Data Viz and the Buying of NC Senators

devosimageThis week was a frustrating one for the many  Americans who have fought long and hard against the nomination of Betsy DeVos. While decision day is still to come, our fight for public education may have run its course. And to drive the knife further in, this infographic has been making the soc media rounds.

Now, I love a good infographic that tells a strong story, but unfortunately this isn’t the greatest. It doesn’t provide information on the time frame and it doesn’t give its sources, two primary best practices for data visualization. Without those pieces, it is vulnerable to criticism and ultimately accusations of “fake news,” even if the numbers are good. We need to be diligent in covering our bases when making claims in this climate.

Nevertheless, a bad visualization doesn’t mean the information is incorrect (or “false”). It just needs more context. Campaign contributions are public information and you can find information about individual contributions at the website of the National Institute on Money in State Politics  (http://www.followthemoney.org/) or OpenSecrets.org (https://www.opensecrets.org). These nonpartisan nonprofit organizations take public data from the Federal Election Commission and create user friendly and interactive websites.

The graph is probably the “total” the DeVos family has donated, but it isn’t completely clear from the image itself. As literate and curious critical thinkers though, we want to dig in and see what the data says! You with me? Of course you are. So, is the point of the infographic wrong? Ah, hell no. Our two senators were bought. We could call and plea and beg, but apparently Senators Burr and Tillis cared more about honoring their paymasters (all of them, not just Betsy) than listening to their constituents (IMHO). You can see the full list of DeVos’s contributions. You can see the amounts both senators received. Her individual donations are within the legal limits, but keep in mind that the DeVos family, including her husband, has donated multiple times to each leader over many years and to various funds that support those leaders. I encourage you to head over and play with the data yourself.

Does this mean calling and participating is hopeless? No. It means we have to do more. We need to keep calling. This time, call out Burr and Tillis for not listening to their constituents. Next, we need to start raising our own money. Contribute and ask others to contribute. Even $5 is a start if there are enough of us. Remember 2008? Pres Obama was built on individual contributions. According to the Campaign Finance Institute, almost half of Pres. Obama’s donations were from individual donors (under $200).  But all of your contributions matter, not just monetary. Don’t wait until November to be active and don’t suffer from the short American memory. Keep calling. Keep speaking out. Keep marching.

And finally, as a favor to me, keep those data viz best practices in mind!

Oh and if you are interested, here’s a great webinar on how to use Follow the Money to track your state leaders!