Data Visualization

Course Logistics

  • Mondays, Duques 361, 3:30 to 5:20

Course Description and Learning Goals

Course Purpose

Not all graphics are created equal: some lie, some obscure, some illuminate, and some compel. This course studies how to spot lies and obfuscation and teaches you how to illuminate and compel. In this class, we learn how to distill large quantities of data into pictures that communicate.

Ideally, policy choices are driven by information. Because of its ability to generalize across large populations, the most credible information is frequently quantitative. However, data alone tell no story. Without visualization, it is very difficult for data to influence policy. This course challenges you to take raw numbers and create a story that can change impressions, long-held beliefs and ultimately policy. Together, we learn to tell stories with numbers using graphics.

Learning Objectives

  • Value high quality data graphics
  • Present data to illustrate a narrative that influences policy
  • Understand how visualizations can rapidly and accurately convey a large amount of quantitative data
  • Use technical software to create data visualizations
  • Critically analyze data visualizations
  • Use summary statistics -- from econometrics and research methods courses -- appropriately in producing graphics
  • Recognize the limits of cognition of visually displayed data, and produce graphics that speak to the broadest possible audience

Contact and Office Hours

Professor: Leah Brooks
Media and Public Affairs Building, Room 601F
Office Hours: Tuesdays, 10 am to 1 pm
Use the scheduler to book these times.
lfbrooks at

Contact policy: Send programming-related questions and course administration questions relevant to all students to piazza. Send any private issues to my GW email. On both platforms, I will do my best to answer emails within 24 hours during weekdays, or within 24 hours on the soonest weekday if you email on the weekend. If you do not hear from me within this time frame, you should assume that your email has been lost and you should re-send.

If you cannot make it to office hours in person, I am happy to talk on the phone or via google hangout. If you want to reach me by phone, please just call at the time you have scheduled. If you'd prefer to use google hangout, please let me know in advance and I will be online.

Graduate Assistant: Rosa Lee
rosahyunlee at
Office Hours: Thursdays, 5 to 7 pm

Rosa will meet with students in Gelman Library. Please let me know her at least 24 hours in advance so she can schedule a place to meet. She will answer emails within 24 hours on weekdays.


PPPA 6013: Econometrics for Policy Research I

  • I do not assume prior programming knowledge, either in R or any other statistical programming language.
  • Because this class focuses on learning the basics of statistical programming, should expect a greater time commitment if you have no prior programming experience.


Required Readings

See full details with chapter and dates on readings tab.

With the exception of the reading packet, these books are not on order at the campus bookstore, but are widely available online. I have tried to link to all remaining content from this syllabus. Please let me know if you have difficulties with any of the links, or with permissions.

Supplemental Readings

Required Materials
  • You need a laptop that you can bring to class. If you do not have one, plan to check one out from the library.

Course Overview

See full details on readings tab.

C#     Date Topic Due
Starting R and Visual Perception
1 Jan. 22 What Are Data? And What Are Good and Bad Depictions of Data? Policy Brief handout
2 Jan. 29 Visual Perception and Lab @ DC Intro PS 1
Graphs and Charts
3 Feb. 5 Visualizing Quantities and Shares, and the Role of Denominators PS 2, policy brief proposal
4 Feb. 12 How Do You Show Patterns without Aggregation? PS 3
Feb. 19 Presidents' Day
5 Feb. 26 How Do You Show Change Over Time? PS 4
6 Mar. 5 How Do You Show More Than One Variable? PS 5
Mar. 12 Spring Break
7 Mar. 19 Visualizing Income in the United States PS 6
8 Mar. 26 Student Consultations: March 22 and 23; no class March 26 PS 7
9 April 2 In-class workshop Draft of Policy Brief
10 April 9 Maps 1
11 April 16 Maps 2 PS 8
12 April 23 Maps 3 PS 9
13 April 30 Presentations PS 10
14 Wed., May 2 Presentations Policy Brief

