A little stitch here, a great graphic is knitted

The Wall Street Journal used the following graphic to compare hurricanes Ida and Katrina (link to paywalled article).


This graphic illustrates the power of visual communications. Readers can learn a lot from it.

The paths of the storms can be compared. The geographical locations of the landfalls are shown. The strengthening of wind speeds as the hurricanes moved toward Louisiana is also displayed. Ida is clearly a lesser storm than Katrina: its wind speed never reached Category 5, and is generally lower at comparable time points.

The greatest feature of the WSJ graphic is how the designer stitches the two plots into one graphic. The anchors are two time points: when each storm attained enough wind speed to be classified as a hurricane (indicated by open dots), and when each storm made landfall in Louisiana. It is this little-noticed feature that makes it so easy to place each plot in context of the other.


Visually displaying multipliers

As I'm preparing a blog about another real-world study of Covid-19 vaccines, I came across the following chart (the chart title is mine).


As background, this is the trend in Covid-19 cases in the U.K. in the last couple of months, courtesy of OurWorldinData.org.


The React-1 Study sends swab kits to randomly selected people in England in order to assess the prevalence of Covid-19. Every month, there is a new round of returned swabs that are tested for Covid-19. This measurement method captures asymptomatic cases although it probably missed severe and hospitalized cases. Despite having some shortcomings, this is a far better way to measure cases than the hotch-potch assembling of variable-quality data submitted by different jurisdictions that has become the dominant source of our data.

Rounds 12 and 13 captured an inflection point in the pandemic in England. The period marked the beginning of the end of the belief that widespread vaccination will end the pandemic.

The chart I excerpted up top broke the data down by age groups. The column heights represent the estimated prevalence of Covid-19 during each round - also, described precisely in the paper as "swab positivity." Based on the study's design, one may generalize the prevalence to the population at large. About 1.5% of those aged 13-24 in England are estimated to have Covid-19 around the time of Round 13 (roughly early July).

The researchers came to the following conclusion:

We show that the third wave of infections in England was being driven primarily by the Delta variant in younger, unvaccinated people. This focus of infection offers considerable scope for interventions to reduce transmission among younger people, with knock-on benefits across the entire population... In our data, the highest prevalence of infection was among 12 to 24 year olds, raising the prospect that vaccinating more of this group by extending the UK programme to those aged 12 to 17 years could substantially reduce transmission potential in the autumn when levels of social mixing increase


Raise your hand if the graphics software you prefer dictates at least one default behavior you can't stand. I'm sure most hands are up in the air. No matter how much you love the software, there is always something the developer likes that you don't.

The first thing I did with today's chart is to get rid of all such default details.


For me, the bottom chart is cleaner and more inviting.


The researchers wanted readers to think in terms of Round 3 numbers as multiples of Round 2 numbers. In the text, they use statements such as:

weighted prevalence in round 13 was nine-fold higher in 13-17 year olds at 1.56% (1.25%, 1.95%) compared with 0.16% (0.08%, 0.31%) in round 12

It's not easy to perceive a nine-fold jump from the paired column chart, even though this chart form is better than several others. I added some subtle divisions inside each orange column in order to facilitate this task:


I have recommended this before. I'm co-opting pictograms in constructing the column chart.

An alternative is to plot everything on an index scale although one would have to drop the prevalence numbers.


The chart requires an additional piece of context to interpret properly. I added each age group's share of the population below the chart - just to illustrate this point, not to recommend it as a best practice.


The researchers concluded that their data supported vaccinating 13-17 year olds because that group experienced the highest multiplier from Round 12 to Round 13. Notice that the 13-17 year old age group represents only 6 percent of England's population, and is the least populous age group shown on the chart.

The neighboring 18-24 age group experienced a 4.5 times jump in prevalence in Round 13 so this age group is doing much better than 13-17 year olds, right? Not really.

While the same infection rate was found in both age groups during this period, the slightly older age group accounted for 50% more cases -- and that's due to the larger share of population.

A similar calculation shows that while the infection rate of people under 24 is about 3 times higher than that of those 25 and over, both age groups suffered over 175,000 infections during the Round 3 time period (the difference between groups was < 4,000).  So I don't agree that focusing on 13-17 year olds gives England the biggest bang for the buck: while they are the most likely to get infected, their cases account for only 14% of all infections. Almost half of the infections are in people 25 and over.


Working hard at clarity

As I am preparing another blog post about the pandemic, I came across the following data graphic, recently produced by the CDC for a vaccine advisory board meeting:


This is not an example of effective visual communications.


For one thing, readers are directed to scour the footnotes to figure out what's going on. If we ignore those for the moment, we see clusters of bubbles that have remained pretty stable from December 2020 to August 2021. The data concern some measure of Americans' intent to take the COVID-19 vaccine. That much we know.

There may have been a bit of an upward trend between January and May, although if you were shown the clusters for December, February and April, you'd think the trend's been pretty flat. 


