Dataviz in camouflage

This subway timetable in Tokyo caught my eye:


It lists the departure times of all trains going toward Shibuya on Saturdays and holidays.

It's a "stem and leaf" plot.

The stem-and-leaf plot is a crude histogram. In this version, the stem is the hour of the day (24-hour clock) and the leaf is the minute (between 0 and 59). The longer the leaf, the higher the frequency of trains.

We can see that there isn't one peak but rather a plateau between hours 9 and 18.


Contrast this with the weekday schedule in blue:


We can clearly see two rush hours, one peak at hour 8 and a second one at hours 17-18.

Love seeing dataviz in camouflage!


What is the question is the question

I picked up a Fortune magazine while traveling, and saw this bag of bubbles chart.

Fortune_global500 copy

This chart is visually appealing, that must be said. Each circle represents the reported revenues of a corporation that belongs to the “Global 500 Companies” list. It is labeled by the location of the company’s headquarters. The largest bubble shows Beijing, the capital of China, indicating that companies based in Beijing count $6 trillion dollars of revenues amongst them. The color of the bubbles show large geographical units; the red bubbles are cities in Greater China.

I appreciate a couple of the design decisions. The chart title and legend are placed on the top, making it easy to find one’s bearing – effective while non-intrusive. The labeling signals a layering: the first and biggest group have icons; the second biggest group has both name and value inside the bubbles; the third group has values inside the bubbles but names outside; the smallest group contains no labels.

Note the judgement call the designer made. For cities that readers might not be familiar with, a country name (typically abbreviated) is added. This is a tough call since mileage varies.


As I discussed before (link), the bag of bubbles does not elevate comprehension. Just try answering any of the following questions, which any of us may have, using just the bag of bubbles:

  • What proportion of the total revenues are found in Beijing?
  • What proportion of the total revenues are found in Greater China?
  • What are the top 5 cities in Greater China?
  • What are the ranks of the six regions?

If we apply the self-sufficiency test and remove all the value labels, it’s even harder to figure out what’s what.



Moving to the D corner of the Trifecta Checkup, we aren’t sure how to interpret this dataset. It’s unclear if these companies derive most of their revenues locally, or internationally. A company headquartered in Washington D.C. may earn most of its revenues in other places. Even if Beijing-based companies serve mostly Chinese customers, only a minority of revenues would be directly drawn from Beijing. Some U.S. corporations may choose its headquarters based on tax considerations. It’s a bit misleading to assign all revenues to one city.

As we explore this further, it becomes clear that the designer must establish a target – a strong idea of what question s/he wants to address. The Fortune piece comes with a paragraph. It appears that an important story is the spatial dispersion of corporate revenues in different countries. They point out that U.S. corporate HQs are more distributed geographically than Chinese corporate HQs, which tend to be found in the key cities.

There is a disconnect between the Question and the Data used to create the visualization. There is also a disconnect between the Question and the Visual display.

Losing the plot while stacking up the bars

I came across this chart from an infographics that claims to show which zip codes in the U.S. are the "dirtiest" (link). I won't go into the data analysis in this post - it's the usual "open data" style analysis that takes whatever data they could find (in this case, 311 calls) and make some hay out of it.


It's amazing how such analyses frequently land on the Top N, Bottom N table. Top/Bottom N is euphemistically called "insights". But "insights" should answer at least one of these following questions: Where are these zip codes? What's the reason why 11216 has the highest rate of complaints while 11040 has the lowest? What measures can be taken to make the city cleaner?


The basic form chosen for this graphic is the bar chart. The data concerns the number of complaints per 100,000 people (about sanitation - they didn't disclose how they classified a complaint as about sanitation).

To mitigate the "boredom" of bar charts, the designer made the edges of the bars swiggly, and added icons of items found in trash inside the bars. These are thankfully not too intrusive.

Why are all the data printed on the chart? Try mentally wiping the data labels, and you'll understand why the designer did it.

