Light entertainment: words or visuals

Oct 24, 2022

Via twitter, no words for this one:

I need a poll function for this.  What do we think happened here?

• Intentional fake news
• Intern didn't get paid enough
• Call of the wild
• Drunk or high
• Quiet quitting
• Doing a Dan Ariely ("I didn't know I have to check the data")

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One last thing!

If you think you knew what the real numbers are, think again.

Finding the right context to interpret household energy data

Oct 12, 2022

Bloomberg's recent article on surging UK household energy costs, projected over this winter, contains data about which I have long been intrigued: how much energy does different household items consume?

A twitter follower alerted me to this chart, and she found it informative.

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If the goal is to pick out the appliances and estimate the cost of running them, the chart serves its purpose. Because the entire set of data is printed, a data table would have done equally well.

I learned that the mobile phone costs almost nothing to charge: 1 pence for six hours of charging, which is deemed a "single use" which seems double what a full charge requires. The games console costs 14 pence for a "single use" of two hours. That might be an underestimate of how much time gamers spend gaming each day.

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Understanding the design of the chart needs a bit more effort. Each appliance is measured by two metrics: the number of hours considered to be "single use", and a currency value.

It took me a while to figure out how to interpret these currency values. Each cost is associated with a single use, and the duration of a single use increases as we move down the list of appliances. Since the designer assumes a fixed cost of electicity (shown in the footnote as 34p per kWh), at first, it seems like the costs should just increase from top to bottom. That's not the case, though.

Something else is driving these numbers behind the scene, namely, the intensity of energy use by appliance. The wifi router listed at the bottom is turned on 24 hours a day, and the daily cost of running it is just 6p. Meanwhile, running the fridge and freezer the whole day costs 41p. Thus, the fridge&freezer consumes electricity at a rate that is almost 7 times higher than the router.

The chart uses a split axis, which artificially reduces the gap between 8 hours and 24 hours. Here is another look at the bottom of the chart:

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Let's examine the choice of "single use" as a common basis for comparing appliances. Consider this:

• Continuous appliances (wifi router, refrigerator, etc.) are denoted as 24 hours, so a daily time window is also implied
• Repeated-use appliances (e.g. coffee maker, kettle) may be run multiple times a day
• Infrequent use appliances may be used less than once a day

I prefer standardizing to a "per day" metric. If I use the microwave three times a day, the daily cost is 3 x 3p = 9 p, which is more than I'd spend on the wifi router, run 24 hours. On the other hand, I use the washing machine once a week, so the frequency is 1/7, and the effective daily cost is 1/7 x 36 p = 5p, notably lower than using the microwave.

The choice of metric has key implications on the appearance of the chart. The bubble size encodes the relative energy costs. The biggest bubbles are in the heating category, which is no surprise. The next largest bubbles are tumble dryer, dishwasher, and electric oven. These are generally not used every day so the "per day" calculation would push them lower in rank.

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Another noteworthy feature of the Bloomberg chart is the split legend. The colors divide appliances into five groups based on usage category (e.g. cleaning, food, utility). Instead of the usual color legend printed on a corner or side of the chart, the designer spreads the category labels around the chart. Each label is shown the first time a specific usage category appears on the chart. There is a presumption that the reader scans from top to bottom, which is probably true on average.

I like this arrangement as it delivers information to the reader when it's needed.

People flooded this chart presented without comment with lots of comments

Oct 05, 2022

The recent election in Italy has resulted in some dubious visual analytics. A reader sent me this Excel chart:

In brief, an Italian politician (trained as a PhD economist) used the graph above to make a point that support of the populist Five Star party (M5S) is highly correlated with poverty - the number of people on RDC (basic income). "Senza commento" - no comment needed.

Except a lot of people noticed the idiocy of the chart, and ridiculed it.

The chart appeals to those readers who don't spend time understanding what's being plotted. They notice two lines that show similar "trends" which is a signal for high correlation.

It turns out the signal in the chart isn't found in the peaks and valleys of the "trends".  It is tempting to observe that when the blue line peaks (Campania, Sicilia, Lazio, Piedmonte, Lombardia), the orange line also pops.

But look at the vertical axis. He's plotting the number of people, rather than the proportion of people. Population varies widely between Italian provinces. The five mentioned above all have over 4 million residents, while the smaller ones such as Umbira, Molise, and Basilicata have under 1 million. Thus, so long as the number of people, not the proportion, is plotted, no matter what demographic metric is highlighted, we will see peaks in the most populous provinces.

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The other issue with this line chart is that the "peaks" are completely contrived. That's because the items on the horizontal axis do not admit a natural order. This is NOT a time-series chart, for which there is a canonical order. The horizontal axis contains a set of provinces, which can be ordered in whatever way the designer wants.

The following shows how the appearance of the lines changes as I select different metrics by which to sort the provinces:

This is the reason why many chart purists frown on people who use connected lines with categorical data. I don't like this hard rule, as my readers know. In this case, I have to agree the line chart is not appropriate.

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So, where is the signal on the line chart? It's in the ratio of the heights of the two values for each province.

Here, we find something counter-intuitive. I've highlighted two of the peaks. In Sicilia, about the same number of people voted for Five Star as there are people who receive basic income. In Lombardia, more than twice the number of people voted for Five Star as there are people who receive basic income.

Now, Lombardy is where Milan is, essentially the richest province in Italy while Sicily is one of the poorest. Could it be that Five Star actually outperformed their demographics in the richer provinces?

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Let's approach the politician's question systematically. He's trying to say that the Five Star moement appeals especially to poorer people. He's chosen basic income as a proxy for poverty (this is like people on welfare in the U.S.). Thus, he's divided the population into two groups: those on welfare, and those not.

What he needs is the relative proportions of votes for Five Star among these two subgroups. Say, Five Star garnered 30% of the votes among people on welfare, and 15% of the votes among people not on welfare, then we have a piece of evidence that Five Star differentially appeals to people on welfare. If the vote share is the same among these two subgroups, then Five Star's appeal does not vary with welfare.

The following diagram shows the analytical framework:

What's the problem? He doesn't have the data needed to establish his thesis. He has the total number of Five Star voters (which is the sum of the two yellow boxes) and he has the total number of people on RDC (which is the dark orange box).

As shown above, another intervening factor is the proportion of people who voted. It is conceivable that the propensity to vote also depends on one's wealth.

So, in this case, fixing the visual will not fix the problem. Finding better data is key.