Gazing at petals

Reader Murphy pointed me to the following infographic developed by Altmetric to explain their analytics of citations of journal papers. These metrics are alternative in that they arise from non-academic media sources, such as news outlets, blogs, twitter, and reddit.

The key graphic is the petal diagram with a number in the middle.


I have a hard time thinking of this object as “data visualization”. Data visualization should visualize the data. Here, the connection between the data and the visual design is tenuous.

There are eight petals arranged around the circle. The legend below the diagram maps the color of each petal to a source of data. Red, for example, represents mentions in news outlets, and green represents mentions in videos.

Each petal is the same size, even though the counts given below differ. So, the petals are like a duplicative legend.

The order of the colors around the circle does not align with its order in the table below, for a mysterious reason.

Then comes another puzzle. The bluish-gray petal appears three times in the diagram. This color is mapped to tweets. Does the number of petals represent the much higher counts of tweets compared to other mentions?

To confirm, I pulled up the graphic for a different paper.


Here, each petal has a different color. Eight petals, eight colors. The count of tweets is still much larger than the frequencies of the other sources. So, the rule of construction appears to be one petal for each relevant data source, and if the total number of data sources fall below eight, then let Twitter claim all the unclaimed petals.

A third sample paper confirms this rule:


None of the places we were hoping to find data – size of petals, color of petals, number of petals – actually contain any data. Anything the reader wants to learn can be directly read. The “score” that reflects the aggregate “importance” of the corresponding paper is found at the center of the circle. The legend provides the raw data.


Some years ago, one of my NYU students worked on a project relating to paper citations. He eventually presented the work at a conference. I featured it previously.


Notice how the visual design provides context for interpretation – by placing each paper/researcher among its peers, and by using a relative scale (percentiles).


I’m ignoring the D corner of the Trifecta Checkup in this post. For any visualization to be meaningful, the data must be meaningful. The type of counting used by Altmetric treats every tweet, every mention, etc. as a tally, making everything worth the same. A mention on CNN counts as much as a mention by a pseudonymous redditor. A pan is the same as a rave. Let’s not forget the fake data menace (link), which  affects all performance metrics.

Bubble charts, ratios and proportionality

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal about a challenger to the dominant weedkiller, Roundup, contains a nice selection of graphics. (Dicamba is the up-and-comer.)


The change in usage of three brands of weedkillers is rendered as a small-multiples of choropleth maps. This graphic displays geographical and time changes simultaneously.

The staircase chart shows weeds have become resistant to Roundup over time. This is considered a weakness in the Roundup business.


In this post, my focus is on the chart at the bottom, which shows complaints about Dicamba by state in 2019. This is a bubble chart, with the bubbles sorted along the horizontal axis by the acreage of farmland by state.


Below left is a more standard version of such a chart, in which the bubbles are allowed to overlap. (I only included the bubbles that were labeled in the original chart).


The WSJ’s twist is to use the vertical spacing to avoid overlapping bubbles. The vertical axis serves a design perogative and does not encode data.  

I’m going to stick with the more traditional overlapping bubbles here – I’m getting to a different matter.


The question being addressed by this chart is: which states have the most serious Dicamba problem, as revealed by the frequency of complaints? The designer recognizes that the amount of farmland matters. One should expect the more acres, the more complaints.

Let's consider computing directly the number of complaints per million acres.

The resulting chart (shown below right) – while retaining the design – gives a wholly different feeling. Arkansas now owns the largest bubble even though it has the least acreage among the included states. The huge Illinois bubble is still large but is no longer a loner.


Now return to the original design for a moment (the chart on the left). In theory, this should work in the following manner: if complaints grow purely as a function of acreage, then the bubbles should grow proportionally from left to right. The trouble is that proportional areas are not as easily detected as proportional lengths.

The pair of charts below depict made-up data in which all states have 30 complaints for each million acres of farmland. It’s not intuitive that the bubbles on the left chart are growing proportionally.


Now if you look at the right chart, which shows the relative metric of complaints per million acres, it’s impossible not to notice that all bubbles are the same size.

Taking small steps to bring out the message

Happy new year! Good luck and best wishes!


