When words speak louder than pictures
Graphics that stretch stomachs and make merry

One bubble is a tragedy, and a bag of bubbles is...

From Kathleen Tyson's twitter account, I came across a graphic showing the destinations of Ukraine's grain exports since 2022 under the auspices of a UN deal. This graphic, made by AFP, uses one of the chart forms that baffle me - the bag of bubbles.


The first trouble with a bag of bubbles is the single bubble. The human brain is just not fit for comparing bubble sizes. The self-sufficiency test is my favorite device for demonstrating this weakness. The following is the European section of the above chart, with the data labels removed.


How much bigger is Spain than the Netherlands? What's the difference between Italy and the Netherlands? The answers don't come easily to mind. (The Netherlands is about 40% the size of Spain, and Italy is about 20% larger than the Netherlands.)

While comparing relative circular areas is a struggle, figuring out the relative ranks is not. Sure, it gets tougher with small differences (Germany vs S. Korea, Belgium vs Portugal) but saying those pairs are tied isn't a tragedy.


Another issue with bubble charts is how difficult it is to assess absolute values. A circle on its own has no reference point. The designer needs to add data labels or a legend. Adding data labels is an act of giving up. The data labels become the primary instrument for communicating the data, not the visual construct. Adding one data label is not enough, as the following shows:


Being told that Spain's value is 4.1 does little to help estimate the values for the non-labelled bubbles.

The chart does come with the following legend:


For this legend to work, the sample bubble sizes should span the range of the data. Notice that it's difficult to extrapolate from the size of the 1-million-ton bubble to 2-million, 4-million, etc. The analogy is a column chart in which the vertical axis does not extend through the full range of the dataset.

The designer totally gets this. The chart therefore contains both selected data labels and the partial legend. Every bubble larger than 1 million tons has an explicit data label. That's one solution for the above problem.

Nevertheless, why not use another chart form that avoids these problems altogether?


In Tyson's tweet, she showed another chart that pretty much contains the same information, this one from TASS.


This chart uses the flow diagram concept - in an abstract way, as I explained in previous post.

This chart form imposes structure on the data. The relative ranks of the countries within each region are listed from top to bottom. The relative amounts of grains are shown in black columns (and also in the thickness of the flows).

The aggregate value of movements within each region is called out in that middle section. It is impossible to learn this from the bag of bubbles version.

The designer did print the entire dataset onto this chart (except for the smallest countries grouped together as "other"). This decision takes away from the power of the underlying flow chart. Instead of thinking about the proportional representation of each country within its respective region, or the distribution of grains among regions, our eyes hone in on the data labels.

This brings me back to the principle of self-sufficiency: if we expect readers to consume the data labels - which comprise the entire dataset, why not just print a data table? If we decide to visualize, make the visual elements count!


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Ha! Love the title of your post! I like the "bag of bubbles" casting. That's great, it implies the low utility of this chart type. Also like your comment about not filling the chart with data values. That's whole point of the chart! But it's funny tho bcz ppl frequently label column charts with data values for each column, but usually don't label scatter plots - unless there is only a few points, in which case it's easy to read from the axes! :) Cheers, m

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