It's a new term, and my friend Ray Vella shared some student projects from his NYU class on infographics. There's always something to learn from these projects.
The starting point is a chart published in the Economist a few years ago.
This is a challenging chart to read. To save you the time, the following key points are pertinent:
a) income inequality is measured by the disparity between regional averages
b) the incomes are given in a double index, a relative measure. For each country and year combination, the average national GDP is set to 100. A value of 150 means the richest region of Spain has an average income that is 50% higher than Spain's national average in the year 2015.
The original chart - as well as most of the student work - is based on a specific analysis plan. The difference in the index values between the richest and poorest regions is used as a measure of the degree of income inequality, and the change in the difference in the index values over time, as a measure of change in the degree of income inequality over time. That's as big a mouthful as the bag of words sounds.
This analysis plan can be summarized as:
1) all incomes -> relative indices, at each region-year combination
2) inequality = rich - poor region gap, at each region-year combination
3) inequality over time = inequality in 2015 - inequality in 2000, for each country
4) country difference = inequality in country A - inequality in country B, for each year
One student, J. Harrington, looks at the data through an alternative lens that brings clarity to the underlying data. Harrington starts with change in income within the richest regions (then the poorest regions), so that a worsening income inequality should imply that the richest region is growing incomes at a faster clip than the poorest region.
This alternative analysis plan can be summarized as:
1) change in income over time for richest regions for each country
2) change in income over time for poorest regions for each country
3) inequality = change in income over time: rich - poor, for each country
The restructuring of the analysis plan makes a big difference!
Here is one way to show this alternative analysis:
The underlying data have not changed but the reader's experience is transformed.
A twitter user alerted me to this chart put out by the Biden adminstration trumpeting a reduction in the budget deficit from 2020 to 2021:
This column chart embodies a form that is popular in many presentations, including in scientific journals. It's deficient in so many ways it's a marvel how it continues to live.
There are just two numbers: -3132 and -2772. Their difference is $360 billion, which is less than just over 10 percent of the earlier number. It's not clear what any data graphic can add.
Indeed, the chart does not do much. It obscures the actual data. What is the budget deficit in 2020? Readers must look at the axis labels, and judge that it's about a quarter of the way between 3000 and 3500. Five hundred quartered is 125. So it's roughly $3.125 trillion. Similarly, the 2021 number is slightly above the halfway point between 2,500 and 3,000.
These numbers are upside down. Taller columns are bad! Shortening the columns is good. It's all counter intuitive.
Column charts encode data in the heights of the columns. The designer apparently wants readers to believe the deficit has been cut by about a third.
As usual, this deception is achieved by cutting the column chart off at its knees. Removing equal sections of each column destroys the propotionality of the heights.
Why hold back? Here's a version of the chart showing the deficit was cut by half:
The relative percent reduction depends on where the baseline is placed. The only defensible baseline is the zero baseline. That's the only setting under which the relative percent reduction is accurately represented visually.
This same problem presents itself subtly in Covid-19 vaccine studies. I explain in this post, which I rate as one of my best Covid-19 posts. Check it out!
Here's a beauty by WSJ Graphics:
The article is here.
This data graphic illustrates the power of the visual medium. The underlying dataset is complex: power production by type of source by state by month by year. That's more than 90,000 numbers. They all reside on this graphic.
Readers amazingly make sense of all these numbers without much effort.
It starts with the summary chart on top.
The designer made decisions. The data are presented in relative terms, as proportion of total power production. Only the first and last years are labeled, thus drawing our attention to the long-term trend. The order of the color blocks is carefully selected so that the cleaner sources are listed at the top and the dirtier sources at the bottom. The order of the legend labels mirrors the color blocks in the area chart.
It takes only a few seconds to learn that U.S. power production has largely shifted away from coal with most of it substituted by natural gas. Other than wind, the green sources of power have not gained much ground during these years - in a relative sense.
The map offers multiple avenues for exploration.
Some readers may look at specific states. For example, California.
Currently, about half of the power production in California come from natural gas. Notably, there is no coal at all in any of these years. In addition to wind, solar energy has also gained. All of these insights come without the need for any labels or gridlines!
Hydroelectric energy is the dominant source in those two states, with wind gradually taking share.
At this point, readers realize that the summary chart up top hides remarkable state-level variations.
There are other paths through the map.
Some readers may scan the whole map, seeking patterns that pop out.
One such pattern is the cluster of states that use coal. In most of these states, the proportion of coal has declined.
Yet another path exists for those interested in specific sources of power.
For example, the trend in nuclear power usage is easily followed by tracking the purple. South Carolina, Illinois and New Hampshire are three states that rely on nuclear for more than half of its power.
The chart says they renounced nuclear energy. Here is some history. This one-time event caused a disruption in the time series, unique on the entire map.
This work is wonderful. Enjoy it!