What Hamilton and data visualizations have in common

Introducing the cast of Hamilton at the Tony Awards, President Barack Obama referred to the award-winning musical not only as “a smash hit, but a civics lesson our kids can’t get enough of ... where rap is the language of revolution, and hip-hop its urgent soundtrack.”

Based on a book written by Ron Chernow, Hamilton: The Musical launched a growth in book sales about our founding father. Following the Tony Awards, Hamilton’s biography jumped to #8 on USA Today’s best-seller list, its highest ranking ever. Presented with a potent dose of history-infused hip-hop, America’s public experienced a renewed interest in the story of our nation’s birth.

Meanwhile, more quietly, the US Department of Commerce, my agency, also has been working to make important data come to life. Commerce has challenged digital innovators across the country to take our vast terabytes of public data on business, jobs, trade, weather, and demographics, and make it easier for the public to use.

Tableau and Enigma, an operational data management and intelligence provider, participated in this challenge and put their software to work on Commerce data about county business patterns, construction spending, home sales, and export laws. Together, these companies built visualizations and dashboards that job seekers, nonprofits, and small businesses can leverage to better understand their local economy, power their job search, and more strategically run their operations.

Using dashboards like the one below, people can explore this data and ask their own questions, like: How many total businesses are in the Seattle metro area? (Answer: about 99,000) And how does that compare to Los Angeles? (nearly 250,000 more). Public Commerce data, once only accessible to people with a software or analytics background, is now actionable for anyone.

This visualization of Department of Commerce data shows the footprint of businesses by metro regions.

Plato said the best way to train our children was through sharing information in ways that “amuses their mind” such that we can understand “the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”

Data visualization tools and revolution-based musicals might seem worlds apart, but for me they strike a similar chord. Both transform public information via mechanisms through which audiences might learn best, whether it’s hip-hop to understand history or interactive maps to explore our local communities. Both advance the goal of equitable public education, knowledge, and common understanding of our nation. And by making facts not just available but engaging, both support the particular genius of each citizen. I am honored to be part of this work and look forward to seeing what’s next from our diverse family of educators.

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