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Visualizing Policy Agendas Graphic

Visualizing Policy Agendas

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 of the Department 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,” says Dr. Jones, “which allows users on the fly to study an issue across different institutions over time.  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.  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.”

Here are some samples of interesting results using the Trend Analysis Tool:

Chart 1

During the gas shortages and energy crisis of the 1970s, attention to energy increased substantially across the public and government agendas.  The graph below plots observations related to energy across six datasets: Bills, Hearings, Roll Calls, State of the Union, Most Important Problem and the New York Times.

Chart 1 
Chart 2

When the economy is the top concern of the public, Congress responds and holds hearings on macroeconomics.  This relationship is robust regardless of which party controls the legislature. The graph below plots observations related to macroeconomics within the Hearings and Most Important Problem datasets.

Chart 2
Chart 3

A correlation between the public's mood on health issues and congressional hearings on the topic is shown in this graph below, with a substantial rise and fall of both series around President Clinton's attempt for healthcare reform in the early 1990s.

Chart 3 
Chart 4

The graph below plots federal spending on national defense (inflation-adjusted) over time.  In addition to showing recent increases in the post-9/11 period, the graph indicates that more funds, in dollars, were spent under President Reagan toward the end of the Cold War than during the Korean or Vietnam Wars.  The interactive features of the trends tool are demonstrated in this graph as users can click individual data points for more information.

Chart 4

Chart 5

The graph below shows the comparison of overall activity in the House of Representatives across three legislative datasets: Roll Call Votes, Bill Introductions, and Hearings.  The tool now supports the plotting of legislative data between chambers and over congressional sessions.

Chart 5

Recently, the project was enhanced with the addition of even more primary datasets. The Policy Moods dataset, compiled by James A. Stimson and K. Elizabeth Coggins, reveals the aggregate 'Mood' of public sentiments cross left/right political lines.  The Encyclopedia of Associations dataset, compiled by Frank R. Baumgartner, John D. McCarthy, and Shaun Bevan, classifies basic information about thousands of U.S. associations across Policy Agendas major topic codes.  Also, several other project datasets have been updated with observations from recent years, bringing the range of data periods available from 1947 to 2012.

Try out the tool via this link:

Click here to join the Policy Agendas mailing list for data notifications.

For further information, contact Trey Thomas, Project Manager, at

Related Articles:

Online Database Tracks Congressional, Presidential and Public Priorities

Policy Agendas Project Mined in Senate Report

By Emily Cicchini

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