Assessment and Evaluation of Learning

  1. Weekly Programming Practice (15%)
    • Creating data visualizations requires technical knowledge.
    • These problem sets are designed to develop your R skills so you can successfully create the final project.
    • You will begin these tasks in class each week; you need to finish them by the following class to turn in on paper in class and online at the beginning of class.
    • Logistics
      • The final product should be typed.
      • Of the 10 weeks with programming practice, the highest eight weeks of assignments will count toward your grade.
      • If you want feedback on all 10, you are welcome to turn in all 10.
      • Each class I will provide a structured handout to follow with questions to answer.
      • Submit write-up on paper, and program on paper at the beginning of the following class.
    • We will grade this assignment as check plus, check, check minus
      • Check plus: assignment goes beyond what is asked, perhaps by adding a different type of visualization, or by being particularly clear (A)
      • Check: assignment answers most questions with clarity and precision (A-)
      • Check minus: assignment fails to complete all parts or is visually or writing-wise unclear (B+ or below)
    • Late assignments are not accepted
  2. Visualizations: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (5%)
    • One of the goals of this course is for you to recognize quality data visualizations and misleading data visualizations.
    • This will help you review and identify the strategies from the previous class, and will require you to explain the strengths and weaknesses of the graphics.
    • To this end, two students each week will post a good and a bad visualization based on the previous week's class.
    • We will post them on the course website and briefly discuss them at the beginning of class.
    • We will make assignments for this activity the first class.
    • No late assignments are accepted.
  3. Policy Brief (65%)
    • A policy brief -- a version of a short memo -- is the primary method of policy communication. This assignment asks you to create or (vastly) improve such a memo.
    • For our final class, you will turn in an approximately five page policy brief, with approximately five data visualizations.
    • This project includes interim steps described below.
    • The goal of this exercise is for you to
      • Connect what we've learned in course with policy
      • Practice R
      • Direct inquiry toward an unstructured project
      • Challenge your newly developed visualization skills
    • To make this project maximally relevant, you will engage with a community partner
    • We have two types of partners
      1. Lab @ DC, which will provide data and questions
      2. Your choice of an existing policy brief/brochure/[written product] that you believe can be improved with your new skills.
    • To conclude your engagement with the community partner, you'll need to present (for Lab @ DC) or attempt to present (for other partners) your results.
    • For relevant briefs, you are very welcome to post on the Center for Washington Area Studies page
    • Logistics
      • Paper is due final class.
      • You are welcome, but not required, to work in pairs. Requirements do not differ if you work in pairs; you should correctly interpret this as an incentive to work in pairs.
      • Extensions will be given only the case of illness
      • Briefs will be graded out of 100 points
      • Any essays submitted late will decline by ten points for each twelve hours the essay is late, e.g. if the essay is due on Friday and is received Monday, if it would have received 70%, it now receives 30%
  4. Interim Assignments for Policy Brief (total of 10%)
    • Policy Brief Proposal (2.5%)
      • To make sure that you have chosen a manageable assignment, on week 3 you will turn in a description of what you are planning to visualize
      • This should be one page or less, and include either a printed copy of the work you are trying to improve, or the questions you want to ask of the Lab @ DC data.
      • I will provide written feedback on your proposal within one week of submission.
      • I will comment on, but not give credit for, late work
    • Policy Brief Workshop (2.5%)
      • To make sure that you are on track to complete a high-quality policy brief at the end of the semester, and to hone your critical visualization skills, on week 9 you will produce a draft of your policy brief for peer feedback.
      • Specifically, you will post a draft of your policy brief, complete with draft visualizations, and give and receive feedback on these visualizations.
      • We will work in small groups that I will assign, and you comment on your group members' work
      • I will provide more details in a handout in week 7
    • Policy Brief Presentations (5%)
      • We use weeks 13 and 14 for presentations of your policy briefs
      • Half of your grade will be based on your comments on your classmates' presentations (2.5%)
      • Half of your grade will be based on your presentation (2.5%)
      • I will provide more details for this activity closer to the date.
      • No late work is accepted
    • Client Presentation (0%)
      • To get professional feedback on your work, and to reach practitioners with your ideas, I strongly encourage you to make a presentation to your community partner
      • Because this component occurs after the course, I do not count this presentation toward your final grade
  5. Class Participation (5%)
    • The first half of each class will be spent in a lecture/discussion of graphical presentation.
    • To make sure you're up to date with the reading -- which should help you understand the creation of good graphics -- I will ask questions of all students in each class.
    • Come prepared to answer questions in order to succeed in course preparation

Trachtenberg School Course Policies

  • The Syllabus
    This syllabus is your guide to the course. If any questions arise, please check the syllabus before contacting me or the TA. Sound educational practice requires flexibility and I may revise content and requirements during the semester.
  • Late or Missed Class
    If you are late or absent from class, it is your responsibility to obtain all announcements, assignments, and handouts from this website or from your classmates. As participation is part of your grade, and because attendance in class helps you learn, missing many classes will be detrimental to your final grade. Missing one class should have no effect. You do not need to notify me in advance if you are going to miss class.
  • Exam Dates
    Please notify me in the first two weeks of class if you are aware of a pre-existing conflict, such as a religious holiday you observe, that will preclude you from taking either exam at the assigned time. To the extent possible, we will work together to reschedule the exam as close to the original date as possible.
  • Submission of Written Work Products Outside of the Classroom
    It is your responsibility to ensure that I receive your assignment on time. It is not permissible to submit assignments digitally unless I indicate so.
  • Collaboration on Assignments
    You are welcome to work in groups; however, you are expected to write up your answers individually. This means that no phrases on your assignment should mimic phrases on any other student's work.
  • Submission of Written Work Products after Due Date
    All work must be submitted by the assigned due date in order to receive full credit. Only extreme circumstances warrant exceptions. Late assignments will be marked down for each day that they are late.
  • Academic Honesty
    All examinations and other graded work products are to be completed in conformance with the George Washington University Code of Academic Integrity. Note especially the definition of plagiarism: “intentionally representing the words, ideas, or sequence of ideas of another as one's own in any academic exercise; failure to attribute any of the following: quotations, paraphrases, or borrowed information.”
  • Incompletes
    You must consult with me to obtain an incomplete no later than the last day of classes in the semester. At that time, we will both sign the CCAS contract for incompletes and submit a copy to the School Director. Please consult the TSPPPA Student Handbook or visit this link for the complete CCAS policy on incompletes.
  • Changing Grades After Completion of Course
    No changes can be made in grades after the conclusion of the semester, other than in cases of clerical error.
  • Accommodation for Students with Disabilities
    If you need extra time on exams or assignments due to a disability, let me know in the first week of class. In order to receive accommodations on the basis of disability, you'll need to provide proper documentation to the Office of Disability Support Services, Marvin Center 436, 202-994-8250. Accommodations will be made based upon the recommendations of the DSS Office.
  • University Counseling Center
    The University Counseling Center (UCC), 202-994-5300, offers 24/7 assistance and referral to address students' personal, social, career, and study skills problems. Services for students include: crisis and emergency mental health consultations; confidential assessment, counseling services (individual and small group), and referrals
  • Religious Holidays
    If you need to miss a class to observe a religious holiday, please notify me the first week of classes about any conflict; we will arrange an absence without penality.
  • Out of Class Learning
    Average minimum amount of independent, out-of- class, learning expected per week: In a 15 week semester, including exam week, students are expected to spend a minimum of 100 minutes of out-of- class work for every 50 minutes of direct instruction, for a minimum total of 2.5 hours a week.