If readers look at data labels rather than the bars, then the data visualization surely has failed. I'd prefer to use an axis

If you spend a few more minutes on the chart, you may notice the gray parts. This is not the simple bar chart but a stacked bar chart. In effect, every bar is referenced to the first bar, which shows the maximum number of complaints per 100K people. For example, zip code 10474 has about 90% of the complaints experienced in zip code 11216, the "dirtiest" place in New York.


The infographic then moves on to Los Angeles, and repeats the Top N/Bottom N presentation:


With this, the plot is lost.

For an inexplicable reason, the dirtiest zip code in LA does not occupy the entire length of the bar. The worst zip code here fills out 87% of the bar length, implying that the entire bar represents the value of 34,978 complaints per 100K people. How did the designer decide on this number?

As a result, every other value is referenced to 34,978 and not to the rate of complaints in the dirtiest zip code!


The infographic eventually covers Houston. Here are the dirtiest two zip codes in Houston:


How does one interpret the orange section of the second bar? The original intention is for us to see that this zip code is about 80% as dirty as the dirtiest zip code. However, the full length of the bar does not here represent the dirtiest zip code.


We also got a hint as to why this entire analysis is problematic. The values in LA are way bigger than those in NY, about 4 times higher at the top of the table. Is LA really that much dirtier than NY? Or perhaps the data have not been properly aligned between cities?


P.S. [8-26-2023] Added link to the infographic.


Partition of Europe

A long-time reader sent me the following map via twitter:


This map tells how the major political groups divide up the European Parliament. I’ll spare you the counting. There are 27 countries, and nine political groups (including the "unaffiliated").

The key chart type is a box of dots. Each country gets its own box. Each box has its own width. What determines the width? If you ask me, it’s the relative span of the countries on the map. For example, the narrow countries like Ireland and Portugal have three dots across while the wider countries like Spain, Germany and Italy have 7, 10 and 8 dots across respectively.

Each dot represents one seat in the Parliament. Each dot has one of 9 possible colors. Each color shows a political lean e.g. the green dots represent Green parties while the maroon dots display “Left” parties.

The end result is a counting game. If we are interested in counts of seats, we have to literally count each dot. If we are interested in proportion of seats, take your poison: either eyeball it or count each color and count the total.

Who does the underlying map serve? Only readers who know the map of Europe. If you don’t know where Hungary or Latvia is, good luck. The physical constraints of the map work against the small-multiples set up of the data. In a small multiples, you want each chart to be identical, except for the country-specific data. The small-multiples structure requires a panel of equal-sized cells. The map does not offer this feature, as many small countries are cramped into Eastern Europe. Also, Europe has a few tiny states e.g. Luxembourg (population 660K)  and Malta (population 520K). To overcome the map, the designer produces boxes of different sizes, substantially loading up the cognitive burden on readers.

The map also dictates where the boxes are situated. The centroids of each country form the scaffolding, with adjustments required when the charts overlap. This restriction ensures a disorderly appearance. By contrast, the regular panel layout of a small multiples facilitates comparisons.


Here is something I sketched using a tile map.

Eu parties print sm

First, I have to create a tile map of European countries. Some parts, e.g. western part, are straightforward. The eastern side becomes very congested.

The tile map encodes location in an imprecise sense. Think about the scaffolding of centroids of countries referred to prior. The tile map imposes an order to the madness - we're shifting these centroids so that they line up in a tidier pattern. What we gain in comparability we concede in location precision.

For the EU tile map, I decided to show the Baltic countries in a row rather than a column; the latter would have been more faithful to the true geography. Malta is shown next to Italy even though it could have been placed below. Similarly, Cyprus in relation to Greece. I also included several key countries that are not part of the EU for context.

Instead of raw seat counts, I'm showing the proportion of seats within each country claimed by each political group. I think this metric is more useful to readers.

The legend is itself a chart that shows the aggregate statistics for all 27 countries.