Prime visual story-telling

A story from the New York Times about New York City neighborhoods has been making the rounds on my Linkedin feed. The Linkedin post sends me to this interactive data visualization page (link).

Here, you will find a multi-colored map.

Nyt_newyorkneighborhoodsmap

The colors show the extant of named neighborhoods in the city. If you look closely, the boundaries between neighborhoods are blurred since it's often not clear where one neighborhood ends and where another one begins. I was expecting this effect when I recognize the names of the authors, who have previously published other maps that obsess over spatial uncertainty.

I clicked on an area for which I know there may be differing opinions:

Nyt_newyorkneighborhoods_example

There was less controversy than I expected.

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What was the dataset behind this dataviz project? How did they get such detailed data on every block of the city? Wouldn't they have to interview a lot of residents to compile the data?

I'm quite impressed with what they did. They put up a very simple survey (emphasis on: very simple). This survey is only possible with modern browser technology. It asks the respondent to pinpoint the location of where they live, and name their neighborhood. Then it asks the respondent to draw a polygon around their residence to include the extant of the named neighborhood. This consists of a few simple mouse clicks on the map that shows the road network. Finally, the survey collects optional information on alternative names for the neighborhood, etc.

When they process the data, they assign the respondent's neighborhood name to all blocks encircled by the polygon. This creates a lot of data in a few brush strokes, so to speak. This is a small (worthwhile) tradeoff even though the respondent didn't really give an answer for every block.

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Bear with me, I'm getting to the gist of this blog post. The major achievement isn't the page that was linked to above. The best thing the dataviz team did here is the visual story that walks the reader through insights drawn from the dataviz. You can find the visual story here.

What are the components of a hugely impressive visual story?

  • It combines data visualization with old-fashioned archival research. The historical tidbits add a lot of depth to the story.
  • It combines data visualization with old-fashioned reporting. The quotations add context to how people think about neighborhoods - something that cannot be obtained from the arms-length process of conducting an online survey.
  • It highlights curated insights from the underlying data - even walking the reader step by step through the relevant sections of the dataviz that illustrate these insights.

At the end of this story, some fraction of users may be tempted to go back to the interactive dataviz to search for other insights, or obtain answers to their personalized questions. They are much better prepared to do so, having just seen how to use the interactive tool!

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The part of the visual story I like best is toward the end. Instead of plotting all the data on the map, they practice some restraint, and filter the data. They show the boundaries that have reached at least a certain level of consensus among the respondents.

The following screenshot shows those areas for which at least 90% agree.

Nyt_newyorkneighborhoods_90pc

Pardon the white text box, I wasn't able to remove it.

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One last thing...

Every time an analyst touches data, or does something with data, s/he imposes assumptions, and sometimes, these assumptions are so subtle that even the analyst may not have noticed. Frequently, these assumptions are baked into the analytical "models," which is why they may fall through the cracks.

One such assumption in making this map is that every block in the city belongs to at least one named neighborhood. An alternative assumption is that neighborhoods are named only because certain blocks have things in common, and because these naming events occur spontaneously, it's perfectly ok to have blocks that aren't part of any named neighborhood.

 

 


Chart without an axis

When it comes to global warming, most reports cite a single number such as an average temperature rise of Y degrees by year X. Most reports also claim the existence of a consensus within scientists. The Guardian presented the following chart that shows the spread of opinions amongst the experts.

Guardian_globalwarming

Experts were asked how many degrees they expect average global temperature to increase by 2100. The estimates ranged from "below 1.5 degrees" to "5 degrees or more". The most popular answer was 2.5 degrees. Roughly three out of four respondents picked a number at 2.5 degrees or above. The distribution is close to symmetric around the middle.

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What kind of chart is this?

It's a type of histogram, given that the horizontal axis shows binned ranges of temperature change while the vertical axis shows number of respondents (out of 380).

A (count) histogram typically encodes the count data in the vertical axis. Did you notice there isn't a vertical axis?

That's because the chart has an abnormal axis. Each of the 380 respondents is shown here as a cell. What looks like a "column" is actually two-dimensional. Each row of cells has 10 slots. To find out how many respondents chose the 2.5 celsius category, you count the number of rows and then the number of stray items on top. (It's 132.)

