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Ranking data provide context but can also confuse

This dataviz from the Economist had me spending a lot of time clicking around - which means it is a success.


The graphic presents four measures of wellbeing in society - life expectancy, infant mortality rate, murder rate and prison population. The primary goal is to compare nations across those metrics. The focus is on comparing how certain nations (or subgroups) rank against each other, as indicated by the relative vertical position.

The Economist staff has a particular story to tell about racial division in the US. The dotted bars represent the U.S. average. The colored bars are the averages for Hispanic, white and black Americans. The wider the gap between the colored bars, the more variant is the experiences between American races.

The chart shows that the racial gap of life expectancy is the widest. For prison population, the U.S. and its racial subgroups occupy many of the lowest (i.e. least desirable) ranks, with the smallest gap in ranking.


The primary element of interactivity is hovering on a bar, which then highlights the four bars corresponding to the particular nation selected. Here is the picture for Thailand:


According to this view of the world, Thailand is a close cousin of the U.S. On each metric, the Thai value clings pretty near the U.S. average and sits within the range by racial groups. I'm surprised to learn that the prison population in Thailand is among the highest in the world.

Unfortunately, this chart form doesn't facilitate comparing Thailand to a country other than the U.S as one can highlight only one country at a time.


While the main focus of the chart is on relative comparison through ranking, the reader can extract absolute difference by reading the lengths of the bars.

This is a close-up of the bottom of the prison population metric:

Econ_useexcept_prisonpop_bottomThe length of each bar displays the numeric data. The red line is an outlier in this dataset. Black Americans suffer an incarceration rate that is almost three times the national average. Even white Americans (blue line) is imprisoned at a rate higher than most countries around the world.

As noted above, the prison population metric exhibits the smallest gap between racial subgroups. This chart is a great example of why ranking data frequently hide important information. The small gap in ranking masks the extraordinary absolute difference in incareration rates between white and black America.

The difference between rank #1 and rank #2 is enormous.

Econ_useexcept_lifeexpect_topThe opposite situation appears for life expectancy. The life expectancy values are bunched up especially at the top of the scale. The absolute difference between Hispanic and black America is 82 - 75 = 7 years, which looks small because the axis starts at zero. On a ranking scale, Hispanic is roughly in the top 15% while black America is just above the median. The relative difference is huge.

For life expectancy, ranking conveys the view that even a 7-year difference is a big deal because the countries are tightly bunched together. For prison population, ranking shows the view that a multiple fold difference is "unimportant" because a 20-0 blowout and a 10-0 blowout are both heavy defeats.


Whenever you transform numeric data to ranks, remember that you are artificially treating the gap between each value and the next value as a constant, even when the underlying numeric gaps show wide variance.






Hanging things on your charts

The Financial Times published the following chart that shows the rollout of vaccines in the U.K.


(I can't find the online link to the article. The article is titled "AstraZeneca and Oxford face setbacks and success as battle enters next phase", May 29/30 2021.)

This chart form is known as a "streamgraph", and it is a stacked area chart in disguise. 

The same trick can be applied to a column chart. See the "hanging" column chart below:


The two charts show exactly the same data. The left one roots the columns at the bottom. The right one aligns the middle of the columns. 

I have rarely found these hanging charts useful. The realignment makes it harder to compare the sizes of the different column segments. On the normal stacked column chart, the yellow segments are the easiest to compare because they share the same base level. Even this is taken away from the reader on the right side.

Note also that the hanging version does not admit a vertical axis

The same comments apply to the streamgraph.


Nevertheless, I was surprised that the FT chart shown above actually works. The main message I learned was that initially U.K. primarily rolled out AstraZeneca and, to a lesser extent, Pfizer, shots while later, they introduced other vaccines, including Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, CureVac, Moderna, and "Other". 

I can also see that the supply of AstraZeneca has not changed much through the entire time window. Pfizer has grown to roughly the same scale as AstraZeneca. Moderna remains a small fraction of total shots. 

I can even roughly see that the total number of vaccinations has grown about six times from start to finish. 

That's quite a lot for one chart, so job well done!

There is one problem with the FT chart. It should have labelled end of May as "today". Half the chart is history, and the other half is the future.


For those following Covid-19 news, the FT chart is informative in a different way.

There is a misleading statement going around blaming the U.K.'s recent surge in cases on the Astrazeneca vaccine, claiming that the U.K. mostly uses AZ. This chart shows that from the start, about a third of the shots administered in the U.K. are Pfizer, and Pfizer's share has been growing over time. 

