Circular areas offer misleading cues of their underlying data
Feb 09, 2021
John M. pointed me on Twitter to this chart about the progress of U.S.'s vaccination campaign:
This looks like a White House production, retweeted by WHO. John is unhappy about this nested bubble format, which I'll come back to later.
Let's zoom in on what matters:
An even bigger problem with this chart is the Q corner in our Trifecta Checkup. What is the question they are trying to address? It would appear to be the proportion of population that has "already received [one or more doses of] vaccine". And the big words tell us the answer is 8 percent.
But is that really the question? Check out the dark blue circle. It is labeled "population that has already received vaccine" and thus we infer this bubble represents 8 percent. Now look at the outer bubble. Its annotation is "new population that received vaccine since January 27, 2021". The only interpretation that makes sense is that 8 percent is not the most current number. If that is the case, why would the headline highlight an older statistic, and not the most up-to-date one?
Perhaps the real question is how fast is the progress in vaccination. Perhaps it took weeks to get to the dark circle and then days to get beyond. In order to improve this data visualization, we must first decide what the question really is.
Now let's get to those nested bubbles. The bubble chart is a format that is not "sufficient," by which I mean the visual by itself does not convey the data without the help of aids such as labels. Try to answer the following questions:
In my view, if your answer to the last question is anything more than 5 seconds, the dataviz has failed. A successful data visualization should not make readers solve puzzles.
The first two questions depict the confusing nature of concentric circle diagrams. The first data point is coded to the inner circle. Where is the second data point? Is it encoded to the outer circle, or just the outer ring?
In either case, human brains are not trained to compare circular areas. For question 1, the outer circle is 70% larger than the smaller circle. For question 2, the ring is 70% of the area of the dark blue circle. If you're thinking those numbers seem unreasonable, I can tell you that was my first reaction too! So I made the following to convince myself that the calculation was correct:
Circular areas offer misleading visual cues, and should be used sparingly.
[P.S. 2/10/2021. In the next post, I sketch out an alternative dataviz for this dataset.]
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