Only the top row of cells can be partially filled so the general shape of the distribution isn't affected much. However, the lack of axis labels makes it hard to learn the count of each column.

It's even harder to know the proportions of respondents, which should be the primary message of the chart. The proportion would have been possible to show if the maximum number of rows was set to 38. The maximum number of rows on the above chart is 22. Using 38 rows leads to a chart with a lot of white space as the tallest column (count of 132) is roughly 35% of the total response.

At the end, I'm not sure this variant of histogram beats the standard histogram.


One doesn't have to plot raw data

Visual Capitalist chose a treemap to show us where gold is produced (link):

Viscap_gold2023

The treemap is embedded into a brick of gold. Any treemap is difficult to read, mostly because some block are vertical, others horizontal. A rough understanding is nevertheless possible: the entire global production can be roughly divided into four parts: China plus three other Asian producers account for roughly (not quite) a quarter; "rest of the world" (i.e. all countries not individually listed) is a quarter; Russia and Australia together is again a bit less than a quarter.

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When I look at datasets that rank countries by some metric, I'm hoping to present insights, rather than the raw data. Insights typically involve comparing countries, or sets of countries, or one country against a set of countries. So, I made the following chart that includes some of these insights I found in the gold production dataset:

Junkcharts_redo_viscap_gold2023

For example, the top 4 producers in Asia account for almost a quarter of the world's output; Canada, U.S. and Australia together also roughly produce a quarter; the rest of the world has a similar output. In Asia, China's output is about the sum of the next 3 producers, which is about the same as U.S. and Canada, which is about the same as the top 5 in Africa.

 


Aligning V and Q by way of D

In the Trifecta Checkup (link), there is a green arrow between the Q (question) and V (visual) corners, indicating that they should align. This post illustrates what I mean by that.

I saw the following chart in a Washington Post article comparing dairy milk and plant-based "milks".

Vitamins

The article contains a whole series of charts. The one shown here focuses on vitamins.

The red color screams at the reader. At first, it appears to suggest that dairy milk is a standout on all four categories of vitamins. But that's not what the data say.

Let's take a look at the chart form: it's a grid of four plots, each containing one square for each of four types of "milk". The data are encoded in the areas of the squares. The red and green colors represent category labels and do not reflect data values.

Whenever we make bubble plots (the closest relative of these square plots), we have to solve a scale problem. What is the relationship between the scales of the four plots?

I noticed the largest square is the same size across all four plots. So, the size of each square is made relative to the maximum value in each plot, which is assigned a fixed size. In effect, the data encoding scheme is that the areas of the squares show the index values relative to the group maximum of each vitamin category. So, soy milk has 72% as much potassium as dairy milk while oat and almond milks have roughly 45% as much as dairy.

The same encoding scheme is applied also to riboflavin. Oat milk has the most riboflavin, so its square is the largest. Soy milk is 80% of oat, while dairy has 60% of oat.

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_trifectacheckup_imageLet's step back to the Trifecta Checkup (link). What's the question being asked in this chart? We're interested in the amount of vitamins found in plant-based milk relative to dairy milk. We're less interested in which type of "milk" has the highest amount of a particular vitamin.

Thus, I'd prefer the indexing tied to the amount found in dairy milk, rather than the maximum value in each category. The following set of column charts show this encoding:

Junkcharts_redo_msn_dairyplantmilks_2

I changed the color coding so that blue columns represent higher amounts than dairy while yellow represent lower.

From the column chart, we find that plant-based "milks" contain significantly less potassium and phosphorus than dairy milk while oat and soy "milks" contain more riboflavin than dairy. Almond "milk" has negligible amounts of riboflavin and phosphorus. There is vritually no difference between the four "milk" types in providing vitamin D.

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In the above redo, I strengthen the alignment of the Q and V corners. This is accomplished by making a stop at the D corner: I change how the raw data are transformed into index values. 

Just for comparison, if I only change the indexing strategy but retain the square plot chart form, the revised chart looks like this:

Junkcharts_redo_msn_dairyplantmilks_1

The four squares showing dairy on this version have the same size. Readers can evaluate the relative sizes of the other "milk" types.