Rebecca Ruige Xu, Sean Hongsheng Zhai: Visualizing Federal Spending

  • ©2012, Rebecca Ruige Xu and Sean Hongsheng Zhai

  • ©2012, Rebecca Ruige Xu and Sean Hongsheng Zhai

  • ©2012, Rebecca Ruige Xu and Sean Hongsheng Zhai



    Visualizing Federal Spending


Creation Year:



Artist Statement:

    In this project we explore an aesthetics-oriented approach to visualizing federal spending in the United States as 3D compositions in a photorealistic style. Using procedural modeling with Python programming and Maya API, an organic flow of intermingled geometrical units is formed to represent the profile of federal spending for each state, loosely resembling the idea of money flow. The total amount of spending is scaled to a per capita basis to make different states comparable, while the overall surface area or volume occupied by each type of geometrical pattern represents its associated spending data.

    With data provided by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, we analyzed federal spending by agencies and then mapped this data to distinguishable geometric patterns. Often, the shapes hint at what they represent: for example, leaf shapes for agriculture, spikes for military-related spending, cubes for housing, and torus (life buoys) for education. Unsurprisingly, top spending categories like social security and health and human services, seen as floating ribbon shapes, are dominant attributes for most states.

    To create an aesthetically sophisticated but not overwhelming presentation of the data set, we further fine-tuned the per capita scales while maintaining the interrelation among different types of spending. Photorealistic rendering produces shadings with vivid nuances, endowing the geometries with a tangible quality and enhancing the sense of volume. The complicity of the output reflects the intricate nature of the subject and allows more exploratory freedom for viewers to observe and then make their own sense of the embedded information. We also hope this project will stimulate further research on the topic of federal spending.