How many details to include in a chart
Deaths as percent neither of cases nor of population. Deaths as percent of normal.

Ask how you can give

A reader and colleague Georgette A was frustrated with the following graphic that appeared in the otherwise commendable article in National Geographic (link). The NatGeo article provides a history lesson on past pandemics that killed millions.

Natgeo_pandemichistory

What does the design want to convey to readers?

Our attention is drawn to the larger objects, the red triangle on the left or the green triangle on the right. Regarding the red triangle, we learn that the base is the duration of the pandemic while the height of the black bar represents the total deaths.

An immediate curiosity is why a green triangle is lodged in the middle of the red triangle. Answering this question requires figuring out the horizontal layout. Where we expect axis labels we find an unexpected series of numbers (0, 16, 48, 5, 2, 4, ...). These are durations that measure the widths of the triangular bases.

To solve this puzzle, imagine the chart with the triangles removed, leaving just the black columns. Now replace the durations with index numbers, 1 to 13, corresponding to the time order of the ending years of these epidemics. In other words, there is a time axis hidden behind the chart. [As Ken reminded me on Twitter, I forgot to mention that details of each pandemic are revealed by hovering over each triangle.]

This explains why the green triangle (Antonine Plague) is sitting inside the large red triangle (Plague of Justinian). The latter's duration is 3 times that of the former, and the Antonine Plague ended before the Plague of Justinian. In fact, the Antonine occurred during 165-180 while the Justinian happened during 541-588. The overlap is an invention of the design. To receive what the design gives, we have to think of time as a sequence, not of dates.

***

Now, compare the first and second red triangles. Their black columns both encode 50 million deaths. The Justinian Plague however was spread out over 48 years while the Black Death lasted just 5 years. This suggests that the Black Death was more fearsome than the Justinian Plague. And yet, the graphic presents the opposite imagery.

This is a pretty tough dataset to visualize. Here is a side-by-side bar chart that lets readers first compare deaths, and then compare durations.

Redo_natgeo_pandemichistory

In the meantime, I highly recommend the NatGeo article.

Comments

Conchis

Presumably you could encode average (rather than total) deaths per year in the height to give a more intuitive interpretation of volume=total deaths?

 Mat

One key third bar graph column to include is average deaths per common unit time. This would give a visual of the INTENSITY of the pandemic, which is a major characteristic humans notice, and would relatively compare these occurrences well.

Kaiser

C, M: Theoretically yes but I'd be concerned about painting a misleading picture of equal intensity throughout the duration, for those pandemics that lasted decades. If there are data on the intensity over time, then it should work.

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