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The elusive meaning of black paintings and red blocks

Joe N, a longtime reader, tweeted about the following chart, by the People's Policy Project:

3p_oneyearinonemonth_laborflow

This is a simple column chart containing only two numbers, far exceeded by the count of labels and gridlines.

I look at charts like the lady staring at these Ad Reinhardts:

 

SUBJPREINHARDT2-videoSixteenByNine1050

My artist friends say the black squares are not the same, if you look hard enough.

Here is what I learned after one such seating:

The tiny data labels sitting on the inside top edges of the columns hint that the right block is slightly larger than the left block.

The five labels of the vertical axis serve no purpose, nor the gridlines.

The horizontal axis for time is reversed, with 2019 appearing after 2020 (when read left to right).

The left block has one month while the right block has 12 months. This is further confused by the word "All" which shares the same starting and ending letters as "April".

As far as I can tell, the key message of this chart is that the month of April has the impact of a full year. It's like 12 months of outflows from employment hitting the economy in one month.

***

My first response is this chart:

Junkcharts_oneyearinonemonth_laborflow_1

Breaking the left block into 12 pieces, and color-coding the April piece brings out the comparison. You can also see that in 2019, the outflows from employment to unemployment were steady month to month.

Next, I want to see what happens if I restored the omitted months of Jan to March, 2020.

Junkcharts_oneyearinonemonth_laborflow_2

The story changes slightly. Now, the chart says that the first four months have already exceeded the full year of 2019.

Since the values hold steady month to month, with the exception of April 2020, I make a monthly view:

Junkcharts_oneyearinonemonth_laborflow_monthly_bar_1

You can see the slight nudge-up in March 2020 as well. This draws more attention to the break in pattern.

For time-series data, I prefer to look at line charts:

Junkcharts_oneyearinonemonth_laborflow_monthly_line_1

As I explained in this post about employment statistics (or Chapter 6 of Numbersense (link)), the Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies people into three categories: Employed, Unemployed and Not in Labor Force. Exits from Employed to Unemployed status contribute to unemployment in the U.S. To depict a negative trend, it's often natural to use negative numbers:

Junkcharts_oneyearinonemonth_laborflow_monthly_line_neg_1

You may realize that this data series paints only a partial picture of the health of the labor market. While some people exit the Employed status each month, there are others who re-enter or enter the Employed status. We should really care about net flows.

Junkcharts_oneyearinonemonth_laborflow_net_lines

In all of 2019, there were more entrants than exits, leading to a slightly positive net inflow to the Employed status from Unemployed (blue line). In April 2020, the red line (exits) drags the blue line dramatically.

Of course, even this chart is omitting important information. There are also flows from Employed to and from Not in Labor Force.

 

 

 

 

 


Hope and reality in one Georgia chart

Over the weekend, Georgia's State Health Department agitated a lot of people when it published the following chart:

Georgia_top5counties_covid19

(This might have appeared a week ago as the last date on the chart is May 9 and the title refers to "past 15 days".)

They could have avoided the embarrassment if they had read my article at DataJournalism.com (link). In that article, I lay out a set of the "unspoken conventions," things that visual designers are, or should be, doing more or less in their sleep. Under the section titled "Order", I explain the following two "rules":

  • Place values in the natural order when it is available
  • Retain the same order across all plots in a panel of charts

In the chart above, the natural order for the horizontal (time) axis is time running left to right. The order chosen by the designer  is roughly but not precisely decreasing height of the tallest column in each daily group. Many observers suggested that the columns were arranged to give the appearance of cases dropping over time.

Within each day, the counties are ordered in decreasing number of new cases. The title of the chart reads "number of cases over time" which sounds like cumulative cases but it's not. The "lead" changed hands so many times over the 15 days, meaning the data sequence was extremely noisy, which would be unlikely for cumulative cases. There are thousands of cases in each of these counties by May. Switching the order of the columns within each daily group defeats the purpose of placing these groups side-by-side.

Responding to the bad press, the department changed the chart design for this week's version:

Georgia_top5counties_covid19_revised

This chart now conforms to the two spoken rules described above. The time axis runs left to right, and within each group of columns, the order of the counties is maintained.

