Bubble charts and their discontents
Bubble charts and their discontents II

Imagination gone astray

In the field of data graphics, the New York Times has distinguished itself as a leader.  The team also takes risks in going beyond the standard and tired repertory of pies, bars and lines.  On this occasion, they have surely let their imagination gone astray.  Consider this stupefyingly opaque chart:


If you can make sense of it, click on comment below to leave your thoughts:

  • how do the graphical elements convey the data?
  • how long did it take to figure out what it means?


Reference: "When a Bug Becomes a Monster", New York Times, August 21 2005.


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Steve Citron-Pousty

Too much information in the charts and a lot of extra work to decipher.

I think the elements are trying to show how many people would be affected by each condition. The shades of grey are giving the bounds. Dark grey is min and light grey is max.

The only thing the graphical elements convey to me is "bounds" on the rate at which people will be affected in a particular way (i.e the shades of grey). But it took extra work to figure that part out.

I think one of the things that make it confusing is the text overlayed on the graphics. Statements like "3 to 7 out of every 10000" are hard to digest and don't add much information.

Overall it took me about 2-3 minutes to figure it all out but I also have training in statistics, visualization, and data modeling.


I have to disagree with you. Although I didn't like the graph, it wasn't too difficult to figure out. The "box" represents the entire population of New York. The shaded areas correspond to the lower and upper limit on the number of people affected. So the first panel shows that about a third of New Yorkers could be infected with the flu, but maybe as few as a sixth would only be infected.


Good comments both. I'm still wondering...

1) Is there significance to the step in each shaded region? Is it more logical to do a square within a square?

2) What is the grid signifying? In particular, the outermost layer of cells are smaller than the interior cells, why is that so?


Each dot in the grid represents one New Yorker, no?


Then there would be 10,000 points in each grid?

If that is the case, then this is the dot matrix plot that I discussed here:


It doesn't scale well.

Steve Citron-Pousty

Its not obvious to me if the box is the entire population of NY or just 10000 ppl. Either way it doesn't matter for visualization purposes.

Steve Citron-Pousty

Another comment, by breaking it apart into seperate boxes it makes it hard to visualize "the total number of people affected". They should have produced at least one figure for that as well.

Jim Lebeau

It was very easy to figure out. The steps, where they occur, are from filling the graph in a swath 10 wide where applicable. There is no special significance otherwise. It makes it marginally easier to verify the that the graph matches the data.

The grid is just an artifact as well. It is not sized nor positioned to be of much use.

The same information could be conveyed in a smaller, better designed graph.

OTOH, how good are the basic data?

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