But those colors? What could they represent? You'd surely have to fish this one out of the footnotes. Specifically, this obtuse sentence: "Surveys with multiple time points are shown with the same color bubble for each time point." I had to read it several times. I think it simply means "Color represents the pollster." 

Then it adds: "Surveys with only one time point are shown in gray." which simply means "All pollsters who have only one entry in the dataset are grouped together and shown in gray."

Another problem with this chart is over-plotting. Look at the July cluster. It's impossible to tell how many polls were conducted in July because the circles pile on top of one another. 


The appearance of the flat trend is a result of two unfortunate decisions made by the designer. If I retained the chart form, I'd have produced something that looks like this:


The first design choice is to expand the vertical axis to range from 0% to 100%. This effectively squeezes all the bubbles into a small range.


The second design choice is to enlarge the bubbles causing copious amount of overlapping. 


In particular, this decision blows up the Pew poll (big pink bubble) that contained 10 times the sample size of most of the other polls. The Pew outcome actually came in at 70% but the top of the pink bubble extends to over 80%. Because of this, the outlier poll of December 2020 - which surprisingly printed the highest number of all polls in the entire time window - no longer looks special. 


Now, let's see what else we can do to enhance this chart. 

I don't like how bubble size is used to encode the sample size. It creates a weird sensation for anyone who's familiar with sampling errors, and confidence regions. The Pew poll with 10 times the sample size is the most reliable poll of them all. Reliability means the error bars around the Pew poll outcome is the smallest of them all. I tend to think of the area around a point estimate as showing the sampling error so the Pew poll would be a dot, showing the high precision of that estimate. 

But that won't work because larger bubbles catch more of the reader's attention. So, in the following version, all dots have the same size. I encode reliability in the opacity of the color. The darker dots are polls that are more reliable, that have larger sample sizes.


Two of the pollsters have more frequent polling than others. In this next version, I highlighted those two, which reveals the trend better.





Simple charts are the hardest to do right

The CDC website has a variety of data graphics about many topics, one of which is U.S. vaccinations. I was looking for information about Covid-19 data broken down by age groups, and that's when I landed on these charts (link).


The left panel shows people with at least one dose, and the right panel shows those who are "fully vaccinated." This simple chart takes an unreasonable amount of time to comprehend.


The analyst introduces three metrics, all of which are described as "percentages". Upon reflection, they are proportions of the people in specific age ranges.

Readers are thus invited to compare these proportions. It's not clear, however, which comparisons are intended. The first item listed in the legend states "Percent among Persons who completed all recommended doses in last 14 days". For most readers, including me, this introduces an unexpected concept. The 14 days here do not refer to the (in)famous 14-day case-counting window but literally the most recent two weeks relative to when the chart was produced.

It would have been clearer if the concept of Proportions were introduced in the chart title or axis title, while the color legend explains the concept of the base population. From the lighter shade to the darker shade (of red and blue) to the gray color, the base population shifts from "Among Those Who Completed/Initiated Vaccinations Within Last 14 Days" to "Among Those Who Completed/Initiated Vaccinations Any Time" to "Among the U.S. Population (regardless of vaccination status)".

Also, a reverse order helps our comprehension. Each subsequent category is a subset of the one above. First, the whole population, then those who are fully vaccinated, and finally those who recently completed vaccinations.

The next hurdle concerns the Q corner of our Trifecta Checkup. The design leaves few hints as to what question(s) its creator intended to address. The age distribution of the U.S. population is useless unless it is compared to something.

One apparently informative comparison is the age distribution of those fully vaccinated versus the age distribution of all Americans. This is revealed by comparing the lengths of the dark blue bar and the gray bar. But is this comparison informative? It's telling me that people aged 50 to 64 account for ~25% of those who are fully vaccinated, and ~20% of all Americans. Because proportions necessarily add to 100%, this implies that other age groups have been less vaccinated. Duh! Isn't that the result of an age-based vaccination prioritization? During the first week of the vaccination campaign, one might expect close to 100% of all vaccinations to be in the highest age group while it was 0% for the other age groups.

This is a chart in search of a question. The 25% vs 20% comparison does not assist readers in making a judgement. Does this mean the vaccination campaign is working as expected, worse than expected or better than expected? The problem is the wrong baseline. The designer of this chart implies that the expected proportions should conform to the overall age distribution - but that clearly stands in the way of CDC's initial prioritization of higher-risk age groups.


In my version of the chart, I illustrate the proportion of people in each age group who have been fully vaccinated.


Among those fully vaccinated, some did it within the most recent two weeks:



Elsewhere on the CDC site, one learns that on these charts, "fully vaccinated" means one shot of J&J or 2 shots of Pfizer or Moderna, without dealing with the 14-day window or other complications. Why do we think different definitions are used in different analyses? Story-first thinking, as I have explained here. When it comes to telling the story about vaccinations, the story is about the number of shots in arms. They want as big a number as possible, and abandon any criterion that decreases the count. When it comes to reporting on vaccine effectiveness, they want as small a number of cases as possible.