Pets may need shelter from this terrible chart
Feb 21, 2014
Josh tweeted quite a shocking attack ad to me last week. He told me it came from the DC Metro. The ad is taken out by a group called HumaneWatch.Org, which apparently is a watchdog checking up on charity organizations. The ad attacks a specific group called the Humane Society of the United States. Here is the map that is the centerpiece of the copy:
I like to use the Trifecta checkup to evaluate graphics. It's a nice way to organize your visualization critique. You progress through three corners: figuring out what is the practical question being addressed by the graphic, then evaluating what data is being deployed, and finally whether the graphical elements (the chart itself) is well executed in relation to the question and the data.
Based on the map, it appears that HumaneWatch is interested in the spending on pet shelters. Every number shown is tiny: on a quick scan, the range may be from 0% to 0.35%. The all-caps title "A Whole Lotta Nothing" confirms that this is the intended message.
Knowing nothing about either of these organizations leaves me confused. Should the "Humane Society" be spending the bulk of its budget on pet shelters? If it doesn't, is it because the staff is pilfering money, or because it has wasteful spending, or because pets are not its major cause, or because pet shelters are not the key way this organization helps pets?
I did look up Humane Society to learn that it is an animal rights group. The four bullet points at the bottom of the ad provide a clue as to what the designer wanted to convey: namely, that this charity is a scam, with too much overhead spending, and spending on pensions.
So I think the question being asked is sufficiently clarified, and it's a pretty important one. How is this organization spending its donations? Is it irresponsible compared to other similar organizations?
The data should be in sync with the question being addressed; that's why there is a link between the two corners of the Trifecta. Given the trouble I endured understanding the question being addressed, it would come as no surprise that this chart scores poorly on the DATA corner.
I don't understand why budget spent on pet shelters is the key bone of contention. Based on the perceived objectives, it seems that they should display directly what proportion of the budget went to overhead, and what proportion went to pensions, with suitable comparisons.
The analysis by state is a disease of having too much data. Let's imagine that the proportions averaged across all states come to 0.1%. If we replaced those 50 numbers with one number printed across all states: "The Humane Society spends less than 0.1% of its budget on pet shelters.", the message would have been identical, while being less confusing.
And it's not just confusion. Cutting the data by state introduces complications. The analyst would need to make sure that any differences between states are not due to factors such as the number of pets, the proportion of households owning pets, the average spending per pet, the supply and demand for pet shelters, the existence of alternatives to pet shelters, etc. None of these issues need to worry the designer who does not slice the data down.
The same reason goes for why the absolute amount of spending (encoded in the colors of individual states) is not worth the ink it's printed on. The range between 0% and 0.35% has been chopped into seven pieces, which creates artificial gaps between the states. This design muddles the graphic's key message, "A Whole Lotta Nothing".
THE CHART ITSELF:
As we land on the final corner of the Trifecta, we ignore our previous complaint and accept that the proportion of budget is an interesting data series to visualize, and turn attention to the graphical elements. This chart scores poorly on chart execution as well!
Notice that the designer simultaneously plots two data series on the same map, the dollar value of pet shelter spending, and it as a proportion of budget. The former is encoded in the color of the state areas while the latter is printed directly as data labels. This is a map equivalent of "dual-axes" line charts, and equally unreadable.
Based on the color legend, our brain tells us the yellow states are better than the blue states but the huge numbers printed on the map conveys the opposite message. The progression of colors makes little sense. The red and yellow stand out but those states are in the middle of the range.
It's a little blurry but I think there is a number of New England states in the high spending category (black and dark gray colors), and the map just happens to obscure this key feature.
PRACTICAL QUESTION: Fair
DATA: Very Poor
What I noticed first was the inconsistent number of significant digits in the percentage labels.
Posted by: Jon Peltier | Feb 21, 2014 at 11:17 AM
It is misleading in that the primary work of the humane society is not to run animal shelters, it is lobbying government on laws related to animal welfare, checking for companies and individuals that breach the existing laws and running campaigns to the public. I don't think humane watch cares if they are misleading, it is their purpose in life. A quick search shows that they are part of http://www.consumerfreedom.com which seems to be a lobbying firm that is presumably fully funded by agricultural companies and food (for want of a better word) companies, so they are defending the right of Americans to drink lots of soft drinks, get diabetes, kidney failure and die without ever being informed of the consequences. Presumably they also would rather that nobody knows how inhumane some farming practices are.
Posted by: Ken | Feb 22, 2014 at 04:12 AM
Part of the subtext here is that a number of farmer/agriculture groups perceive HSUS as a deceitful special interest organization that spends large sums of money on anti-meat consumption efforts while enjoying the support of the public who thinks their main effort is spent protecting pets. I wouldn't be surprised if this ad was funded by an agriculture trade group, intending to decrease public support for HSUS. From a marketing perspective, I'd say it's very effective.
Posted by: Matt | Feb 22, 2014 at 09:42 PM