To explain or to eliminate, that is the question

Today, I take a look at another project from Ray Vella's class at NYU.

Rich Get Richer Assigment 2 top

(The above image is a honeypot for "smart" algorithms that don't know how to handle image dimensions which don't fit their shadow "requirement". Human beings should proceed to the full image below.)

As explained in this post, the students visualized data about regional average incomes in a selection of countries. It turns out that remarkable differences persist in regional income disparity between countries, almost all of which are more advanced economies.

Rich Get Richer Assigment 2 Danielle Curran_1

The graphic is by Danielle Curran.

I noticed two smart decisions.

First, she came up with a different main metric for gauging regional disparity, landing on a metric that is simple to grasp.

Based on hints given on the chart, I surmised that Danielle computed the change in per-capita income in the richest and poorest regions separately for each country between 2000 and 2015. These regional income growth values are expressed in currency, not indiced. Then, she computed the ratio of these growth rates, for each country. The end result is a simple metric for each country that describes how fast income has been growing in the richest region relative to the poorest region.

One of the challenges of this dataset is the complex indexing scheme (discussed here). Carlos' solution keeps the indices but uses design to facilitate comparisons. Danielle avoids the indices altogether.

The reader is relieved of the need to make comparisons, and so can focus on differences in magnitude. We see clearly that regional disparity is by far the highest in the U.K.


The second smart decision Danielle made is organizing the countries into clusters. She took advantage of the horizontal axis which does not encode any data. The branching structure places different clusters of countries along the axis, making it simple to navigate. The locations of these clusters are cleverly aligned to the map below.


Danielle's effort is stronger on communications while Carlos' effort provides more information. The key is to understand who your readers are. What proportion of your readers would want to know the values for each country, each region and each year?


A couple of suggestions

a) The reference line should be set at 1, not 0, for a ratio scale. The value of 1 happens when the richest region and the poorest region have identical per-capita incomes.

b) The vertical scale should be fixed.

Displaying convoluted indices

I reviewed another batch of projects from Ray Vella's class at NYU. The following piece by Carlos Lasso made an impression on me. There are no pyrotechnics but he made one decision that added a lot of clarity to the graphic.

The Rich get Richer - Carlos Lasso

The underlying dataset gauges the income disparity of regions within nine countries. The richest and the poorest regions are selected for each country. Two time points are shown. Altogether, there are 9x2x2 = 36 numbers.


Let's take a deeper look at these numbers. Notice they are not in dollars, or any kind of currency, despite being about incomes. The numbers are index values, relative to 100. What does the reference level of 100 represent?

The value of 100 crosses every bar of the chart so that 100 has meaning in each country and each year. In fact, there are 18 definitions of 100 in this chart with 36 numbers, one for each country-year pair. The average national income is set to 100 for each country in each year. This is a highly convoluted indexing strategy.

The following chart is a re-visualization of the bottom part of Carlos' infographic.


I shifted the scale of the horizontal axis. The value of zero does not hold special meaning in Carlos' chart. I subtracted 100 from the relative regional income indices, thus all regions with income above the average have positive values while those below the national average have negative values. (There are other challenges with the ratio scale, which I'll skip over in this post. The minimum value is -100 while the maximum value can be very large.)

The rescaling is not really the point of this post. To see what Carlos did, we have to look at the example shown in class. The graphic which the students were asked to improve has the following structure:


This one-column structure places four bars beside each country, grouped by year. Carlos pulled the year dimension out, and showed the same dataset in two columns.

This small change makes a great difference in ease of comprehension. Carlos' version unpacks the two key types of comparisons one might want to make: trend within a given country (horizontal comparison) and contrast between countries in a given year (vertical comparison).


I always try to avoid convoluted indexing. The cost of using such indices is the big how-to-read-this box.

Speaking to the choir

A friend found the following chart about the "carbon cycle", and sent me an exasperated note, having given up on figuring it out. The chart came from a report, and was reprinted in Ars Technica (link).


The problem with the chart is that the designer is speaking to the choir. One must know a lot about the carbon cycle already to make sense of everything that's going on.

We see big and small arrows pointing up or down. Each arrow has a number attached to it, plus a range inside brackets. These numbers have no units, and it's not obvious what they are measuring.

The arrows come in a variety of colors. The colors are explained by labels but the labels dexcribe apparently unrelated concepts (e.g. fossil CO2 and land-use change).

Interspersed with the arrows is a singular dot. The dot also has a number attached to it. The number wears a plus sign, which signals it's being treated differently than the quantities with up arrows.

The singular dot is an outcast, ostracized from the community of dots in the bottom part of the chart. These dots have labels but no numbers. They come in different sizes but no scale is provided.