The chart is still very noisy, with no apparent message.

***

Next, I'd like to draw your attention to a Data issue. Notice that the 15-day window has shifted. This revised chart runs from May 2 to May 16, which is this past Saturday. The previous chart ran from Apr 26 to May 9. 

Here's the data for May 8 and 9 placed side by side.

Junkcharts_georgia_covid19_cases

There is a clear time lag of reporting cases in the State of Georgia. This chart should always exclude the last few days. The case counts keep going up until it stabilizes. The same mistake occurs in the revised chart - the last two days appear as if new cases have dwindled toward zero when in fact, it reflects a lag in reporting.

The disconnect between the Question being posed and the quality of the Data available dooms this visualization. It is not possible to provide a reliable assessment of the "past 15 days" when during perhaps half of that period, the cases are under-counted.

***

Nyt_tryingtobefashionableThis graphical distortion due to "immature" data has become very commonplace in Covid-19 graphics. It's similar to placing partial-year data next to full-year results, without calling out the partial data.

The following post from the ancient past (2005!) about a New York Times graphic shows that calling out this data problem does not actually solve it. It's a less-bad kind of thing.

The coronavirus data present more headaches for graphic designers than the financial statistics. Because of accounting regulations, we know that only the current quarter's data are immature. For Covid-19 reporting, the numbers are being adjusted for days and weeks.

Practically all immature counts are under-estimates. Over time, more cases are reported. Thus, any plots over time - if unadjusted - paint a misleading picture of declining counts. The effect of the reporting lag is predictable, having a larger impact as we run from left to right in time. Thus, even if the most recent data show a downward trend, it can eventually mean anything: down, flat or up. This is not random noise though - we know for certain of the downward bias; we just don't know the magnitude of the distortion for a while.

Another issue that concerns coronavirus reporting but not financial reporting is inconsistent standards across counties. Within a business, if one were to break out statistics by county, the analysts would naturally apply the same counting rules. For Covid-19 data, each county follows its own set of rules, not just  how to count things but also how to conduct testing, and so on.

Finally, with the politics of re-opening, I find it hard to trust the data. Reported cases are human-driven data - by changing the number of tests, by testing different mixes of people, by delaying reporting, by timing the revision of older data, by explicit manipulation, ...., the numbers can be tortured into any shape. That's why it is extremely important that the bean-counters are civil servants, and that politicians are kept away. In the current political environment, that separation between politics and statistics has been breached.

***

Why do we have low-quality data? Human decisions, frequently political decisions, adulterate the data. Epidemiologists are then forced to use the bad data, because that's what they have. Bad data lead to bad predictions and bad decisions, or if the scientists account for the low quality, predictions with high levels of uncertainty. Then, the politicians complain that predictions are wrong, or too wide-ranging to be useful. If they really cared about those predictions, they could start by being more transparent about reporting and more proactive at discovering and removing bad accounting practices. The fact that they aren't focused on improving the data gives the game away. Here's a recent post on the politics of data.

 


How the pandemic affected employment of men and women

In the last post, I looked at the overall employment situation in the U.S. Here is the trend of the "official" unemployment rate since 1990.

Junkcharts_kfung_unemployment_apr20

I was talking about the missing 100 million. These are people who are neither employed nor unemployed in the eyes of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). They are simply unrepresented in the numbers shown in the chart above.

This group is visualized in my scatter plot as "not in labor force", as a percent of the employment-age population. The horizontal axis of this scatter plot shows the proportion of employed people who hold part-time jobs. Anyone who worked at least one hour during the month is counted as employed part-time.

***

Today, I visualize the differences between men and women.

The first scatter plot shows the situation for men:

Junkcharts_unemployment_scatter_men

This plot reveals a long-term structural problem for the U.S. economy. Regardless of the overall economic health, more and more men have been declared not in labor force each year. Between 2007, the start of the Great Recession to 2019, the proportion went up from 27% to 31%, and the pandemic has pushed this to almost 34%. As mentioned in the last post, this sharp rise in April raises concern that the criteria for "not in labor force" capture a lot of people who actually want a job, and therefore should be counted as part of the labor force but unemployed.

