed to help make sense of the data deluge that accompanies every federal budget.

The budget is a major political and economic event for our paper and we wanted to augment our coverage of it online with an interactive tool that would cater for both expert readers and readers with only a passing interest in the data. That meant creating something with a clean design that would make the information clear enough to understand but also encourage readers to explore the underlying numbers.

The whole project took about two months. I began by consulting an in-house veteran reporter who has covered the budget for decades - national affairs editor Greg Earl. He helped identify the key elements that make up a budget. These elements would eventually provide the basis for each of the modules. He also provided critical information about which data to use for each of the sections (Australian budget data is presented using a variety of accounting methods and it gets very confusing, very quickly).

Screen_shot_2013-05-27_at_12.02.53.png

Screenshot from the 'Treasurers and their budgets' tool 

Dealing with PDFs

I subsequently extracted sample data from last year’s budget to share with data visualisation experts Small Multiples, the company tasked with creating the design.

The data is all stored in PDF format and I tried a number of open-source methods to extract the tables but found there were lots of problems. I settled on using Adobe Acrobat Pro, but it remained difficult to cleanly extract certain tables. For some reason, some tables could be extracted on the Mac version of the program but not the PC version of Acrobat Pro and vice versa. In certain cases, I found I had no choice but to retype the information.

Once I had the data – seven tables in all – I also had a first pass at editing the data and creating a structure for the information so that it could be put in a database.

At the same time, Small Multiples began creating designs for the interactive tool, looking at other budget interactives from all around the world for inspiration, while remaining firmly guided by the available data and the topic.

“We looked at what could be done visually with the budget data,” said Jack Zhao of Small Multiples. “We did precedent studies, taking cues from the industry's best, like the New York Times. We also looked for related and similar datasets, and prototyped an initial proof of concept. This approach helped our team to identify new topics and set up constraints for the design processes that followed.

“The design aimed to show the different levels of the budget data by providing an overview, thus allowing readers to go into the details. For example, a timeline of Labor and Coalition budgets included detail about who was the treasurer and prime minister at the time, and what economic events surrounded that budget.”


Modular design, JavaScript application

All the interactives had to be modular and self-contained, so they could be embedded across the Financial Review’s website, mobile site, and iPad app without reliance on external infrastructure such as a database connection.

The overall aim was to be able to quickly develop and deploy. “We're also in the process of making the interactives completely responsive - rendering the most appropriate UI to complement the editorial content,” Zhao said.

Budget Explorer is a JavaScript news application using BackboneJS as the primary front-end framework, D3.js for the data visualisations and a variety of other open source libraries. “D3.js, the standard-setting data visualisation library created by Mike Bostock from the New York Times is another essential tool in the workflow,” Zhao added.

Ask the experts

I then had to finalise the contents of each module. Small Multiples produced draft designs and I went through these mock-ups with our in-house economic and budget experts, including economics editor Alan Mitchell, senior writers Geoff Winestock and Greg Earl, and economics correspondent Jacob Greber. They have covered the budget for decades and know how to translate complicated economic ideas into plain English. They also know the tricks to understanding the budget and where the key information is hidden. They were invaluable in developing the design as well as in assisting with editing the data we would use and working out the clearest way to organise the information.

The end result is an interactive tool with five core modules:

  1. Major Initiatives and Savings
    This module allows readers to explore the government's 2013 budgetary juggling act by comparing major policy initiatives with major spending cuts.
  2. 
Revenue and Expenditure
    This interactive graphic allows readers to drill down into the detail of how the government raises revenue and where this money is spent. It also highlights the significant changes to projected revenue that the government has had to manage while planning policies.
  3. Labor v. Coalition and - 
  4. The Money Men
    These two modules take a historic look at the key economic events from the past three decades, including an overview of each budget outcome. Much of the historical material and the analysis for each treasurer were written by Earl, who has a seemingly inexhaustive memory of Australia’s economic and political history. The raw data was supplemented with photos from the Financial Review archive and archive front pages of the paper, edited by one of our graphic artist, Les Hewitt. He also designed the buttons and pointers for the Budget Explorer.
  5. 
Policy v. Luck
    This interactive graphic looks at a relatively technical aspect of the budget. Each budget Treasury estimates the impact of the budget on government policy decisions and on the broader economic environment. This module allows readers to see what would have happened if the government didn’t make any policy changes or if the economy developed as Treasury had forecast.

 


Key lessons

  1. Talk to the experts. This project would simply not have been possible without input from our budget and economic experts. They helped refine the specific tables and modules we developed and the information and interactions that each module provided. They also provided great ideas on how to present the concepts.
  2. Simplify. Where possible, and after talking to the experts, we expressed as much as we could in plain English and avoided economic jargon. This meant we often had to edit and cut data out of tables - a risky move but one we were comfortable with, after consulting with experts.
  3. Overview, then detail. “Our design approach builds on Ben Shneiderman’s Information Seeking Mantra: ‘overview first, zoom and filter details on demand’,” said Andrea Lau of Small Multiples. Providing content such as historical events and explanations helps readers understand the budget in its broader context.
  4. Reusable apps and web standards. The app was built in modules and was not dependent on any proprietary technology or standards. This means that in the future, other developers will be able to pull it apart and easily understand how it all works. It also meant that we were able to defer several modules that were not ready in time due to technical problems. I plan to deploy them in the second version of the news app.

 

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