History of the United States in a circle

Presidential Costs by Rachel Mercer offers a look at the history of the United States:

The outer circle illustrates presidential periods, the governing party, and whether or not the President died in office. The first inner circle shows the “eras” in history that those time periods covered. The third inner circle shows key foreign conflicts and wars. The fourth inner circle (purple) shows key legislative acts (or series of bills) that were issued. Finally, the bubbles in the middle indicate the average national debt, as indicated every 8 years.

I like the look, but the average debt numbers do seem kind of iffy. I could be wrong though.


  • RufusTheGreat June 13, 2010 at 7:37 am

    I like the use of the ring to show history since there are so many connections that can be made. But this is a regular old time-along-the-x-axis plot bent around an curve. It could be straightened out and not lose any information or readability (unless this is supposed to imply that we are 20 years from another revolution). A circle plot can be helpful at showing interconnections and relative importance of points in a time-along-the-axis plot by using connections through the center of the circle, this doesn’t take advantage of that.

    Also the term “governing party” seems only to apply to the presidential affiliation and can be misleading when compared to wars, key legislation and especially debt. Another axis that showed whether the senate was controlled by one party or the other, or mixed control, would throw some light on it.

  • topometropolis June 13, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    I agree that there’s something very odd about the figures that are being used for the national debt. For one thing, I can’t tell if it’s nominal or constant dollars (which makes a huge difference over a 200 year period). Either way, it’s the wrong thing to plot — it’s better to focus on debt as a percentage of GDP (a ratio that was roughly the same in 1820 and 1970, for instance). Even ignoring that, the data here doesn’t seem to match the what’s in the Wikipedia article “United states public debt”. Any way you measure it, there’s a huge increase from 1980 – 1995 which doesn’t show up in this chart.

    • Agreed – using actual numbers does not indicate growth or proportion of income etc.

      Very misleading and something I’m seeing more and more often these days. Do many people in the infovis field coming from a design background do any statistical methods courses or work with stats professionals or do they just grab any old data and make it fit? Curious about peoples thoughts.

  • gregorylent June 13, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    note the rhythms .. party, war, all flowing along .. it doesn’t make any difference who is “in power”, the game is the same

  • Can I get a really hi-res image of this? I am not very fond of the lightbox method used. I think it would be best to use something like a loupe. I can send you the finished code. Thanks bro!

  • I would guess that the debt figures have not been adjusted for inflation. Percent of GDP may work, but GDP can drop as well, which cannot be separated then from debt increasing.

    Why’s it in a ring? Probably because it would be too wide otherwise.

    • Not adjusting for inflation (at a minimum) is a base statistical error.

      Imagine having housing prices (mean/median – take your pick) not adjusted for inflation (at a minimum) or (better still imho) comparing to a more relevant data point (mean/median household income for example)

  • It’s in a ring because of what Stephen Few calls Our Irresistible Fascination with All Things Circular. The ring adds nothing and if anything detracts from the readability of the graphic. Even if there were something cyclical to show, it won’t appear on a chart with a circumferential value of 250 years.

  • @Jon, thanks for a very insightful link to a Stephen Few critique. Few’s “unrolling” of the Colours in Culture viz is simple but effective. Also, I wonder why the designer(s) of the viz decided to put all the attributes in alphabetical order with the exception of religion. Why list religion between intuition and jealousy?

  • Gerard St. Croix June 14, 2010 at 6:14 am

    Okay… colours. Why not use more distinctive colour coding if you’re presidential party affiliation anyway? “Eras” and “legislative acts” are either personal definitions or else equally personal biased samples. (Why is “Americans with disabilities act” in when “Don’t ask, don’t tell” isn’t? Personal bias, that’s why.) About as informative as an hour on Nickelodeon.

  • looks neat but the content is poor. the war of 1812 is listed…where’s the civil war? that’s a pretty huge mistake.

  • Don’t think, but at least not clear whether the debt circles have been normalized for GNP/GDP (not that I like that measure, but what we have) and inflation. Don’t disagree that the trend is correct.

    Liked idea, but sorry doesn’t seem like a great display approach, since unreadable.

    I love the concept of Infographics, BUT credibility documentation has to be one of the first things visible on the Infographics. I’m tired of being misled by statistics, charts, and perhaps now Infographics. I am big believer is valid statistics, but find I have to check sources to trust anything.

    I’ll never be a creator if Infographics, but maybe there can be an Infographics code of conduct you have to accept before you can upload each Infographic. Studies show that some who recently just read the 10 Commandments act more honestly per several behavioral economic studies (not preaching these are only code of conduct–we know it is those commandments and a lot more). Maybe an upload code of conduct would improve the veracity and credibility of Infographics here (yes, you’d still have the jerks, but…)