Also, as seen in the last post, the severe drop in part-time workers is unprecedented during economic hardship. As dots turn from blue to red, they typically are moving right, meaning more part-time workers. Since the pandemic, among those people still employed, the proportion holding full-time jobs has paradoxically exploded.

***

The second scatter plot shows the situation with women:

Junkcharts_unemployment_scatter_women

Women have always faced a tougher job market. If they are employed, they are more likely to be holding part-time jobs relative to employed men; and a significantly larger proportion of women are not in the labor force. Between 1990 and 2001, more women entered the labor force. Just like men, the Great Recession resulted in a marked jump in the proportion out of labor force. Since 2014, a positive trend emerged, now interrupted by the pandemic, which has pushed both metrics to levels never seen before.

The same story persists: the sharp rise in women "not in labor force" exposes a problem with this statistic - as it apparently includes people who do want to work, not as intended. In addition, unlike the pattern in the last 30 years, the severe economic crisis is coupled with a shift toward full-time employment, indicating that part-time jobs were disappearing much faster than full-time jobs.


The missing 100 million: how the pandemic reveals the fallacy of not in labor force

Last Friday, the U.S. published the long-feared employment situation report. It should come as no surprise to anyone since U.S. businesses were quick to lay off employees since much of the economy was shut down to abate the spread of the coronavirus.

Numbersense_coverI've been following employment statistics for a while. Chapter 6 of Numbersense (link) addresses the statistical aspects of how the unemployment rate is computed. The title of the chapter is "Are they new jobs when no one can apply?" What you learn is that the final number being published starts off as survey tallies, which then undergo a variety of statistical adjustments.

One such adjustment - which ought to be controversial - results in the disappearance of 100 million Americans. I mean, that they are invisible to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), considered neither employed nor unemployed. You don't hear about them because the media report the "headline" unemployment rate, which excludes these people. They are officially designated "not in the labor force". I'll come back to this topic later in the post.

***

Last year, I used a pair of charts to visualize the unemployment statistics. I have updated the charts to include all of 2019 and 2020 up to April, the just released numbers.

The first chart shows the trend in the official unemployment rate ("U3") from 1990 to present. It's color-coded so that the periods of high unemployment are red, and the periods of low unemployment are blue. This color code will come in handy for the next chart.

Junkcharts_kfung_unemployment_apr20

The time series is smoothed. However, I had to exclude the April 2020 outlier from the smoother.

The next plot, a scatter plot, highlights two of the more debatable definitions used by the BLS. On the horizontal axis, I plot the proportion of employed people who have part-time jobs. People only need to have worked one hour in a month to be counted as employed. On the vertical axis, I plot the proportion of the population who are labeled "not in labor force". These are people who are not employed and not counted in the unemployment rate.

Junkcharts_kfung_unemployment_apr20_2

The value of data visualization is its ability to reveal insights about the data. I'm happy to report that this design succeeded.

Previously, we learned that (a) part-timers as a proportion of employment tend to increase during periods of worsening unemployment (red dots moving right) while decreasing during periods of improving employment (blue dots moving left); and (b) despite the overall unemployment rate being about the same in 2007 and 2017, the employment situation was vastly different in the sense that the labor force has shrunk significantly during the recession and never returned to normal. These two insights are still found at the bottom right corner of the chart. The 2019 situation did not differ much from 2018.

What is the effect of the current Covid-19 pandemic?

On both dimensions, we have broken records since 1990. The proportion of people designated not in labor force was already the worst in three decades before the pandemic, and now it has almost reached 40 percent of the population!

Remember these people are invisible to the media, neither employed nor unemployed. Back in February 2020, with unemployment rate at around 4 percent, it's absolutely not the case that 96 pecent of the employment-age population was employed. The number of employed Americans was just under 160 million. The population 16 years and older at the time was 260 million.

Who are these 100 million people? BLS says all but 2 million of these are people who "do not want a job". Some of them are retired. There are about 50 million Americans above 65 years old although 25 percent of them are still in the labor force, so only 38 million are "not in labor force," according to this Census report.

It would seem like the majority of these people don't want to work, are not paid enough to work, etc. Since part-time workers are counted as employed, with as little as one working hour per month, these are not the gig workers, not Uber/Lyft drivers, and not college students who has work-study or part-time jobs.

