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The coming commodization of infographics

An email lay in my inbox with the tantalizing subject line: "How to Create Good Infographics Quickly and Cheaply?" It's a half-spam from one of the marketing sites that I signed up for long time ago. I clicked on the link, which led me to a landing page which required yet another click to get to the real thing (link). (Now, you wonder why marketers keep putting things in your inbox!)

Easelly_walkwayThe article was surprisingly sane. The author, Carrie Hill, suggests that the first thing to do is to ask "who cares?" This is the top corner of my Trifecta Checkup, asking what's the point of the chart. Some of us not so secretly hope that answer to "who cares?" is no one.

Carrie then lists a number of resources for creating infographics "quickly and cheaply".

Easel.ly caught my eye. This website offers templates for creating infographics. You want time-series data depicted as a long, hard road ahead, you have this on the right.

You want several sections of multi-colored bubble charts, you have this theme:



In total, they have 15 ready-made templates that you can use to make infographics. I assume paid customers will have more.

infogr.am is another site with similar capabilities, and apparently for those with some data in hand.


Based on this evidence, the avanlanche of infographics is not about to pass. In fact, we are going to see the same styles repetitively. It's like looking at someone's Powerpoint presentation and realizing that they are using the "Advantage" theme (one of the less ugly themes loaded by default). In the same way, we will have a long, winding road of civil rights, and a long, winding road of Argentina's economy, and a long, winding road of Moore's Law, etc.

But I have long been an advocate of drag-and-drop style interfaces for producing statistical charts. So I hope the vendors out there learn from these websites and make your products ten times better so that it is as "quick and cheap" to make nice statistical charts as it is to make infographics.


Colors, layers and functions on the Olympic schedule

Readers Fausto and Jeruza have a question for us. In the following official schedule (link) for the upcoming London Olympics, what do the colors signify?


The blue seems to signify aquatics (diving, rowing, sailing, etc.) except that at the bottom of the chart (clipped), weightlifting has the same blue. The four types of cycling come in three colors. A legend would be a very useful thing here. Like F&J, I kept staring at the chart hoping for inspiration but nothing is forthcoming.

Would prefer also to see the sports shown in order of earliest start date, as opposed to alphabetical.

I find other aspects of this chart attractive. There is an impressive amount of details, like which days the event finals are held. Mousing over the medal symbols produces some useful data:


The daily view provides even more details:


The details are nicely wrapped in layers.


Taking a step back, it would be interesting to understand who the designer has in mind when he/she created this chart. I could imagine a journalist trying to get a quick overview of the day's events but then the chart doesn't provide the venues.  An avid fan might want to figure out what's on TV but then consulting a true TV schedule would be better since no station is unlikely to show everything, and they can't show simultaneous competitions anyway.

Staggering excess

Business Insider calls this stacked bar chart "staggering" (link).  Maybe they are referring to its complexity.


Is there a reason to include all the fine details? The details serve little purpose other than to shout at readers that there is a lot of data behind this chart. It is impossible to compare the different drugs on the individual harmful effects based on reading this chart. All we can see is the comparison of total harm. (By the way, I can't explain why anabolic steriods rated 10 would be sandwiched between khat and ectasy both rated 9.)

It turns out there is an easy way to fix this chart. We turn to the original Lancet paper which contained this chart, by David Nutt (link). The 16 categories of harm are nicely organized into a tree structure:


Instead of taking data from the right side of this tree, we can take data from the aggregated levels. The sacrifice in detail comes with a major benefit in clarity. In the original paper, Nutt produced a chart that aggregated everything to two levels:









It's amazing how much more we learn from this chart even though it has less data than the previous one. (I'd still remove the data labels since they are redundant when one has the axis labels.)

Similarly, we can plot a chart at the level of physical, psychological, social, etc., and it would still be much more readable than the "staggering" one.

PS. Apparently, David Nutt is a controversial character. See Wiki (link).

Hedge-fund bubbles are not nice

Reader Sushil B. offers this chart from Business Week on hedge fund returns. (link)


Unmoored bubbles, slanted text, positive and negative returns undifferentiated, bubble within bubble, paired data scattered apart, and it's not even that attractive.


Here is a Bumps-chart style version of this data:


The author never explained how the five funds were chosen so it's hard to know what's the point of the chart. It appears like Harbinger Capital Partners had a similar experience as Paulson. In addition, given the potentially huge gyrations from year to year, it's very odd that we are not shown the annual returns between 2007 and 2011... we can't be sure that some of the three other funds suffered a particularly bad year in between the end points shown here.


Infographics worthy of the name

The Guardian (via Graphic News) has put out some fantastic infographics posters, so we can't say they are all bad. This is a big collection created in anticipation of the London Olympics. Here's one illustrating the 10,000m race: (link)


It's nice that they give an overview of the race, plus the calendar. The evolution of men and women times is shown on the same scale. In order to stress the improvement over time, they omitted those years in which the times did not improve (I think, although there are some mysterious omissions of data labels).

They have charts for all the different events and also in water sports, gymnastics, etc.

PS. I do not know why the women's times were omitted from some of the charts (100m, 200m etc.) In those charts, the lines for men are better colored blue to align with the dots on the calendar.