Charts, charts, charts

Oct 21, 2007

Jorge Camoes has been a regular reader and sometime commenter for a while.  Little did we know that he has been blogging in Portuguese for the last 10 months.  Recently, he has decided to join the English-speaking world.  His new blog is, simply, Charts.

One post discusses the "population pyramid" chart for comparing advertising spending.
He suggested the overlapping bar chart; see his comment here.  By folding one side onto the other, this chart is clearly an improvement over the original, and yet it fails to convey the proportional spend, which is the key point being made in the article.

In another post, Jorge created a "screencast" (tutorial) of how to create a population pyramid in Excel.  A lot of this mirror my own experience using Excel for graphing.  Those of you who have asked for tips in the past should definitely see it.

What you'll find is that creating a nice-looking chart in Excel requires a lot of tedious finger-work.  It is truly incredible how many steps, how much opening and closing of windows, back and forth navigation, etc. users are made to suffer through to make cosmetic changes.

With the advent of AJAX and other interactive technologies, one can only hope that new graphing software will use the "canvass" metaphor.  If we want to reduce the spacing between bars, we should be able to grab the bars and move them together.  If we want to change the ordering, we should be able to mouse over some menu and select a pre-defined ordering scheme, or to drag and move bars around as we please. etc. etc.

(I have heard that Apple's spreadsheet software Numbers has some of these features.  I have yet to use it myself.  If any of you have, let us know what you think.)

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Learning R is a better way of spending time than learning how to make Excel do something that it doesn't want to do. Bar charts are an overly used form of graph, a scatter plot is easier to understand.

"A graphic is no longer ‘drawn’ once and for all; it is ‘constructed’ and reconstructed (manipulated) until all the relationships which lie within it have been perceived." Jacques Bertin wrote this in 1968 (you can imagine how interactive a chart could be by then). This is almost like a mantra to me.

You can look at this dataset from multiple points of view, including the one in the article.

I just added a spreadsheet to the post where the user can select the sorting key (including proportions...). Very basic, but it gives the user the option to construct his own knowledge within this specific format.

Ken, I am not sure if the average NYT reader would agree with you...

Excel (and other spreadsheets) does a lot more than just basic bar charts, and even those can be used for all kinds of tricks (like Jorge's) and to prototype charts that are then made prettier in other applications. Juice Analytics (whose website is down right now) have some interesting screen casts on doing quite complex things with Excel. I think these tricks are useful because almost everybody has access to a spreadsheet (as opposed to software like Tableau or ProClarity) and doing these things broadens people's horizons on what visualization can do.

Ken -

"Learning R is a better way of spending time than learning how to make Excel do something that it doesn't want to do."

I'll admit that I know next to nothing about R, but I can't see millions of Excel users wanting to learn another charting language. Most don't learn VBA, which is integral to Excel, so why would they bother to learn something which is not integral?

"Bar charts are an overly used form of graph, a scatter plot is easier to understand."

True, bar charts are overly used, but they also can be more readily understood in many cases tahn XY charts. Perhaps you mean "dot plot" rather than "scatter chart".

I hate to discuss the tool. I'd like to discuss things at a higher level, like Tufte or Few. But (reality check) people don't know how to use charts to communicate, and the only tool available is Excel. My modest goal is to make people aware of some best practices (as I read them) and show how to implement them using the available tool.

Quick answer regarding Apple's Numbers: No. It's pretty, but the charting facilities don't have anything really significant to offer. I'm disappointed so far.

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