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Insights into Unemployment in the United States

by Andreas Lipphardt, Design / Development, BonaVista SystemsFriday, October 30, 2009

By: John Munoz. This article features the winner of the 2nd place of the 2009 Excel dashboard competition

Using data from the bureau of Labor statistics, the dashboard gives a deep glimpse into the unemployment situation in the US. A large volume of disparate and tabular information is brought together in a single concise view, which aids understanding and adds real insight. The trends and demographic splits come through very well, and make for easy comparison.

Click on dashboard for full size version

This sample dashboard uses data from the bureau of labor statistics website, www.bls.gov. The data, at the time of this articlel, was updated through July 2009. All of the work for this dashboard was done in Excel 2007 using either features native to Excel or MicroCharts.

The information in the dashboard is important not just because it's good to know what is going on with jobs in the US, but because the monthly release of this information has a significant impact on Stocks, Bonds, and US Dollar.

The dashboard was designed to give the reader a quick, insightful and deep glimpse into the employment situation of the US. Until now, gleaning insights from the BLS' data was left to financial reporters, and to the BLS' own website, which offers many tables filled with historical unemployment data on many different dimensions. Search as I might, I was unable to find a source for consolidated and insightful views regarding the unemployment data.  As Hans Rosling has said, “Statistics should be the intellectual sidewalks of a society, and people should be able to build businesses and operate on the side of them.” My hope is that readers will use this dashboard to get a more informed understanding of the unemployment picture in the US, and then, go out and do something productive with the new knowledge.

The two Y axes on the "official" unemployment rate and discouraged worker rate chart represent the same thing. I know that this is a bit odd, since most would expect the second Y axis to house different data. But I thought the tactic useful in this case because most readers will be interested in the most recent unemployment rate (on the right), than the one from a year ago (on the left). While the gridlines help guide the eye, I think it's a long "walk" from the axis on the left, to the end of the line on the right. Putting the values on the second Y axis make it easier to see the value where the line ends.

The butterfly graphs in the middle of the dashboard were inspired by this graphic in the NYTimes. Initially, I was going to use a standard bar chart and show the bars for unemployment rate and the percent of total unemployed next to each other. The problem with that method was that any large percent in one of the categories makes the other categories look artificially small. For example, the top most butterfly chart shows that All Whites are 75% of the unemployed. If I tried to show that bar with the maximum unemployment rate group of Black Teens on the same axis coming in at 36%, the 36% looks small, even though it's not. The butterfly chart literally separated these two dimensions and made comparing the two easier.

The long table on the right reporting on weekly hours of work, has a win/lose chart for each row. I thought this situation was a good opportunity to use the win/lose chart because that specific chart makes it easy to see if the recent trend has been up or down. That information isn't easily gleaned from the sparklines unless the recent change is large.

For more information please visit BonaVista Systems.

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