College of Liberal Arts

Visualize Open Data

By Emily Cicchini, College of Liberal Arts
Posted: October 3

One of the greatest potentials of digital scholarship is the ability to translate complex data into meaningful graphic representations on the web.

The Policy Agendas Project directed by Bryan D. Jones, professor of government, uses the power of images to turn raw information into concrete concepts that can be used for both teaching and research.

The project was developed to address the study of wide-scale changes in United States public policy across time, across agencies, and throughout the general public.  Researchers started with primary evidence, such as executive orders, Congressional hearings, Supreme Court cases, and Gallup polls. Then, they applied a codebook that indexes the material by topics of interest, such as agriculture, environment, energy, and foreign trade.

“The magic is the Trend Analysis Tool, which allows users on the fly to study an issue across different institutions over time," says Jones, who holds the J. J. "Jake" Pickle Regents Chair in Congressional Studies. "To offer this 'on the fly' through interactive technology adds tremendous value. We are so pleased to work with LAITS, and particularly programmer Geoff Boyd, who really understood our needs and helped us develop many new features, such as the ability for users to download images and selected parts of datasets. We just can’t thank the college enough for their support.”

To activate the tool, a user selects a dataset including: a topic, a measure of count or percentage, the type of graph desired, and on what axes to map the data and the period of time. The result is a custom-generated graph, which can then be juxtaposed with unlimited other graphs. Researchers find that these results confirm, illuminate and sometimes truly surprise their expectations.

“While we certainly encourage scholars and policy makers to utilize the tool and the openly accessible data that we are providing, it’s easy and useful for anyone to use," Jones says. "I use it extensively in my undergraduate classes, and it takes the students no more than 15 minutes to catch on.  It’s a wonderful tool for teaching and exploratory analysis.”

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