This category has long been suspect, and what happened in April isn't going to help build its case. There is no reason why the "not in labor force" group should spike immediately as a result of the pandemic. It's not plausible to argue that people who lost their jobs in the last few weeks suddenly turned into people who "do not want a job". I think this spike is solid evidence that the unemployed have been hiding inside the not in labor force number.

The unemployment rate has under-reported unemployment because many of the unemployed have been taken out of the labor force based on BLS criteria. The recovery of jobs since the Great Recession is partially nullified since the jump in "not in labor force" never returned to the prior level.

***

The other dimension, part-time employment, also showed a striking divergence from the past behavior. Typically, when the unemployment rate deteriorates, the proportion of employed people who have part-time jobs increases. However, in the current situation, not only is that not happening, but the proportion of part-timers plunged to a level not seen in the last 30 years.

This suggests that employers are getting rid of their part-time work force first.

 

 


How Covid-19 deaths sneaked into Florida's statistics

Like many others, some Floridians are questioning their state's Covid statistics. It's clear there are numerous "degrees of freedom" for politicians to manipulate the numbers. What's not clear is who's influencing these decisions. Are they public-health experts, donors, voters, or whom?

A Twitter follower sent in the following chart, embedded in an informative article in Sun-Sentinel:

Sun-sentinel_pneumonia_percent_of_total

I like the visual design. It's clean, and conveys a moderately complex concept effectively. The reader may not immediately get what metrics are being plotted but the idea that the blue line should operate within the gray area.. until it doesn't is easily grasped. The range is technically an uncertainty band.

The metric is the proportion of total deaths (all causes) that are attributed to pneumonia and flu. Typical influenza deaths are found in that category. This chart investigates whether there were excess (unexplained) P&F deaths. The gray band measures the variability in the proportions of past years. When the blue line operates inside the band, the metric is normal. When it pierces the upper band, which happened here around week 25, a rare event has occurred.

The concern on Twitter was about the horizontal axis. Those integer labels can be confusing. The designer places a "how to read this" message in a footnote, explaining that week 1 is the first week of a typical flu season (which corresponds to late September 2019). This nugget of information helps a lot. We can see that the flu season peaks around week 20, and by the spring, it should be waning. Not so in 2020.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that deaths from Covid-19 are hiding inside the statistics of Pneumonia & Flu. As a statistician, I want to tell you Statistics Don't Lie! You can hide the data along one dimension, but they show up elsewhere. Misclassifying the deaths does buy someone some time. It takes a few weeks to compile all-cause mortality data (gasp, the CDC said mortality records are only 75 percent accurate after 8 weeks!)

The other small problem with the chart is the labeling. Neither axis has labels. The data label that shows up when you click on the line might be a default from the software that can't be turned off. It shows the two numbers being plotted without labels.

***

Here is a re-working of the chart that tells the story:

Redo_junkcharts_sunsentinelpneunominacovid19

The proportion of deaths attributed to P&F and Covid together is roughly double the upper end of what Florida should be seeing this time of the year (without Covid). Covid-19 accounts for half the gap. The other half are still being classified as P&F. However, I suspect CDC will adjust these numbers later to reflect the reality. (In making this chart, I also learned that Florida stopped including seasonal visitors in the death counts. This is egregious manipulation. If someone died while in Florida, they should be counted. I didn't investigate whether this counting rule applies only to Covid-19 deaths, or to deaths from all causes. If they had always done that, then I might give them a pass.)

On second thought, maybe not. The other egregious thing that appeared to have happened is that the Florida state health department unplugged their prior website (https://www.floridahealth.gov) so no one can cross-reference any prior documents. The only website I can access now for Florida state health is a Covid-specific site (https://floridahealthcovid19.gov).

Florida_state_health_websites

There must be something juicy on the previous influenza page, no?

***

Lastly, when you look at my chart, please pretend that the last week is not on there. In all likelihood, the "drop" is fake because the mortality data have not been fully updated. My chart contains one more week than the Sun Sentinel chart. So you can see that the drastic decline shown on their chart turned up a big uptick on mine (next to last week).