The background is divided into three parts, showing the atmosphere, the land mass, and the ocean. The placement of the arrows and dots suggests each measured quantity concerns one of these three parts. Well... except the dot labeled "surface sediments" that sit on the boundary of the land mass and the ocean.

The three-way classification is only one layer of the chart. A different classification is embedded in the color scheme. The gray, light green, and aquamarine arrows in the sky find their counterparts in the dots of the land mass, and the ocean.

What's more, the boundaries between land and sky, and between land and ocean are also painted with those colors. These boundary segments have been given different colors so that the lengths of these segments seem to contain data but we aren't sure what.

At this point, I noticed thin arrows which appear to depict back and forth flows. There may be two types of such exchanges, one indicated by a cycle, the other by two straight arrows in opposite directions. The cycles have no numbers while each pair of straight thin arrows gets two numbers, always identical.

At the bottom of the chart is a annotation in red: "Budget imbalance = -1.0". Presumably some formula ties the numbers shown above to this -1.0 result. We still don't know the units, and it's unclear if -1.0 is a bad number. A negative number shown in red typically indicates a bad number but how bad is it?

Finally, on the top right corner, I found a legend. It's not obvious at first because the legend symbols (arrows and dots) are shown in gray, a color not used elsewhere on the chart. It appears as if it represents another color category. The legend labels do little for me. What is an "anthropogenic flux"? What does the unit of "GtCO2" stand for? Other jargon includes "carbon cycling" and "stocks". The entire diagram is titled "carbon cycle" while the "carbon cycling" thin arrows are only a small part of the diagram.

The bottom line is I have no idea what this chart is saying to me, other than that the earth is a complex system, and that the designer has tried valiantly to impregnate the diagram with lots of information. If I am well read in environmental science, my experience is likely different.






Illustrating coronavirus waves with moving images

The New York Times put out a master class in visualizing space and time data recently, in a visualization of five waves of Covid-19 that have torched the U.S. thus far (link).


The project displays one dataset using three designs, which provides an opportunity to compare and contrast them.


The first design - above the headline - is an animated choropleth map. This is a straightforward presentation of space and time data. The level of cases in each county is indicated by color, dividing the country into 12 levels (plus unknown). Time is run forward. The time legend plays double duty as a line chart that shows the change in the weekly rate of reported cases over the course of the pandemic. A small piece of interactivity binds the legend with the map.


(To see a screen recording of the animation, click on the image above.)


The second design comprises six panels, snapshots that capture crucial "turning points" during the Covid-19 pandemic. The color of each county now encodes an average case rate (I hope they didn't just average the daily rates). 


The line-chart legend is gone -  it's not hard to see Winter > Fall 2020 > Summer/Fall 2021 >... so I don't think it's a big loss.

The small-multiples setup is particularly effective at facilitating comparisons: across time, and across space. It presents a story in pictures.

They may have left off 2020 following "Winter" because December to February spans both years but "Winter 2020" may do more benefit than harm here.


The third design is a series of short films, which stands mid-way between the single animated map and the six snapshots. Each movie covers a separate window of time.

This design does a better job telling the story within each time window while it obstructs comparisons across time windows.


The informative legend is back. This time, it's showing the static time window for each map.


The three designs come from the same dataset. I think of them as one long movie, six snapshots, and five short films.

The one long movie is a like a data dump. It shows every number in the dataset, which is the weekly case rate for each county for a given week. All the data are streamed into a single map. It's a show piece.

As an instrument to help readers understand the patterns in the dataset, the movie falls short. Too much is going on, making it hard to focus and pick out key trends. When your eyes are everywhere, they are nowhere.

The six snapshots represent the other extreme. The graph does not move, as the time axis is reduced to six discrete time points. But this display describes the change points, and tells a story. The long movie, by contrast, invites readers to find a story.

Without motion, the small-multiples format allows us to pick out specific counties or regions and compare the case rates across time. This task is close to impossible in the long movie, as it requires freezing the movie, and jumping back and forth.

The five short films may be the best of both worlds. It retains the motion. If the time windows are chosen wisely, each short film contains a few simple patterns that can easily be discerned. For example, the third film shows how the winter wave emerged from the midwest and then walloped the whole country, spreading southward and toward the coasts.


(If the above gif doesn't play, click it.)


If there is double or triple the time allocated to this project, I'd want to explore spatial clustering. I'd like to dampen the spatial noise (neighboring counties that have slightly different experiences). There is also temporal noise (fluctuations from week to week for the same county) - which can be smoothed away. I think with these statistical techniques, the "wave" feature of the pandemic may be more visible.