We'll start 2020 with something lighter. On a recent flight, I saw a chart in The Economist that shows the proportion of operating income derived from overseas markets by major grocery chains - the headline said that some of these chains are withdrawing from international markets.


The designer used one color for each grocery chain, and two shades within each color. The legend describes the shades as "total" and "of which: overseas". As with all stacked bar charts, it's a bit confusing where to find the data. The "total" is actually the entire bar, not just the darker shaded part. The darker shaded part is better labeled "home market" as shown below:


The designer's instinct to bring out the importance of international markets to each company's income is well placed. A second small edit helps: plot the international income amounts first, so they line up with the vertical zero axis. Like this:


This is essentially the same chart. The order of international and home market is reversed. I also reversed the shading, so that the international share of income is displayed darker. This shading draws the readers' attention to the key message of the chart.

A stacked bar chart of the absolute dollar amounts is not ideal for showing proportions, because each bar is a different length. Sometimes, plotting relative values summing to 100% for each company may work better.

As it stands, the chart above calls attention to a different message: that Walmart dwarfs the other three global chains. Just the international income of Walmart is larger than the total income of Costco.


Please comment below or write me directly if you have ideas for this blog as we enter a new decade. What do you want to see more of? less of?

All these charts lament the high prices charged by U.S. hospitals


A former student asked me about this chart from the New York Times that highlights much higher prices of hospital procedures in the U.S. relative to a comparison group of seven countries.

The dot plot is clearly thought through. It is not a default chart that pops out of software.

Based on its design, we surmise that the designer has the following intentions:

  1. The names of the medical procedures are printed to be read, thus the long text is placed horizontally.

  2. The actual price is not as important as the relative price, expressed as an index with the U.S. price at 100%. These reference values are printed in glaring red, unignorable.

  3. Notwithstanding the above point, the actual price is still of secondary importance, and the values are provided as a supplement to the row labels. Getting to the actual prices in the comparison countries requires further effort, and a calculator.

  4. The primary comparison is between the U.S. and the rest of the world (or the group of seven countries included). It is less important to distinguish specific countries in the comparison group, and thus the non-U.S. dots are given pastels that take some effort to differentiate.

  5. Probably due to reader feedback, the font size is subject to a minimum so that some labels are split into two lines to prevent the text from dominating the plotting region.


In the Trifecta Checkup view of the world, there is no single best design. The best design depends on the intended message and what’s in the available data.

To illustate this, I will present a few variants of the above design, and discuss how these alternative designs reflect the designer's intentions.

Note that in all my charts, I expressed the relative price in terms of discounts, which is the mirror image of premiums. Instead of saying Country A's price is 80% of the U.S. price, I prefer to say Country A's price is a 20% saving (or discount) off the U.S. price.

First up is the following chart that emphasizes countries instead of hospital procedures:


This chart encourages readers to draw conclusions such as "Hospital prices are 60-80 percent cheaper in Holland relative to the U.S." But it is more taxing to compare the cost of a specific procedure across countries.

The indexing strategy already creates a barrier to understanding relative costs of a specific procedure. For example, the value for angioplasty in Australia is about 55% and in Switzerland, about 75%. The difference 75%-55% is meaningless because both numbers are relative savings from the U.S. baseline. Comparing Australia and Switzerland requires a ratio (0.75/0.55 = 1.36): Australia's prices are 36% above Swiss prices, or alternatively, Swiss prices are a 64% 26% discount off Australia's prices.

The following design takes it even further, excluding details of individual procedures:


For some readers, less is more. It’s even easier to get a rough estimate of how much cheaper prices are in the comparison countries, for now, except for two “outliers”, the chart does not display individual values.

The widths of these bars reveal that in some countries, the amount of savings depends on the specific procedures.

The bar design releases the designer from a horizontal orientation. The country labels are shorter and can be placed at the bottom in a vertical design:


It's not that one design is obviously superior to the others. Each version does some things better. A good designer recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of each design, and selects one to fulfil his/her intentions.


P.S. [1/3/20] Corrected a computation, explained in Ken's comment.