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Behind the Numbers: Amid Financial Uncertainty, Data Visualization Spurs Economic Recovery

When COVID-19 began spreading across the U.S. in 2020, many Americans found themselves impacted by unemployment. As a result, government agencies increased spending to provide communities with loans and assistance. Here’s how data visualization and analytics helped make that possible.

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Last year, if you had asked any finance professional about the state of the U.S. economy, most would have said they were bullish about where the market was headed. At the time, experts were seeing steady economic growth and unemployment was the lowest it had been in 50 years. No one could have predicted what would happen in 2020.

When COVID-19 began spreading across the U.S. in 2020, it didn’t just affect the health of the population — it also had rippling financial impacts for a large number of Americans. As a result, government agencies increased spending to provide communities with loans and assistance. But agencies are facing financial hardships of their own:  While there’s the certainty of decreased tax revenue for the coming year, there’s increasing uncertainty in terms of forecasting expenses, making managing budgets more difficult and increasingly time-consuming. 

To keep on top of spending and better assess budgets in real-time, federal agencies are looking for new ways to manage their financial data. By transitioning from legacy systems and spreadsheets to data management and visualization tools, finance and accounting teams can make more strategic decisions and allocate resources across their organizations — and to the communities they serve — during these challenging times. 

Fueling Economic Recovery Through Data Visualization 

To help businesses and communities get back on their feet, the U.S. government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) act. The $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill, which was signed into law in March, offers eligible small businesses the opportunity to apply for the Payment Protection Program (PPP) loan. The loan, which is administered by the Small Business Administration, provides funding for businesses, so they can continue to employ their workforce despite the economic challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However, it should come as no surprise that the number of PPP applications skyrocketed to unsurmountable volumes as more small businesses felt the financial impacts of the pandemic. In fact, the National Federation of Independent Business reported that as of April 9, 2020, 70% of small businesses had applied for a PPP loan. As a result, agencies like SBA and its partners were busier than ever reviewing loan applications. 

To better understand how these funds could be allocated, agencies turned to data visualization tools that offered a comprehensive illustration of constituents’ needs. For example, sample workbooks and data models on Tableau enabled lenders to provide relief by gaining insight into which businesses were most vulnerable. Meanwhile, organizations used Tableau public to visualize where the funds were being allocated. One interactive data visualization, for example, offered users an opportunity to view approved loan applications, job retention rates and industries that benefited from these loans in each state. Other data visualizations went even deeper, illustrating loan allocations by location. By mapping fund allocations in specific states or metropolitan areas, public sector organizations can better understand where these businesses operate — whether they reside in historically underutilized business zones, for instance. Government leaders can then make strategic and informed decisions about how they should allocate resources going forward.

“There are a ton of opportunities, specifically in the grants management space, to use data visualization tools as we think about how we get dollars from the hands of government into the hands of recipients,” said Rob Bohn, regional vice president of public sector strategic business development at Tableau.

The idea, he explained, is that government leaders can use these tools to make smarter and more data-driven decisions about where their investments are going. 

Tracking Government Spending and Budget Management 

While data visualization and analysis platforms like Tableau can help government agencies allocate resources to the public, these tools can be equally effective in helping government finance and accounting teams manage this spending. 

The State of Ohio, for example, created its very own data analytics initiative, which aimed to solve common business intelligence challenges including organizational silos, lack of data and technical expertise, and outdated or legacy systems that couldn’t keep pace with modern analytics challenges. Key to driving this initiative forward was Tableau’s data visualization capabilities, which the state leveraged to meet the goals identified early on in the enterprise data management and analytics program. The state tapped Tableau to “measure the outcomes of state-funded programs, develop policies to promote the effective, efficient, and best use of state resources, and identify, prevent, or eliminate the fraudulent use of state funds, resources, or state programs.” 

The state also established the Ohio Checkbook, a resource that taxpayers can access to better understand where their dollars are being spent. It features real-time data visualizations on everything from state budgets, spending by expense-type and government employee salaries and pension funds. 

“These public dashboards are part of a larger effort on behalf of Ohio’s CFO to drive increased transparency, to really shine a light on how the government is managing spending,” said Srinivas Kosaraju, senior director of public sector solution engineering at Tableau. 

At the federal level, the Treasury Department has done something similar: USAspending.gov tracks where the U.S. government is spending its budget. Users can explore the interactive data platform and search the database using filters like fiscal year, agency and location. 

“With all of the increased spending that’s been going on, USAspending really beefed up its site to provide the most relevant information,” Bohn said. 

In fact, the site has updated the data platform with preliminary data on the federal response to COVID-19. Users can leverage these tools to analyze and compare government spending before the pandemic to current spending data. 

These types of resources, of course, help citizens better engage with their government — and hold public sector leaders accountable, which is one of the key tenets of a successful democracy. But they can also prove beneficial for government employees responsible for managing financial data. By engaging with visualizations that show where and how the government is spending its money, the public sector can empower its finance and accounting teams to easily and more effectively track spending — and provide the highest quality services to their citizens as a result. 

Find out how your agency can track spending by engaging with Tableau’s data visualization and analytics tools here. 

Be sure to check out other topics covered in this series:

This content is made possible by our sponsor Tableau; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of GovExec’s editorial staff. 

NEXT STORY: Federal Agencies Tap Data Visualization to Track and Mitigate the Spread of COVID-19

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