child’s play by the numbers

It’s the beginning of December, and to me that can mean only one thing: Child’s Play. Go to the site, pick a hospital, and pick a toy (or ten). With just a few quick clicks, you can make a sick child’s stay in the hospital that much better. The opportunities in life for an act this pure are rare, so seize the chance!

Ordinarily I take this opportunity to write something about my own childhood experiences with hospitals, but I don’t think I can possibly do better than last year, so go read that, if you like. This year I’m going to put my Scientist Pants on and talk about charts. I know, right? What can I say? I just saw Objectified (which is the kind of excellent documentary that I wouldn’t mind receiving as a recently released DVD, I’M JUST SAYING).

If you head over to the Child’s Play site, you’ll notice a “Total Contributions” gauge. You’ll also notice that the gauge is broken. It was designed to display a maximum of one million dollars—sorry, I meant to say one million dollars—and as of December 5th, total fundraising had already exceeded that mark. Barely a month in, the amount of goodwill is literally off the charts.

Child's Play Contribution Gauge

The sheer volume of charity is so impressive that it’s actually exposed a problem with the way that charity is visualized. Using a gauge like this one only makes sense when your organization has a predefined goal. Your school needs $2,000 for new hockey uniforms, the Tall One needs to raise $3,000 for the Boston Marathon, I need $500 so I can get my liver pierced, you get the idea. Gauges can also function as an aspirational mechanism. Right now we’re doing great, but look how awesome we could be. That, I think, was the original function of the Child’s Play contribution gauge, but in my opinion it has now worn out its welcome. I don’t think the aspirational component is necessary anymore, and more importantly, Child’s Play has no end point. In this context a gauge is uninformative. A gauge that breaks three weeks into the fundraiser isn’t useful.

A simpler solution would be to ditch the gauge and its arbitrary maximum, and instead simply keep a running total, updated as close to realtime as possible. Then again, this is a charity started by gamers, so why not make it more game-like? Adjust the gauge to use the all-time high score (which, remarkably, is always the prior year’s total) as the end point. Even better, you could run this as a kind of time trial, pitting the numbers for the current year against the running tally from the same time last year.

I’m nearing completion on a study that I’ve been working on for about two years. One of the things I’ve learned is this: Less is more, but also, more is more. Always choose the path that maximizes the amount of data at your disposal, because the more raw information you have to work with, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to find something interesting or do something creative. With this in mind, I went back through Penny-Arcade’s November and December posts for the last seven years to dig up the in-progress Child’s Play tallies. The result (click to enlarge):

Child's Play Chart

The data are spottier than I would have liked, especially for the earlier years, but it’s enough to paint a picture.1 The year-to-year growth of the Child’s Play charity has been phenomenal. What started as a good idea, an Amazon wish list, and some desperately improvised storage space has become a year-round force for good. Child’s Play now raises money at a rate eight to ten times faster than it did in 2003. Thanks to donations from corporate entities, the annual charity drive now¬†starts with more money in the collection plate than the entirety of the first year’s take. I would hazard a guess that the huge jump in 2005 had something to do with the introduction of the Child’s Play Auction. Satellite events like the auction, the Child’s Play Charity Dinner, and my personal favorite, Desert Bus For Hope (which revolves around a marathon session of Penn and Teller’s Desert Bus, the description of which you really, really need to read), as well as an ever-greater number of participating hospitals, have allowed Child’s Play to grow far beyond its comparably humble beginnings.

There are, of course, limits to the amount of money that a single charity can collect. These data suggest that Child’s Play is gradually approaching its ceiling. The year-to-year trend is always upwards, but the movements are getting smaller. Still, I think it’ll be a year or three before Child’s Play hits a real plateau (future innovations in charity notwithstanding).

Could Child’s Play break two million dollars this year? Actually yes, but only under a fairly optimistic interpretation of the data. From early November to the end of December, fund accumulation looks basically linear. The charity’s total haul for each year has consistently been double (or even more than double) the amount collected by early December, and as of right now Child’s Play 2009 has raked in one million dollars. On the other hand, I’m basing my observations off of a sparse data set, the growth of the charity has slowed in recent years, and our present economic crisis isn’t helping matters. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Child’s Play hit 1.7 million dollars this year. But a hefty two million would be so. Much. Cooler. So donate, okay? Don’t you want to be cool? Like all the cool people? With all their coolness?

When it comes to charity, more is more.

  1. If anyone out there has more data points (maybe some of the old Total Contribution gauge images), I’d love to add them to the chart. More is more, after all.


(1 Comment)

  1. GDeeeeZL wrote:

    Go MATLAB! I also have a great appreciation for the deliberate ordering and symbolic meaning of your color selection for the graph. When you’re stacking that many colors it makes sense to go ROYGBIV, but I know you had extra special visual science pride when doing it. I can also rest assured that at least one point while you were writing this post you turned your computer to face the Tall One or your resident Paula Deen and said with a maniacal glow, “Science!” while Vanna Whiting your graph.