Following this pretty flow chart
The blue mist

Energy efficiency deserves visual efficiency

Long-time contributor Aleksander B. found a good one, in the World Energy Outlook Report, published by IEA (International Energy Agency).


The use of balloons is unusual, although after five minutes, I decided I must do some research to have any hope of understanding this data visualization.

A lot is going on. Below, I trace my own journey through this chart.

The text on the top left explains that the chart concerns emissions and temperature change. The first set of balloons (the grey ones) includes helpful annotations. The left-right position of the balloons indicates time points, in 10-year intervals except for the first.

The trapezoid that sits below the four balloons is more mysterious. It's labelled "median temperature rise in 2100". I debate two possibilities: (a) this trapezoid may serve as the fifth balloon, extending the time series from 2050 to 2100. This interpretation raises a couple of questions: why does the symbol change from balloon to trapezoid? why is the left-right time scale broken? (b) this trapezoid may represent something unrelated to the balloons. This interpretation also raises questions: its position on the horizontal axis still breaks the time series; and  if the new variable is "median temperature rise", then what determines its location on the chart?

That last question is answered if I move my glance all the way to the right edge of the chart where there are vertical axis labels. This axis is untitled but the labels shown in degree Celsius units are appropriate for "median temperature rise".

Turning to the balloons, I wonder what the scale is for the encoded emissions data. This is also puzzling because only a few balloons wear data labels, and a scale is nowhere to be found.


The gridlines suggests that the vertical location of the balloons is meaningful. Tracing those gridlines to the right edge leads me back to the Celsius scale, which seems unrelated to emissions. The amount of emissions is probably encoded in the sizes of the balloons although none of these four balloons have any data labels so I'm rather flustered. My attention shifts to the colored balloons, a few of which are labelled. This confirms that the size of the balloons indeed measures the amount of emissions. Nevertheless, it is still impossible to gauge the change in emissions for the 10-year periods.

The colored balloons rising above, way above, the gridlines is an indication that the gridlines may lack a relationship with the balloons. But in some charts, the designer may deliberately use this device to draw attention to outlier values.

Next, I attempt to divine the informational content of the balloon strings. Presumably, the chart is concerned with drawing the correlation between emissions and temperature rise. Here I'm also stumped.

I start to look at the colored balloons. I've figured out that the amount of emissions is shown by the balloon size but I am still unclear about the elevation of the balloons. The vertical locations of these balloons change over time, hinting that they are data-driven. Yet, there is no axis, gridline, or data label that provides a key to its meaning.

Now I focus my attention on the trapezoids. I notice the labels "NZE", "APS", etc. The red section says "Pre-Paris Agreement" which would indicate these sections denote periods of time. However, I also understand the left-right positions of same-color balloons to indicate time progression. I'm completely lost. Understanding these labels is crucial to understanding the color scheme. Clearly, I have to read the report itself to decipher these acronyms.

The research reveals that NZE means "net zero emissions", which is a forecasting scenario - an utterly unrealistic one - in which every country is assumed to fulfil fully its obligations, a sort of best-case scenario but an unattainable optimum. APS and STEPS embed different assumptions about the level of effort countries would spend on reducing emissions and tackling global warming.

At this stage, I come upon another discovery. The grey section is missing any acronym labels. It's actually the legend of the chart. The balloon sizes, elevations, and left-right positions in the grey section are all arbitrary, and do not represent any real data! Surprisingly, this legend does not contain any numbers so it does not satisfy one of the traditional functions of a legend, which is to provide a scale.

There is still one final itch. Take a look at the green section:


What is this, hmm, caret symbol? It's labeled "Net Zero". Based on what I have been able to learn so far, I associate "net zero" to no "emissions" (this suggests they are talking about net emissions not gross emissions). For some reason, I also want to associate it with zero temperature rise. But this is not to be. The "net zero" line pins the balloon strings to a level of roughly 2.5 Celsius rise in temperature.

Wait, that's a misreading of the chart because the projected net temperature increase is found inside the trapezoid, meaning at "net zero", the scientists expect an increase in 1.5 degrees Celsius. If I accept this, I come face to face with the problem raised above: what is the meaning of the vertical positioning of the balloons? There must be a reason why the balloon strings are pinned at 2.5 degrees. I just have no idea why.