This is a common mistake on many charts I see these days. Half-baked numbers are shown next to fully-baked ones.


Twitter people UpSet with that Covid symptoms diagram

Been busy with an exciting project, which I might talk about one day. But I promised some people I'll follow up on Covid symptoms data visualization, so here it is.

After I posted about the Venn diagram used to depict self-reported Covid-19 symptoms by users of the Covid Symptom Tracker app (reported by Nature), Xan and a few others alerted me to Twitter discussion about alternative visualizations that people have made after they suffered the indignity of trying to parse the Venn diagram.

To avoid triggering post-trauma, for those want to view the Venn diagram, please click here.

[In the Twitter links below, you almost always have to scroll one message down - saving tweets, linking to tweets, etc. are all stuff I haven't fully figured out.]

Start with the Questions

Xan’s final comment is especially appropriate: "There's an over-riding Type-Q issue: count charts answer the wrong question".

As dataviz designers, we frequently get locked into the mindset of “what is the best way to present this dataset?” This line of thinking leads to overloaded graphics that attempt to answer every possible question that may arise from the data in one panoptic chart, akin to juggling 10 balls at once.

For complex datasets, it is often helpful to narrow down the list of questions, and provide a series of charts, each addressing one or two questions. I’ll come back to this point. I want to first show some of the nicer visuals that others have produced, which brings out the structure and complexity of this dataset.

 

The UpSet chart

The primary contender is the “UpSet” chart form, as best exemplified by Bart’s effort

Upset_bartjutte

The centerpiece of this chart is the matrix of dots. The horizontal rows of dots represent the presence of specific symptoms such as cough and anosmia (loss of smell and taste). The vertical columns are intuitive, once you get it. They represent combinations of symptoms, and the fill/no-fill of the dots indicates which symptoms are being combined. For example, the first column counts people reporting fatigue plus anosmia (but nothing else).

The UpSet chart clearly communicates the structure of the data. In many survey questions (including this one conducted by the Symptom Tracker app), respondents are allowed to check/tick more than one answer choices. This creates a situation where the number of answers (here, symptoms) per respondent can be zero up to the total number of answer choices.

So far, we have built a structure like we have drawn country outlines on a map. There is no data yet. The data are primarily found in the sidebar histograms (column/bar charts). Reading horizontally to the right side, one learns that the most frequently reported symptom was fatigue, covering 88 percent of the users.* Reading vertically, one learns that the top combination of symptoms was fatigue plus anosmia, covering 16 percent of users.

***

Now come the divisive acts.

Act 1: Bart orders the columns in a particular way that meets his subjective view of how he wants readers to see the data. The columns are sorted from the most frequent combinations to the least. The histogram has a “long tail”, with most of the combinations receiving a small proportion of the total. The top five combinations is where the bulk of the data is – I’d have liked to see all five columns labeled, without decimal places.

This is a choice on the part of the designer. Nils, for example, made two versions of his UpSet charts. The second version arranges the combinations from singles to quintuples.

Nils Gehlenborg_upsetplot_sortedbynumberofsymptoms

 

Digression: The Visual in Data Visualization

The two rendering of “UpSet” charts, by Nils and Bart, is a perfect illustration of the Trifecta Checkup framework. Each corner of the Trifecta is an independent dimension, and yet all must sync. With the same data and the same question types, what differentiates the two versions is the visual design.

See how many differences you can find, and make your own design choices!

 

I place the digression here because Act 1 above has to do with the Q corner, and both visual designs can accommodate the sorting decisions. But Act 2 below pertains to the V corner.

Act 2: Bart applies a blue gradient to the matrix of dots that reinforces his subjective view about identifying frequent combinations of symptoms. Nils, by contrast, uses the matrix to show present/absent only.

I’m not sure about Act 2. I think the addition of the color gradient overloads the matrix in the chart. It has the nice effect of focusing the reader’s attention on the top 5 combinations but it also requires the reader to have understood the meaning of columns first. Perhaps applying the gradient to the histogram up top rather than the dots in the matrix can achieve the same goal with less confusion.

 

Getting Obtuse

For example, some readers (e.g. Robin) expressed confusion.

