West Nile virus

August 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

west nile virus

As I post this, you don’t have to worry much about West Nile virus, unless you happen to live in Dallas County, Tex., where 155 people have caught the disease and 10 have died so far this year. I know this because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks West Nile virus closely and reports every case where it has been found in mosquitoes, birds, horses and humans.

The Wall Street Journal map above reflects data from the CDC that can be found on this Web page:


If you want to create a more local map or graphic, the CDC goes into greater geographic detail, as you can see from this map on the CDC West Nile virus pages.


Budget authority vs. outlays

July 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Federal budget documents often show the same spending in two different measures, “budget authority” and “outlays.” As an editor, reporter or infographics journalist, you need to know the difference between the two, or you will waste copious time figuring out which figures to use and why your numbers don’t match everyone else’s. Fortunately, the budget states clearly on every table and spreadsheet whether the numbers are calculated as budget authority or outlays.

So what’s the difference between the outlays and budget authority? Outlays for fiscal 2013 reflect the actual amount of money the federal government will spend in 2013. The outlays figure for 2013 includes some unspent money that was authorized in previous budgets and excludes some spending approved in 2013 that will carry over into 2014 and beyond. Budget authority for 2013 excludes any funding authorized in previous years but includes money authorized in 2013 that will carry over into the future.  If you are having a hard time keeping that straight, check out the diagram above, which comes from the budget concepts section of the federal budget, page 138.


So when do you use outlays and when do you use budget authority?

Use outlays when you are referring to the overall size of the fiscal budget for a given year or when you want to show the deficit or surplus.

Use budget authority when you want to show the effect that the administration’s policy decisions that year had on various agencies or functions of the federal government. Because it doesn’t count money approved in previous years, budget authority gives you a clearer picture of whether an administration is cutting or increasing funding for a department.
The two examples above come from the summary tables section of the budget, where you will find most of the top-line budget figures.


Diffusion indexes

July 9, 2012 § 1 Comment

purchasing managers index

Diffusion indexes confuse the heck out of people the first time they see one. But once diffusion indexes become familiar, they make a whole lot of sense. To chart a diffusion index and label it properly, you really need to understand what the numbers mean. (Okay, that goes for any graphic, but don’t expect to wing it with a diffusion index.)

With a diffusion index, 50 is the baseline, anything above that indicates expansion, anything below that indicates contraction. What confuses people is this: If the number is 60 in one month and 55 the next, that does not indicate contraction, it indicates slower expansion. If the number is 40 one month and 45 the next, that does not indicate expansion, it indicates slower contraction.

Take a look at the four examples of diffusion indexes in this post. I believe they were all made by Pat Minczeski on The Wall Street Journal graphics team. You will see that The Wall Street Journal took great pains to label not just whether a figure indicates expansion or contraction, but whether it is slower or faster than the previous month.

purchasing managers index



Usually when you chart a diffusion index, you are looking at some form of purchasing managers index of manufacturing activity. The Institute for Supply Management and Markit provide much of this data. To create an index, ISM surveys purchasing managers and asks them whether they’re doing more, less, or the same of things like placing new orders, hiring people or producing goods. The manufacturing index (or its sub-indexes) reflects their responses.

Here is a link to the most recent ISM report: http://www.ism.ws/ISMReport/content.cfm?ItemNumber=10748&navItemNumber=12949

And here are the historical numbers for the main manufacturing index: http://www.ism.ws/ISMReport/content.cfm?ItemNumber=10752

For detailed historical figures, you probably need to contact the Institute for Supply Management or Markit. I haven’t found detailed figures on their sites. Give me a shout if you come across them.


American Time Use Survey

June 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

American Time Use Survey

Each year since 2003, usually in late June, the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes a snapshot of how Americans use their time. The Wall Street Journal graphic shown here is one example of what you can do with numbers from the report. This graphic just scratches the surface. The BLS counts time use in a number of ways, and breaks it down by sex, age and employment status. The report also includes a section just on how Americans spend their leisure time. The American Time Use Survey can be found here:


Space launches

April 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

FAA commercial space launches year in review

Each year, the Federal Aviation Administration counts up all the space launches around the world and releases a report with loads of detail on  how many launches each country made, what they were for, and even the type of rockets they used.

Each report only gives information for the previous year, so if you want to show a trend over time, you would have to go through each annual report to gather the info. You can find them here:


The big takeaway from this year’s report is that China has passed the U.S. in the annual number of space launches for the first time.

faa commercial space launch year in review

I haven’t had a chance to use info from this report in a graphic, but I’m keeping it in my back pocket.


Tornado reports

March 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

national weather service tornado reports
The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction center posts tornado reports in real time. This can be amazingly handy when trying to show a rash of twisters breaking out across the Midwest. The storm reports page http://www.spc.noaa.gov/climo/reports/today.html posts them as a static map (not really useful), as well as in a CSV file that includes time and latitude/longitude, and most helpful, in a KML file.
Below is an example of a New York Times graphic using this data:

Cluster bombs

November 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

cluster bombs map

An Economist graphic points out that despite a broad treaty banning the use of cluster munitions, 17 non-signatory countries including the United States continue to produce them.


Both Thailand and Libya used cluster munitions this year. Cluster munitions put civilians at risk because they spread over  a wide area and can leave unexploded submunitions.

The source of the graphic is the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, which is affiliated with the Nobel-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines.


In addition to maps and lists on landmine and cluster munitions producers. The monitor produces reports and maps of civilian casualties, and locates areas that are contaminated with cluster munitions and landmines from past or ongoing conflicts.

map of cluster munition remnants from the landmine and cluster bomb monitor