Four numbers, not as easy as it seems

Longtime reader Aleksander B. wasn't convinced by the following chart shown at the bottom of AFP's infographic about gun control.

Afp_guns_bottom

He said:

Finally I was able to figure who got some support from NRA. But as a non-US citizen it was hard to get why 86% of republican tag points to huge red part. Then I figured out that smaller value of alpha channel codes the rest of republicans. I think this could be presented in some better way (pie charts are bad in presenting percentages of some subparts of the same pie chart - but adding a tag for 86% while skipping the tag for remaining 14% is cruel).

It's an example of how a simple chart with just four numbers is so hard to understand.

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Here is a different view of the same data, using a similar structure as the form I chose for this recent chart on Swedish trade balance (link).

Redo_junkcharts_afpguns


Funnels and scatters

I took a peek at some of the work submitted by Ray Vella's students in his NYU dataviz class recently.

The following chart by Hosanah Bryan caught my eye:

Rich Get Richer_Hosanah Bryan (v2)

The data concern the GDP gap between rich and poor regions in various countries. In some countries, especially in the U.K., the gap is gigantic. In other countries, like Spain and Sweden, the gap is much smaller.

The above chart uses a funnel metaphor to organize the data, although the funnel does not add more meaning (not that it has to). Between that, the color scheme and the placement of text, it's visually clean and pleasant to look at.

The data being plotted are messy. They are not actual currency values of GDP. Each number is an index, and represents the relative level of the GDP gap in a given year and country. The gap being shown by the colored bars are differences in these indices 15 years apart. (The students were given this dataset to work with.)

So the chart is very hard to understand if one focuses on the underlying data. Nevertheless, the same visual form can hold other datasets which are less complicated.

One can nitpick about the slight misrepresentation of the values due to the slanted edges on both sides of the bars. This is yet another instance of the tradeoff between beauty and precision.

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The next chart by Liz Delessert engages my mind for a different reason.

The Rich Get Richerv2

The scatter plot sets up four quadrants. The top right is "everyone gets richer". The top left, where most of the dots lie, is where "the rich get richer, the poor get poorer".  This chart shows a thoughtfulness about organizing the data, and the story-telling.

The grid setup cues readers toward a particular way of looking at the data.

But power comes with responsibility. Such scatter plots are particularly susceptible to the choice of data, in this case, countries. It is tempting to conclude that there are no countries in which everyone gets poorer. But that statement more likely tells us more about which countries were chosen than the real story.

I like to see the chart applied to other data transformations that are easier. For example, we can start with the % change in GDP computed separately for rich and for poor. Then we can form a ratio of these two percent changes.

 

 


Dataviz is good at comparisons if we make the right comparisons

In an article about gas prices around the world, the Washington Post uses the following bar chart (link):

Wpost_gasprices_highincome

There are a few wrinkles in this one compared to the most generic bar chart one can produce:

Redo_wpost_gasprices_0

(The numbers on my chart are not the same as Washington Post's. That's because the data vendor charges for data, except for the most recent week. So, my data is from a different week.)

_trifectacheckup_imageThe gas prices are not expressed in dollars but a transformation turns prices into a cost-effectiveness metric: miles per dollar, or more precisely, miles per $40 dollars of gas. The metric has a reverse direction - the higher the price, the lower the miles. The data transformation belongs to the D corner of the Trifecta Checkup framework (link). Depending on how one poses the Q(uestion) of the chart, the shift from dollars to miles can bring the Q and the D in sync.

In the V(isual) corner, the designer embellishes the bars. A car icon is placed at the tip of each bar while the bar itself is turned into a wavy path, symbolizing a dirt path. The driving metaphor is in full play. In fact, the video makes the most out of it. There is no doubt that the embellishment has turned a mere scientific presentation into a form of entertainment.

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Did the embellishment harm visual clarity? For the most part, no.

The worst it can get is when they compared U.S. and India/South Africa:

Redo_wpost_gasprices_indiasouthafrica

The left column shows the original charts from the article. In  both charts, the two cars are so close together that it is impossible to learn the scale of the difference. The amount of difference is a fraction of the width of a car icon.

The right column shows the "self-sufficiency test". Imagine the data labels are not on the chart. What we learn is that if we wanted to know how big of a gap is between the two countries, when reading the charts on the left, we are relying on the data labels, not the visual elements. On the right side, if we really want to learn the gaps, we have to look through the car icons to find the tips of the bars!

