More on equal-area histograms
Why some dataviz fail

Flowing to nowhere

Nyt_colorado_riverThe New York Times printed the following flow chart about water usage of the Colorado River (link).

The Colorado River provides water to more than 10% of the U.S. population. About half is used to feed livestock, another quarter for agriculture, which leaves a quarter to residential and other uses.


This type of flow chart in which the widths of the flows encode relative flow volumes is sometimes called a "sankey diagram." 

The most famous sankey diagram of all time may be Minard's depiction of Napoleon's campaign in Russia.


In Minard's map, the flows represent movement of troops. The brown color shows advance and the black color shows retreat. The power of this graphic is found how it depicts the attrition of troops over the course of the campaign - on both spatial and temporal dimensions.

Of interest is the choice to disappear these outflows. For most flows, the ending width is smaller than the starting width, the difference being the attrition. On many flow charts, the design imposes a principle of conservation - total outflows equal total inflows, but not here.


For me, the canonical flow chart describes the physical structure of rivers.


Flow is conserved here (well, if we ignore evaporation, and absorption into ground water).

Most flow charts we see these days are not faithful to reality - they present abstract concepts.


The Colorado River flow chart is an example of an abstract flow chart.

What's depicted cannot be reality. All the water from the Colorado River do not tumble out of a single huge reservoir, there isn't some gigantic pipeline that takes out half of the water and sends them to agricultural users, etc. All the flows on the chart are abstract, not physical in nature.

A conservation principle is enforced at all junctions, so that the sum of the inflows is always the sum of the outflows. In this sense, the chart visually depicts composition (and decomposition). The NYT flow chart shows two ways to decompose water usage at the Colorado River. One decomposition breaks usage down into agriculture, residential, commercial, and power generation. That's an 80/20 split. A second decomposition breaks agriculture into two parts (livestock and crops) while it aggregates the smaller categories into a single "other".


The Colorado River flow chart can be produced without knowing a single physical flow from the river basin to an end-user. The designer only requires total water usage, and water usage by subgroup of users.

For most readers, this may seem like a piece of trivia - for data analysts, it's really important to know whether these "flows" are measured data, or implied data.




Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The comments to this entry are closed.