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.


Reading log: HBR's specialty bar charts

Today, I want to talk about a type of analysis that I used to ask students to do. I'm calling it a reading log analysis – it's a reading report that traces how one consumes a dataviz work from where your eyes first land to the moment of full comprehension (or abandonment, if that is the outcome). Usually, we do this orally during a live session, but it's difficult to arrive at a full report within the limited class time. A written report overcomes this problem. A stack of reading logs should be a gift to any chart designer.

My report below is very detailed, reflecting the amount of attention I pay to the craft. Most readers won't spend as much time consuming a graphic. The value of the report is not only in what it covers but also in what it does not mention.

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The chart being analyzed showed up in a Harvard Business Review article (link), and it was submitted by longtime reader Howie H.

Hbr_specialbarcharts

First and foremost, I recognized the chart form as a bar chart. It's an advanced bar chart in which each bar has stacked sections and a vertical line in the middle. Now, I wanted to figure out how data enter the picture.

My eyes went to the top legend which tells me the author was comparing the proportion of respondents who said "business should take responsibility" to the proportion who rated "business is doing well". The difference in proportions is called the "performance gap". I glanced quickly at the first row label to discover the underlying survey addresses social issues such as environmental concerns.

Next, I looked at the first bar, trying to figure out its data encoding scheme. The bold, blue vertical line in the middle of the bar caused me to think each bar is split into left and right sections. The right section is shaded and labeled with the performance gap numbers so I focused on the segment to the left of the blue line.

My head started to hurt a little. The green number (76%) is associated with the left edge of the left section of the bar. And if the blue line represents the other number (29%), then the width of the left section should map to the performance gap. This interpretation was obviously incorrect since the right section already showed the gap, and the width of the left section was not equal to that of the right shaded section.

I jumped to the next row. My head hurt a little bit more. The only difference between the two rows is the green number being 74%, 2 percent smaller. I couldn't explain how the left sections of both bars have the same width, which confirms that the left section doesn't display the performance gap (assuming that no graphical mistakes have been made). It also appeared that the left edge of the bar was unrelated to the green number. So I retreated to square one. Let's start over. How were the data encoded in this bar chart?

I scrolled down to the next figure, which applies the same chart form to other data.

Hbr_specialbarcharts_2

I became even more confused. The first row showed labels (green number 60%, blue number 44%, performance gap -16%). This bar is much bigger than the one in the previous figure, even though 60% was less than 76%. Besides, the left section, which is bracketed by the green number on the left and the blue number on the right, appeared much wider than the 16% difference that would have been merited. I again lapsed into thinking that the left section represents performance gaps.

Then I noticed that the vertical blue lines were roughly in proportion. Soon, I realized that the total bar width (both sections) maps to the green number. Now back to the first figure. The proportion of respondents who believe business should take responsibility (green number) is encoded in the full bar. In other words, the left edges of all the bars represent 0%. Meanwhile the proportion saying business is doing well is encoded in the left section. Thus, the difference between the full width and the left-section width is both the right-section width and the performance gap.

Here is an edited version that clarifies the encoding scheme:

Hbr_specialbarcharts_2

***

That's my reading log. Howie gave me his take:

I had to interrupt my reading of the article for quite a while to puzzle this one out. It's sorted by performance gap, and I'm sure there's a better way to display that. Maybe a dot plot, similar to here - https://junkcharts.typepad.com/junk_charts/2023/12/the-efficiency-of-visual-communications.html.

A dot plot might look something like this:

Junkcharts_redo_hbr_specialcharts_2
Howie also said:

I interpret the authros' gist to be something like "Companies underperform public expectations on a wide range of social challenges" so I think I'd want to focus on the uniform direction and breadth of the performance gap more than the specifics of each line item.

And I agree.


The curse of dimensions

Usually the curse of dimensions concerns data with many dimensions. But today I want to talk about a different kind of curse. This is the curse of dimensions in mapping.

We are only talking about a few dimensions, typically between 3 and 6, so small number of dimensions. And yet it's already a curse. Maps are typically drawn in two dimensions. Those two dimensions are usually spoken for: they show the x- and y-coordinate of space. If we want to include a third, fourth or fifth dimension of data on the map, we have to appeal to colors, shapes, and so on. Cartographers have long realized that adding dimensions involves tradeoffs.

