The importance of explaining your chart: the case of the red 118
Flooding the Himalayas

The Earth Institute needs a graphics advisor

Reader Dave S. was disturbed by the graphics in the inaugural World Happiness Report, published by Jeffrey Sachs's Earth Institute (link). It's a 200-page document with lots of graphs, many of which require rework.

Here's a pie chart showing (purportedly) what "happy" people in Bhutan are happy about:

I'm really curious how these domains add up to 100% exactly. Since the data came from some kind of survey, you typically would allow each respondent to pick more than one domains in which he or she is happy. If that is the case, then it would not make sense to add up responses, nor would the total (100%) signify anything.

If, on the other hand, respondents are forced to pick only one domain, it is very suspicious that all 9 domains would essentially receive the same number of votes. Nor would it make sense to ask survey-takers to select only one domain if all 9 domains contribute to someone's happiness.

Pie charts are perhaps the most abused chart type. There are just endless examples of poorly executed pie charts (just browse my last few posts). The prevalence of abuse may be reason enough to ban them.


Paired with Figure 4 shown above is Figure 5 shown below, which deepens the mystery:


Compare the captions. What's the difference between "In which domains do happy people enjoy sufficiency?" and "Indicators in which happy people enjoy sufficiency"? The categories are related but not identical (Education vs. Schooling, Health vs. Self reported health status, etc.) However, in Figure 5, the distribution is uniform as in Figure 4. Is the data contradictory? Or the captions misleading?

This column chart would be better presented as a horizontal bar chart so that readers don't have to break their necks trying to read the category names.

The designer should also perform the routine task to get rid of the 120% tick mark on the proportion axis that comes from Excel.





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Ugh. Maybe they were using unpaid humanities interns.


There are 33 columns in the bottom bar graph, but only 17 labels. What on earth are the 16 unlabeled columns for? Actually, never mind that - which 17 columns do the labels even apply to?


Are there any ideas as to what can be done to prevent graphs with flaws such as these (which run the risk of misinforming people) from surfacing? We're winning half the battle by recognizing these flaws and exposing them, but how can we take it a step further and actually transform the information graphic industry to the point where we see less and less of these flaws?

Looking forward to reading any ideas. (Perhaps this question has been asked before and in response to this question, action is already taking place that I may not be aware of...)


Paula: Thanks for affirming the spirit of this blog... my tagline is recycling. In most cases, I take the raw materials and create improved charts. If you scroll through the old posts, you will find many examples of how to do better. For this particular post, I haven't been able to understand the data so I can't do much about it.


Kaiser, Thank You very much for your reply. I appreciate it and, your blog.

Yes, I tried reading through the World Happiness Report and I also found that it was hard to understand the data. I also noticed that on some of the graphs they used, they had footnotes as to how they went about their questioning, etc. However, for these examples provided in the post, they did not have any footnotes-I was hoping the notes could help clarify some of the confusion.

I will scroll more through the old posts. Thank You!


Were spoiled here in North America. We have to much opportunity and we can't see it because we have it to easy. We are so motivated by superficial means. We need to sit back and appropriate everything we have. How can you truly enjoy life if you don't appropriate it?

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