« November 2022 | Main | January 2023 »

Achieving symmetry and obscurity

The following diagram found in an article on a logistics problem absorbed me for the larger part of an hour:


I haven't seen this chart form before, and it looks cute.

Quickly, I realize this to be one of those charts that require a big box "How to read me". The only hint comes in the chart title: the chart concerns combinations of planning problems. The planning problems are listed on the left. If you want to give it a go, try now before continuing with this blog post. 


It took me and a coworker together to unpack this chart. Here's one way to read it:


Assume I want to know what other problems the problem of "workforce allocation" is associated with. I'd go to the workforce allocation row, then scan both up and down the diagonals. Going up, I see that the authors found one (1) paper that discusses workforce allocation together with workforce level, two (2) papers that feature workforce allocation together with storage location assignment, etc. while going down, I see that workforce allocation is paired with batching in two papers and with order consolidation & sorting in one paper.

You may recognize the underlying data as a type of correlation matrix, which is commonly shown as an upper or lower triangular matrix. Indeed, the same data can be found in a different presentation in the same paper:


All the numbers are the same. What happened was the designer transformed the upper triangular matrix into an inverted (isoceles) triangle, then turned it aside. The row labels are preserved, while the column labels are dropped. Then, the row labels are snapped to cover the space which was formerly the empty lower triangular matrix.


A gain in symmetry, a loss in clarity.


Why is this cute, symmetric arrangement so much harder to read? It's out of step with the reader's cognitive path. The reader first picks a planning problem, then scans up and down looking for the correct pair.


Compare this to the matrix view: the reader picks a pair of problems, then finds the single cell that gives the number of articles.


One could borrow the reading strategy from the matrix, and proceed like this:


The reason why this cognition path doesn't come naturally is that there is only one set of labels on this triangular chart, compared to two sets in the common matrix format. It's unusual to have to pick out two items simultaneously from a single axis.


In the end, even though I like the idea of inducing symmetry, I am not convinced by the result.


The color scheme for the cells is also baffling. According to the legend, the dark color indicates research that solves a pair of problems in an integrated way while the light color is used when the researchers only analyze the interactions between the two problems.

What's odd is that each cell (pair of problems) is designated a single color. Since we expect researchers to take the different approaches to solving a given pair of problems, we deduce that the designated color represents the most frequent approach. What then does the number inside each cell represent? It can be the number of papers applying the color-coded solution approach, or it can be the total number of papers regardless of the solution approach.


P.S. [12-18-2022] See comments below for other examples of the triangular chart.



The blue mist

The New York Times printed several charts about Twitter "blue checks," and they aren't one of their best efforts (link).

Blue checks used to be credentials given to legitimate accounts, typically associated with media outlets, celebrities, brands, professors, etc. They are free but must be approved by Twitter. Since Elon Musk acquired Twitter, he turned blue checks into a revenue generator. Yet another subscription service (but you're buying "freedom"!). Anyone can get a blue check for US$8 per month.

[The charts shown here are scanned from the printed edition.]


The first chart is a scatter plot showing the day of joining Twitter and the total number of followers the account has as of early November, 2022. Those are very strange things to pair up on a scatter plot but I get it: the designer could only work with the data that can be pulled down from Twitter's API.

What's wrong with the data? It would seem the interesting question is whether blue checks are associated with number of followers. The chart shows only Twitter Blue users so there is nothing to compare to. The day of joining Twitter is not the day of becoming "Twitter Blue", almost surely not for any user (Nevetheless, the former is not a standard data element released by Twitter). The chart has a built-in time bias since the longer an account exists, one would assume the higher the number of followers (assuming all else equal). Some kind of follower rate (e.g. number of followers per year of existence) might be more informative.

Still, it's hard to know what the chart is saying. That most Blue accounts have fewer than 5,000 followers? I also suspect that they chopped off the top of the chart (outliers) and forgot to mention it. Surely, some of the celebrity accounts have way over 150,000 followers. Another sign that the top of the chart was removed is that an expected funnel effect is not seen. Given the follower count is cumulative from the day of registration, we'd expect the accounts that started in the last few months should have markedly lower counts than those created years ago. (This is even more true if there is a survivorship bias - less successful accounts are more likely to be deleted over time.)

The designer arbitrarily labelled six specific accounts ("Crypto influencer", "HBO fan", etc.) but this feature risks sending readers the wrong message. There might be one HBO fan account that quickly grew to 150,000 followers in just a few months but does the data label suggest to readers that HBO fan accounts as a group tend to quickly attain high number of followers?


The second chart, which is an inset of the first, attempts to quantify the effect of the Musk acquisition on the number of "registrations and subscriptions". In the first chart, the story was described as "Elon Musk buys Twitter sparking waves of new users who later sign up for Twitter Blue".


The second chart confuses me. I was trying to figure out what is counted in the vertical axis. This was before I noticed the inset in the first chart, easy to miss as it is tucked into the lower right corner. I had presumed that the axis would be the same as in the first chart since there weren't any specific labels. In that case, I am looking at accounts with 0 to 500 followers, pretty inconsequential accounts. Then, the chart title uses the words "registrations and subscriptions." If the blue dots on this chart also refer to blue-check accounts as in the first chart, then I fail to see how this chart conveys any information about registrations (wbich presumably would include free accounts). As before, new accounts that aren't blue checks won't appear.

Further, to the extent that this chart shows a surge in subscriptions, we are restricted to accounts with fewer than 500 followers, and it's really unclear what proportion of total subscribers is depicted. Nor is it possible to estimate the magnitude of this surge.

Besides, I'm seeing similar densities of the dots across the entire time window between October 2021 and 2022. Perhaps the entire surge is hidden behind the black lines indicating the specific days when Musk announced and completed the acquisition, respectively. If the surge is hiding behind the black vertical lines, then this design manages to block the precise spots readers are supposed to notice.

Here is where we can use the self-sufficiency test. Imagine the same chart without the text. What story would you have learned from the graphical elements themselves? Not much, in my view.


The third chart isn't more insightful. This chart purportedly shows suspended accounts, only among blue-check accounts.


From what I could gather (and what I know about Twitter's API), the chart shows any Twitter Blue account that got suspended at any time. For example, all the black open circles occurring prior to October 27, 2022 represent suspensions by the previous management, and presumably have nothing to do with Elon Musk, or his decision to turn blue checks into a subscription product.

There appears to be a cluster of suspensions since Musk took over. I am not sure what that means. Certainly, it says he's not about "total freedom". Most of these suspended accounts have fewer than 50 followers, and only been around for a few weeks. And as before, I'm not sure why the analyst decided to focus on accounts with fewer than 500 followers.

What could have been? Given the number of suspended accounts are relatively small, an interesting analysis would be to form clusters of suspended accounts, and report on the change in what types of accounts got suspended before and after the change of management.


The online article (link) is longer, filling in some details missing from the printed edition.

There is one view that shows the larger accounts:


While more complete, this view isn't very helpful as the biggest accounts are located in the sparsest area of the chart. The data labels again pick out strange accounts like those of adult film stars and an Arabic news site. It's not clear if the designer is trying to tell us that most of Twitter Blue accounts belong to those categories.

See here for commentary on other New York Times graphics.





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