Three pies and a bar: serving visual goodness
Upcoming talks here and there

Fifty-nine intersections supporting forty dots of data

My friend Ray V. asked how this chart can be improved:


Let's try to read this chart. The Economist is always the best at writing headlines, and this one is simple and to the point: the rich get richer. This is about inequality but not just inequality - the growth in inequality over time.

Each country has four dots, divided into two pairs. From the legend, we learn that the line represents the gap between the rich and the poor. But what is rich and what is poor? Looking at the sub-header, we learn that the population is divided by domicile, and the per-capita GDP of the poorest and richest regions are drawn. This is a indirect metric, and may or may not be good, depending on how many regions a country is divided into, the dispersion of incomes within each region, the distribution of population between regions, and so on.

Now, looking at the axis labels, it's pretty clear that the data depicted are not in dollars (or currency), despite the reference to GDP in the sub-header. The numbers represent indices, relative to the national average GDP per head. For many of the countries, the poorest region produces about half of the per-capita GDP as the richest region.

Back to the orginal question. A growing inequality would be represented by a longer line below a shorter line within each country. That is true in some of these countries. The exceptions are Sweden, Japan, South Korea.

It doesn't jump out that the key task requires comparing the lengths of the two lines. Another issue is the outdated convention of breaking up a line (Britian) when the line is of extreme length - particularly unwise given that the length of the line encodes the key metric in the chart.

Further, it has low data-ink ratio a la Tufte. The gridlines, reference lines, and data lines weave together in a complex pattern creating 59 intersections in a chart that contains only 40  36 numbers.


 I decided to compute a simpler metric - the ratio of rich to poor.  For example, in the UK, the richest area produces about 20 times as much GDP per capita as the poorest one in 2015.  That is easier to understand than an index to the average region.

I had fun making the following chart, although many standard forms like the Bumps chart (i.e. slopegraph) or paired columns and so on also work.


This chart is influenced by Ed Tufte, who spent a good number of pages in his first book advocating stripping even the standard column chart to its bare essence. The chart also acknowledges the power of design to draw attention.



PS. Sorry I counted incorrectly. The chart has 36 dots not 40. 


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Pankesh Bamotra

While this chart looks much more clean and minimal. I personally find two limitations: -
1. Since you used your own metric (let me call it x-factor) the absolute numbers are now gone. I understand that the intention is to convey rich gets richer but there should be a way to also show absolute numbers.
2. For Korea, the two strokes are too close. Same thing for Spain. Especially, for Spain the chart doesn't even convey that the rich got richer even though it was marginal!


PB: Thanks for the comment. There are no absolute numbers in the original chart. Everything is indexed to an unwritten national average; it is not necessary to print four numbers to convey two differences. The strokes for Korea and Spain are close because the inequality has not materially changed over time. The original chart is misleading because "rich getting richer" has a time component. So, based on my new chart, I would conclude that the rich did NOT get richer in Korea or Spain.

Antonio Rinaldi

Some comments in random order.
1) In the original chart, 10px (or 10%) on the left of unity are not the same of 10px (or 10%) on the right. In other words, the scale should be logarithmic. Should it be even in your chart? I think.
2) Inequality? If the poorest ones remain more or less at the same level relative to average (as it seems from the chart), and the richer ones get richer, I see an increase of wealth before an increase of inequality.
3) The link to the original link is missing (at any rate I haven't seen it). What is the definition of region? or area, as you write? Without such fundamental notion, all the numbers are meaningless. This is because the richest 1M people region is (very) pro-capita richer than the richest 10M people region! Comparison should be made by taking, for example, 10% people poorest region and 10% people richest region for each country (or 10% GDP area, if you want, and if you can).

Richard Butler Creagh

Very informative, I enjoyed reading it. Thank you so much for sharing!


The design you have is intended to draw attention to a difference between years, but the left to right progression shows countries. Why not a line chart, of the style you often call a bumps chart? Then the most salient left to right movement would be years, and the straight lines would be labelled with country.

The comments to this entry are closed.