Data visualization experiement: education and inequality


  • Complete a data visualization with a new tool
  • Discover questions raised by the correlation in the data


Of the many things that influence education, one general category is "inequality." Racial and gender inequality contribute to the lack of diversity in tech. Another kind of inequality that's caught the world's and America's attention is income inequality. 

Since the total difference between top and bottom is so large, an easier way to evaluate inequality is the Gini coefficient metric, which measures relative wealth. It's not a measure of absolute wealth, absolute poverty, or changes in income over a lifetime; it's a snapshot of how unequal the distribution is.

I matched Gini data and educational attainment data from 2009 to test out a new data visualization tool, Google Fusion Tables. Looking at just the Gini data applied to each U.S. state, we see that some "rich" states are more unequal than some "poor" states, but that that isn't always the case. Since this was an exercise in visualization, I didn't dig into the data more, but it would be informative to tease out the relationship between Gini and the absolute per capita income for population percentiles.

Although per capita income, income inequality, and spending on education are not the same thing (I'm from Florida, which has low spending on education in part because of reluctance to raise taxes), I wanted to see if there was anything in the data that suggested a correlation between Gini and educational outcomes.

There was.

But this isn't more than an associatino. If the visualization tool offered more advanced analysis and visualization like a 3D scatter plot, we could tease out other metrics like per capita spending, parents' education, family income, etc.. This correlation raises more questions than it answers, though, like

  1. Why are the lower completion rates so low? And for which segments of the population?
  2. What clusters are there within the data?
  3. What is the correlation between poverty, education and inequality by county?

High school or more education

Bachelors or more education

Advanced degrees

More questions

One interesting generalization: several of the states with higher Gini coefficients have higher advanced degree completion rates compared to the rest of the country. 

  1. Are the states with more advanced degrees more unequal because people with advanced degrees tend to make more?
  2. Are the states with fewer advanced degrees more equal compared to their neighbors because everyone makes less?
  3. What is the quality and availability of higher education in states with more inequality?
  4. What are the non-economic barriers to educational equality in these states?
  5. What besides the quality and availability of higher education in each state could explain the differences in educational attainment rates?

More data that would be insightful include longitudinal changes in inequality, migration, demographic shifts, and state taxes. Ultimately, this is a huge issue, one that an afternoon of research and a hunch for a correlation won't solve.


Google Fusion Tables didn't require installing new software, but it had very limited views. Maybe I just didn't understand the documentation for how to get different views, and Google doesn't offer many video tutorials.

More time was spent corralling the data and formatting it than actually visualizing it. One frustration I had with Google Fusion Tables was that it didn't let me format the data the way I wanted to, and in the visualizations, a lot of unwanted data shows up even though I tried to change the display settings in several menus.

 The next tools I'd like to try are Tableau Public and CartoDB, which have more options and produce better visualizations, and more engaged communities.