U.K. compared to some countries mostly using mRNA vaccines


U.K. is almost back to the winter peak. That's because the U.K. is serious about counting cases. Look at the state of testing in these countries:


What's clear about the U.S. case count is that it is kept low by cutting the number of tests by two-thirds, thus, our data now is once again severely biased towards severe cases. 

We can do a back-of-the-envelope calculation. The drop in testing may directly lead to a proportional drop in reported cases, thus removing 500 (asymptomatic, or mild) cases per million from the case count. The case count goes below 250 per million so the additional 200 or so reduction is due to other reasons such as vaccinations.

One of the most frequently produced maps is also one of the worst

Summer is here, many Americans are putting the pandemic in their rear-view mirrors, and gas prices are soaring. Business Insider told the story using this map:


What do we want to learn about gas prices this summer?

Which region has the highest / lowest prices?

How much higher / lower than the national average are the regional prices?

How much has prices risen, compared to last year, or compared to the last few weeks?


How much work did you have to do to get answers to those questions from the above map?

Unfortunately, this type of map continues to dominate the popular press. It merely delivers a geography lesson and not much else. Its dominant feature tells readers how to classify the 50 states into regions. Its color encodes no data.

Not surprisingly, this map fails the self-sufficiency test (link). The entire dataset is printed on the map, and if those numbers were removed, we would be left with a map of the regions of the U.S. The graphical elements of the chart are not doing much work.


In the following chart, I used the map as a color legend. Also, an additional plot shows each region's price level against the national average.


One can certainly ditch the map altogether, which makes having seven colors unnecessary. To address other questions, just stack on other charts, for example, showing the price increase versus last year.


_trifectacheckup_imageFrom a Trifecta Checkup perspective, we find that the trouble starts with the Q corner. There are several important questions not addressed by the graphic. In the D corner, no context is provided to interpret the data. Are these prices abnormal? How do they compare to the national average or to a year ago? In the V corner, the chart takes too much effort to comprehend a basic fact, such as which region has the highest average price.

For more on the Trifecta Checkup, see this guide.


Did prices go up or down? Depends on how one looks at the data

The U.S. media have been flooded with reports of runaway inflation recently, and it's refreshing to see a nice article in the Wall Street Journal that takes a second look at the data. Because as my readers know, raw data can be incredibly deceptive.

Inflation typically describes the change in price level relative to the prior year. The month-on-month change in price levels is a simple seasonal adjustment used to remove the effect of seasonality that masks the true change in price levels. (See this explainer of seasonal adjustment.)

As the pandemic enters the second year, this methodology is comparing 2021 price levels to pandemic-impacted price levels of 2020. This produces a very confusing picture. As the WSJ article explains, prices can be lower than they were in 2019 (pre-pandemic) and yet substantially higher than they were in 2020 (during the pandemic). This happens in industry sectors that were heavily affected by the economic shutdown, e.g. hotels, travel, entertainment.

Wsj_pricechangehotels_20192021Here is how they visualized this phenomenon. Amusingly, some algorithm estimated that it should take 5 minutes to read the entire article. It may take that much time to understand properly what this chart is showing.

Let me save you some time.

The chart shows monthly inflation rates of hotel price levels.

The pink horizontal stripes represent the official inflation numbers, which compare each month's hotel prices to those of a year prior. The most recent value for May of 2021 says hotel prices rose by 9% compared to May of 2020.

The blue horizontal stripes show an alternative calculation which compares each month's hotel prices to those of two years prior. Think of 2018-9 as "normal" years, pre-pandemic. Using this measure, we find that hotel prices for May of 2021 are about 4% lower than for May of 2019.

(This situation affects all of our economic statistics. We may see an expansion in employment levels from a year ago which still leaves us behind where we were before the pandemic.)

What confused me on the WSJ chart are the blocks of color. In a previous chart, the readers learn that solid colors mean inflation rose while diagonal lines mean inflation decreased. It turns out that these are month-over-month changes in inflation rates (notice that one end of the column for the previous month touches one end of the column of the next month).

The color patterns become the most dominant feature of this chart, and yet the month-over-month change in inflation rates isn't the crux of the story. The real star of the story should be the difference in inflation rates - for any given month - between two reference years.


In the following chart, I focus attention on the within-month, between-reference-years comparisons.


Because hotel prices dropped drastically during the pandemic, and have recovered quite well in recent months as the U.S. reopens the economy, the inflation rate of hotel prices is almost 10%. Nevertheless, the current price level is still 7% below the pre-pandemic level.