The PDF version of the spring 2011 edition of Our Toronto.
Every quarter, the City of Toronto mails out Our Toronto—a seasonal newsletter jam-packed with mayoral salutations, smiling children, and endless recycling PSAs—to every home in the city. And come springtime, since its inception, the newsletter has included a short summary and graphical depiction of the City’s annual budget for residents to peruse.
This year, however, there’s something off about the document [PDF]. All the information you’d expect is there. The gross operating budget, which is the cost of City salaries, services, and day-to-day operations: $9.38 billion. The capital budget, including construction and road repairs, building projects, and major purchases, such as TTC vehicles: $2.02 billion. And the projected deficit in 2012: $530 million.
What’s problematic is how the data’s visualized.
“Not only are the titles, from a communications point of view, badly written, but the charts themselves are inconsistent,” Eleonore Fournier-Tombs, a Masters of Information student at the University of Toronto, and data visualization specialist, told Torontoist. “The rest of the document was created with some thought into the aesthetic appeal and clarity of the information. Why was the budget presented so poorly? Was it a lack of expertise or a conscious decision on the City’s part?”
We donned our trusty accounting visor and dusted off our abacus of plus-3 clarity to investigate.
Pie charts depicting operating revenues and capital expenditures, from the spring 2011 edition of Our Toronto.
The spring 2011 edition of Our Toronto features three graphics: two pie charts and a bar graph, none of which are wrong, per se. Unfortunately, they seem designed to obscure rather than clarify, and to lead the reader towards certain conclusions—mainly, that the TTC eats up the entire City budget—which aren’t entirely accurate.
First, the pie charts.
In the newsletter, both gross operating revenue and capital expenditure are graphed as similar style pie charts and positioned side by side. The result: a layout that suggests that they’re comparable, even though they measure different budget elements, at different levels—revenue is in billions, while capital is only in millions. (If proportionally scaled, the capital chart would only be about the size of the Provincial Grants and Subsidies slice from the operating chart.)
From a design standpoint, there’s another problem. The charts have “too many variables,” says Michelle Bissessarsingh, a Masters of Library and Information Studies graduate and data visualization and statistical analysis expert. “It’s easier to see where the majority of funds are being allocated, but harder to understand and read if the funds are substantially smaller.”
“In data visualization literature, it is suggested that if there are more than five slices of pie, it’s better to use another type of chart, or a table, as the eye has to go back-and-forth and around too many times to take in the information,” says Fournier-Tombs.
Granted, these are minor points, and we’d be willing to forgive them, if the entire document didn’t seem so intent on inhibiting readability.
A bar graph depicting gross operating expenses, from the spring 2011 edition of Our Toronto.
Next, the bar graph, which ranks the City’s various services, departments, and other expenditures by cost.
The first problem here is that the graph’s title fails to specify the revenue that it’s allocating. Since it’s looking at how all of the City’s revenues are allotted (property taxes, grants, user fees, etc.), it should be called the “Gross Operating Budget.” By leaving that critical detail out, and by not specifying how different items are funded, the graph seems almost designed to sow certain misconceptions about top-ranked services.
“What seems like an attempt to popularize the financial statements by using colloquial language actually has the opposite effect,” says Fournier-Tombs.
The City’s net operating (property tax–supported) expenditures, from the City’s 2011 corporate operating report.
The graph ranks the TTC as the City’s most expensive service ($1.5 billion, or 16.3 per cent of the gross 2011 budget). And while the commission is the fattest line on the City’s balance sheet, it’s not the largest net expenditure. Or put another way, it’s not the item eating up the most tax dollars. The TTC offsets most of its costs by collecting fares. This year, the service’s net cost to the City will only be about $520 million—making it big, but not the biggest. No, it’s Police Services, weighing in at roughly $900 million, that takes the prize for largest tax hog.
The graph also inflates the cost of Employment and Social Services. According to the graph, the service is the City’s second most expensive ($1.2 billion, or 12.9 per cent of the budget). Again, this ranking is disingenuous. The service receives most of its revenue from the province (approximately $900 million), which it turns around and spends on the provincially mandated Ontario Works Program [PDF].
Finally, the graph obscures just how much tax revenue goes towards servicing the debt. In the newsletter, it’s ranked seventh most expensive ($445 million), but in terms of tax dollars, it’s third.
How the average homeowner’s tax dollars are allocated, from the City’s 2011 corporate operating report.
What’s odd is that the City’s communications department specifically chose this setup over an arguably better one from last year. Though still flawed, the 2010 layout featured a graph detailing how the average homeowner’s property taxes would be allocated [PDF]. A 2011 version of the same graph was created for the City’s corporate operating report [PDF], but the communications department opted not to use it. When we asked why, they told us that the decision was “arbitrary” and simply reflected a desire to use new charts with a “larger scale.”
Although it may seem relatively insignificant compared to some other issues facing our city, Our Toronto is one of the key mediums through which Torontonians receive information about the budget. Just to be clear, all of the charts and graphs depicted in the newsletter are technically correct—they just don’t provide a full, balanced picture of the City’s finances. Obviously, the communications department can’t include every fiscal detail in what’s supposed to be a simple and easy-to-follow summary, but it should look better than this, respect for taxpayers and all.