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Andrew featured some colored bubble maps in a recent post. Here is one example:

Dorlingmap_percenthispanic

The above map shows the proportion of population in each U.S. county that is Hispanic. Each county is represented by a bubble pinned to the centroid of the county. The color of the bubble shows the data, divided into demi-deciles so they are using a equal-width binning method. The size of a bubble indicates the size of a county.

The map is sometimes called a "Dorling map" after its presumptive original designer.

I'm going to use this map to explore the curse of dimensions.

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It's clear from the design that county-level details are regarded as extremely important. As there are about 3,000 counties in the U.S., I don't see how any visual design can satisfy this requirement without giving up clarity.

More details require more objects, which spread readers' attention. More details contain more stories, but that too dilutes their focus.

Another principle of this map is to not allow bubbles to overlap. Of course, having bubbles overlap or print on top of one another is a visual faux pas. But to prevent such behavior on this particular design means the precise locations are sacrificed. Consider the eastern seaboard where there are densely populated counties: they are not pinned to their centroids. Instead, the counties are pushed out of their normal positions, similar to making a cartogram.

I remarked at the start – erroneously but deliberately – that each bubble is centered at the centroid of each county. I wonder how many of you noticed the inaccuracy of that statement. If that rule were followed, then the bubbles in New England would have overlapped and overprinted. 

This tradeoff affects how we perceive regional patterns, as all the densely populated regions are bent out of shape.

Another aspect of the data that the designer treats as important is county population, or rather relative county population. Relative – because bubble size don't portray absolutes, plus the designer didn't bother to provide a legend to decipher bubble sizes.

The tradeoff is location. The varying bubble sizes, coupled with the previous stipulation of no overlapping, push bubbles from their proper centroids. This forced displacement disproportionately affects larger counties.

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What if we are willing to sacrifice county-level details?

In this setting, we are not obliged to show every single county. One alternative is to perform spatial smoothing. Intuitively, think about the following steps: plot all these bubbles in their precise locations, turn the colors slightly transparent, let them overlap, blend away the edges, and then we have a nice picture of where the Hispanic people are located.

I have sacrificed the county-level details but the regional pattern becomes much clearer, and we don't need to deviate from the well-understood shape of the standard map.

This version reminds me of the language maps that Josh Katz made.

Joshkatz_languagemap

Here is an old post about these maps.

This map design only reduces but does not eliminate the geographical inaccuracy. It uses the same trick as the Dorling map: the "vertical" density of population has been turned into "horizontal" span. It's a bit better because the centroids are not displaced.

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Which map is better depends on what tradeoffs one is making. In the above example, I'd have made different choices.

 

One final thing – it's minor but maybe not so minor. Most of the bubbles on the map especially in the middle are tiny; as most of them have Hispanic proportions that are on the left side of the scale, they should be showing light orange. However, all of them appear darker than they ought to be. That's because each bubble has a dark border. For small bubbles, the ratio of ink on the border is a high proportion of the ink for the entire object.


What's a histogram?

Almost all graphing tools make histograms, and almost all dataviz books cover the subject. But I've always felt there are many unanswered questions. In my talk this Thursday in NYC, I'll provide some answers. You can reserve a spot here.

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Here's the most generic histogram:

Salaries_count_histogram

Even Excel can make this kind of histogram. Notice that we have counts in the y-axis. Is this really a useful chart?

I haven't found this type of histogram useful ever, since I don't do analyses in which I needed to know the exact count of something - when I analyze data, I'm generalizing from the observed sample to a larger group.

Speaking of Excel, I felt that the developers have always hated histograms. Why is it much harder to make histograms than other basic charts?

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Another question. We often think of histograms as a crude approximation to a probability density function (PDF). An example of a PDF is the famous bell curve. Textbooks sometimes show the concept like this:

Histogram_normal_pdf

This is true of only some types of histograms (and not the one shown in the first section!) Instead, we often face the following situation:

Normals_histogram50_undercurve

This isn't a trick. The data in the histogram above were generated by sampling the pink bell curve.

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If you've used histograms, you probably also have run into strange issues. I haven't found much materials out there to address these questions, and they have been lingering in my mind, hidden, for a long time.

My Thursday talk will hopefully fill in some of these gaps.