Robin is alleging something the chart doesn’t do. He pointed out (correctly) that while 16 percent experienced fatigue and anosmia only (without other symptoms), more than 50 percent reported fatigue and anosmia, plus other symptoms. That nugget of information is deeply buried inside Bart’s chart – it’s the sum of each column for which the first two dots are filled in. For example, the second column represents fatigue+anosmia+cough. So Robin wants to aggregate those up.

Robin’s critique arises from the Q(uestion) corner. If the designer wants to highlight specific combinations that occur most frequently in the data, then Bart’s encoding makes perfect sense. On the other hand, if the purpose is to highlight pairs of symptoms that occur most frequently together (disregarding symptoms outside each pair), then the data must be further aggregated. The switch in the Question requires more Data manipulation, which then affects the Visualization. That's the essence of the Trifecta Checkup framework.

Rest assured, the version that addresses Robin’s point will not give an easy answer to Bart’s question. In fact, Xan whipped up a bar chart in response:

Xan_symptomscombo_barchart

This is actually hard to comprehend because Robin’s question is even hard to state. The first bar shows 87 percent of users reported fatigue as a symptom, the same number that appeared on Bart’s version on the right side. Then, the darkened section of the bar indicates the proportion of users who reported only fatigue and nothing else, which appears to be about 10 percent. So 1 out of 9 reported just fatigue while 8 out of 9 who reported fatigue also experienced other symptoms.

 

Xan’s bar chart can be flipped 90 degrees and replace Bart’s histogram on top of the matrix. But you see, we end up with the same problem as I mentioned up top. By jamming more insights from more questions onto the same chart, we risk dropping the other balls that were already in the air.

So, my advice is always to first winnow down the list of questions you want to address. And don’t be afraid of making a series of charts instead of one panoptic chart.

***

Act 3: Bart decides to leave out labels for the columns.

This is a curious choice given the key storyline we’ve been working with so far (the Top 5 combinations of symptoms). But notice how annoying this problem is. Combinations require long text, which must be written vertically or slanted on this design. Transposing could help but not really. It’s just a limitation of this chart form. For me, reading the filled dots underneath the columns as column labels isn’t a show-stopper.

 

Histograms vs Bar Charts

It’s worth pointing out that the sidebar “histograms” are not both histograms. I tend to think of histograms as a specific type of bar (column) chart, in which the sum of the bars (columns) can be interpreted as a whole. So all histograms are bar charts but only some bar charts are histograms.

The column chart up top is a histogram. The combinations of symptoms are disjoint, and the total of the combinations should be the total number of answer choices selected by all respondents. The bar chart on the right side however is not a histogram. Each percentage is a proportion to the whole, and adding those percentages yields way above 100%.

I like the annotation on Bart’s chart a lot. They are succinct and they give just the right information to explain how to read the chart.

 

Limitations

I already mentioned the vertical labeling issue for UpSet charts. Here are two other considerations for you.

The majority of the plotting area is dedicated to the matrix of dots. The matrix contains merely labels for data. They are like country boundaries on a map. While it lays out the structure of data very clearly, the designer should ask whether it is essential for the readers to see the entire landscape.

In real-world data, the “long tail” phenomenon we saw earlier is very common. With six featured symptoms, there are 2^6 = 64 possible combinations of symptoms (minus 1 if they filtered out those not reporting symptoms*), almost all of which will be empty. Should the low-frequency columns be removed? This is not as controversial as you think, because implicitly both Bart and Nils already dropped all empty combinations!

 

Data and Code

Kieran Healy left a comment on the last post, and you can find both the data (thank you!) and some R code for UpSet charts at his blog.

Also, Nils has a Shiny app on Github.

 

(*) One must be very careful about what “users” are being represented. They form a tiny subset of users of the Symptom Tracker app, just those who have previously taken a diagnostic test and have self-reported at least one symptom. I have separately commented on the analyses of this dataset by the team behind the app. The first post discusses their analytical methods, the second post examines how they pre-processed the data, and a future post will describe the data collection practices. For the purpose of this blog post, I’ll ignore any data issues.

(#) Bart’s chart is conceptual because some of the columns of dots are repeated, and there is one column without fills, which should have been removed by a pre-processing step applied by the research team.