Liquidity – economics and data visualization

JustinP @ 19-05-2008

Hydraulic Computer - Phillips MachineTo coincide with the mechanical rumblings of the Bank of England a couple of weeks back, the Guardian published a piece about the Phillips machine – an early hydraulic computer;

A sensation when it was unveiled at the London School of Economics in 1949, the Phillips machine used hydraulics to model the workings of the British economy but now looks, at first glance, like the brainchild of a nutty professor. Where the Bank’s team of in-house economists are equipped with state-of-the-art digital computers, the profession’s first stab at modelling was very much a do-it-yourself affair with a whiff of the Heath Robinson about it.

When combined with a nifty visualization of American consumer spending from the New York Times, the whole idea of data visualization kicked my cranial cogs into action. This interactive graphic provides a visual breakdown of spending, highlighting price changes over the previous 12 months. This enables us to see that eggs are almost 30% more expensive than in March 2007, while the average American spends more on chicken than computers.

While nifty, this visualization could easily be the tip of a great big iceberg of usefulness. If our day-to-day spending was logged and recorded (be it through anal retention or RFID), we’d be able to visualize and interact with our domestic spending through a similar framework as that used by the New York Times. Essentially, we’d be looking at some kind of virtual, personalised Phillips machine.

Want to compare the breakdown of your expenses for February with that of the average urban-dwelling male in the 26-30 age bracket? Want to add a dynamic element, and watch your financial fortunes ebb and flow over the past ten years? Perhaps isolating the precise moment at which things started to go wrong?

The potential utility of this kind of service could be vast, allowing the cash-blind and mathematically challenged to grok the intricacies of home economics.

Something to include in the next office software bundle, perhaps?

[image from the Science Museum]

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