I'm also stealthily presuming that the top and bottom edges of the trapezoids represent confidence intervals around the median temperature rise values. The height of each trapezoid appears identical so I'm not sure.

I have just learned something else about this chart. The green "caret" must have been conceived as a fully deflated balloon since it represents the value zero. Its existence exposes two limitations imposed by the chosen visual design. Bubbles/circles should not be used when the value of zero holds significance. Besides, the use of balloon strings to indicate four discrete time points breaks down when there is a scenario which involves only three buoyant balloons.


The underlying dataset has five values (four emissions, one temperature rise) for four forecasting scenarios. It's taken a lot more time to explain the data visualization than to just show readers those 20 numbers. That's not good!

I'm sure the designer did not set out to confuse. I think what happened might be that the design wasn't shown to potential readers for feedback. Perhaps they were shown only to insiders who bring their domain knowledge. Insiders most likely would not have as much difficulty with reading this chart as did I.

This is an important lesson for using data visualization as a means of communications to the public. It's easy for specialists to assume knowledge that readers won't have.

For the IEA chart, here is a list of things not found explicitly on the chart that readers have to know in order to understand it.

  • Readers have to know about the various forecasting scenarios, and their acronyms (APS, NZE, etc.). This allows them to interpret the colors and section titles on the chart, and to decide whether the grey section is missing a scenario label, or is a legend.
  • Since the legend does not contain any scale information, neither for the balloon sizes nor for the temperatures, readers have to figure out the scales on their own. For temperature, they first learn from the legend that the temperature rise information is encoded in the trapezoid, then find the vertical axis on the right edge, notice that this axis has degree Celsius units, and recognize that the Celsius scale is appropriate for measuring median temperature rise.
  • For the balloon size scale, readers must resist the distracting gridlines around the grey balloons in the legend, notice the several data labels attached to the colored balloons, and accept that the designer has opted not to provide a proper size scale.

Finally, I still have several unresolved questions:

  • The horizontal axis may have no meaning at all, or it may only have meaning for emissions data but not for temperature
  • The vertical positioning of balloons probably has significance, or maybe it doesn't
  • The height of the trapezoids probably has significance, or maybe it doesn't




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Thank you for the interesting read. My thoughts on the unresolved questions:

1. We know from the legend that the horizontal axis has meaning for emissions data (emissions in later years to the right). I think it has no meaning for temperature for two reasons: a) the acronyms refer to forecasting scenarios which are all constructed in the present day; b) the legend tells us that the trapezoids refer to projected median temperature rise in 2100 in all four cases. It could be the case that the four scenarios are ordered in a certain way, but if so, the method of sorting is not apparent.

2. I would guess the vertical positioning of balloons was adjusted with the sole aim of making the chart look nice. After all, the data represented by the balloons would be easier to compare if the balloons hadn't overlapped at all. There is also nothing in the chart to suggest that the vertical positioning otherwise has any meaning.

3. As you noted, the height of each trapezoid appears identical. It is possible that all four values have the same confidence intervals, but I would guess the height has no significance due to a) the paucity of data points given by the designer in the rest of the chart, and b) the fact that no mention of confidence intervals is made in the legend.

As an aside, I do think there is an intuitive (and also creative) element to this chart, which has not been mentioned. That is the analogy between temperatures rising and hot air balloons physically rising in the air. If we ignore the precise data points for now, the intuition is that lots of emissions (large balloons) create a strong upward pull on temperature (vertical position of the basket), hence we need lower emissions (smaller balloons) so that the temperature rise is smaller (the basket is not as high up in the air). Further, we can see this dynamic play out across in the four scenarios which communicates the key idea of the chart, i.e. that emissions have to shrink.


Martin: Thanks for the additional comments, especially the paragraph on the visual metaphor. As usual, I prefer to use metaphors sparingly because finding an entirely appropriate one is rare. In this case, it presents an unchallenged view that emissions in those particular four years are entirely responsible for the temperature in some future year. I call this xyopia - a presentation of x associated with y that misleads readers to think that y is only related to x and no other factors. In fact, from a modeling perspective, the metaphor presents a specific graph of relationships which I don't think is right.

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