This discussion does not necessarily doom the appealing chart. If the message one wants to send with the India/South Afrcia charts is that there is negligible difference between them, then it is not crucial to present the precise differences in prices.

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The real problem with this dataviz is in the D corner. Comparing countries is hard.

As shown above, by the miles per $40 spend metric, U.S. and India are rated essentially the same. So is the average American and the average Indian suffering equally?

Far from it. The clue comes from the aggregate chart, in which countries are divided into three tiers: high income, upper middle income and lower middle income. The U.S. belongs to the high-income tier while India falls into the lower-middle-income tier.

The cost of living in India is much lower than in the US. Forty dollars is a much bigger chunk of an Indian paycheck than an American one.

To adjust for cost of living, economists use a PPP (purchasing power parity) value. The following chart shows the difference:

Redo_wpost_gasprices_1

The right graph contains cost-of-living adjustments. It shows a completely different picture. Nominally (left chart), the price of gas in about the same in dollar terms between U.S. and India. In terms of cost of living, gas is actually 5 times more expensive in India. Thus, the adjusted miles per $40 gas number is much smaller for India than the unadjusted. (Because PPP is relative to U.S. prices, the U.S. numbers are not affected.)

PPP is not the end-all here. According to the Economic Times (India), only 22 out of 1,000 Indians own cars, compared to 980 out of 1,000 Americans. Think about the implication of using any statistic that averages the entire population!

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Why is gas more expensive in California than the U.S. average? The talking point I keep hearing is environmental regulations. Gas prices may be higher in Europe for a similar reason. Residents in those places may be willing to pay higher prices because they get satisfaction from playing their part in preserving the planet for future generations.

The footnote discloses this not-trivial issue.

Wpost_gasprices_footnote

When converting from dollars per gallon/liter into miles per $40, we need data on miles per gallon/liter. Americans notoriously drive cars (trucks, SUVs, etc.) that have much lower mileage than those driven by other countries. However, this factor is artificially removed by assuming the same car with 32 mpg on all countries. A quick hop to the BTS website tells us that the average mpg of American cars is a third of that assumption. [See note below.]

Ignoring cross-country comparisons for the time being, the true number for U.S. is not 247 miles per $40 spent on gas as claimed. It is a third of that value: 82 miles per $40 spent.

It's tough to find data on fuel economy of all passenger cars, not just new passenger cars. I found Australia's number, which is 21 mpg. So this brings the miles per $40 number down from about 230 to 115. These are not small adjustments.

Washington Post's analysis paints a simplistic picture that presupposes that price is the only thing people care about. I call this issue xyopia. It's when the analyst frames the problem as factor x explaining outcome y, and when factor x is not the only, and frequently not even the most important, factor affecting y.

More on xyopia.

More discussion of Washington Post graphics.

 

[P.S. 7-25-2022. Reader Cody Curtis pointed out in the comments that the Bureau of Transportation Statistics report was using km/liter as units, not miles per gallon. The 10 km/liter number for average cars is roughly 23 mpg. I'll leave the text as is in the post as the larger point is valid: that there is variation in average fuel economy between nations - partly due to environemental regulation and consumer behavior - and thus, a proper comparison requires adjusting for this factor.]


Metaphors give and take

Another submission came in from Euro Twitter. The following chart is probably from Germany:

Twitter_financialpyramid

As JB noted, this chart explains a financial pyramid scheme. I believe the numbers on the left are participants while the numbers on the right are the potential ill-gotten gains per person. The longer the pyramid scheme lasts, the more people participate, the more money flows to the top.

The pyramid is a natural metaphor for visualizing pyramid schemes. The levels of the pyramid correspond to levels of a pyramid scheme - the newly recruited participants expand the base while passing revenues up the pyramid.

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The chart fails because it's not really a dataviz. There are exactly three bars that are scaled according to data. Everything else is presented as data labels.

Let's look at the two data series separately:

Financialpyramid_data

Each series is exponentially growing (in opposite directions). [Some of the data labels for participants may be incorrect.]

Unfortunately, the triangle is not a good medium to display exponential growth. In fact, the triangular structure imposes a linear growth constraint. The length of the base is directly proportional to the height from the top. As one traverses downwards level by level, the width of the base grows linearly - not exponentially.

To illustrate exponential growth, the edge of the triangle cannot be a straight line - it has to be s steep curve!

Redo_financialpyramid

While natural, the pyramid metaphor is also severely restricting. The choice of chart form has unexpected consequences.