Most open data — data that’s free to use, reuse, and redistribute — is public information that governments publish as a key part of “transparency” initiatives. It can be a boon to information services already skilled in curating and adding value to public information, though these companies often struggle with expensive, slow, and cumbersome processes to get at the “gold” buried in government filings and research data. Every step governments take to make this public data easier to use has a direct effect on the bottom lines of these firms.
The crux of the matter is that just because the information is available doesn’t mean that it’s easy to use. U.S. government agencies are now, however, more and more often requiring consistent data inputs and creating APIs that allow this standardized data to be searched, sorted, and exported in many ways. This added investment by governments along with the rise of private firms that help agencies visualize their data, such as Socrata and NIC, are leading to a renaissance in open data visualization.
FlowingData has a great round-up of 2013’a data visualizations, good and bad. Many are complex and beautiful—the Circos archetype’s visualization of genomic data springs to mind—but a good visualization need not be so intricate. Clean, uncomplicated graphics can be useful to citizens and power users of public data alike.
A good, simple example of the challenge of open data is the following chart that IEI published earlier this year. It’s based on industry data released in SEC EDGAR filings, and shows revenues per employee by industry. These datapoints are buried in the SEC filings and even the extremely important recent migration of filings to an XBRL format doesn’t make this kind of data easily accessible; it takes a lot of manual manipulation to get at this data set. After that manual effort, however, a simple visual representation of this key operational metric makes the difference between compensation in the restaurant and the energy industries, $53,920 and $4,963,000 respectively, really pop.