Visualization success story: property values, taxes & government officials

As I mentioned in my last post, we need more examples of how people and organizations use visualizations to successfully achieve their goals. So, here we go: example number one. This example comes from Alberto Cairo, via a Data Stories podcast with Enrico Bertini and Moritz Stefaner.

Our story takes us to the capital of Costa Rica, to the newsroom of La Nación, the largest circulation newspaper in the country.

In March 2012, La Nación’s Rigoberto Carvajal, Edgar Mendez, Pamela Rodriguez and Adrian Varela wrapped up an investigation into the property values declared by government officials. Specifically, the journalists considered how those declared property values—which are used as the basis for tax payments—compared to calculated values. The calculated values were developed from multipliers published by the government’s Ministry of Finance.

According to Costa Rican law (The Law on Property Taxes), all property owners must update the declared value of their property every five years. Property owners, then, pay a 0.25 percent annual real estate tax based on that declared value.

So, if the declared property value is lower than the calculated property value and that property value had not been updated within the last five years, then the government officials would be underpaying their property tax.

La Nación’s investigation considered 58 properties owned by 22 government ministers, two vice presidents and the president. The newspaper sent letters and emails to these government officials detailing their findings. In total, they estimated that the government officials were underpaying a total of 28 million colones (about $56,000). This would not make a huge difference to the 2012 national budget of 6 trillion colones, but still: leading by example, walking the talk, and all that.

Not only were the details of the investigation sent to the government officials, they were also displayed in a fantastic interactive visualization on La Nación’s website (if you use Chrome, you can translate the page from Spanish to English). The visualization allows the reader to explore the location, declared value, and calculated value of the properties for both the cabinet officials (under the “Cabinet” tab), and the “12 key members in the discussion of tax reform” (under the “Deputies” tab). You see a photo of the government official in question, a map, details on the property values, and a summary bar at the bottom showing how this person’s property value compared to what it should be. Here is a screenshot of the vis:


The result?

Well, seven of the ministers, including Finance Minister Fernando Herrero (remember how  La Nación used the multipliers from the Ministry of Finance to calculate property values?), rather immediately updated their property values for a total increase in value of 622 million colones. Incidentally, this was a lot higher than what La Nación had initially estimated as the undervalued amount (about 11 million colones across all officials).

In addition, President Chinchilla called the undervalued properties an “unfortunate oversight” and “ordered all her ministers to immediately update the value of their properties.”

Assuming that La Nación’s journalists aim to keep Costa Ricans well-informed, it seems that their visualization did an excellent job of doing just that by providing a lot of important information in an accurate, comprehensive, timely and understandable manner.