## The radial is still broken

##### Jun 21, 2024

It's puzzling to me why people like radial charts. Here is a recent set of radial charts that appear in an article in Significance magazine (link to paywall, currently), analyzing NBA basketball data.

This example is not as bad as usual (the color scheme notwithstanding) because the story is quite simple.

The analysts divided the data into three time periods: 1980-94, 1995-15, 2016-23. The NBA seasons were summarized using a battery of 15 metrics arranged in a circle. In the first period, all but 3 of the metrics sat much above the average level (indicated by the inner circle). In the second period, all 15 metrics reduced below the average, and the third period is somewhat of a mirror image of the first, which is the main message.

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The puzzle: why prefer this circular arrangement to a rectangular arrangement?

Here is what the same graph looks like in a rectangular arrangement:

One plausible justification for the circular arrangement is if the metrics can be clustered so that nearby metrics are semantically related.

Nevertheless, the same semantics appear in a rectangular arrangement. For example, P3-P3A are three point scores and attempts while P2-P2A are two-pointers. That is a key trend. They are neighborhoods in this arrangement just as they are in the circular arrangement.

So the real advantage is when the metrics have some kind of periodicity, and the wraparound point matters. Or, that the data are indexed to directions so north, east, south, west are meaningful concepts.

If you've found other use cases, feel free to comment below.

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I can't end this post without returning to the colors. If one can take a negative image of the original chart, one should. Notice that the colors that dominate our attention - the yellow background, and the black lines - have no data in them: yellow being the canvass, and black being the gridlines. The data are found in the white polygons.

The other informative element, as one learns from the caption, is the "blue dashed line" that represents the value zero (i.e. average) in the standardized scale. Because the size of the image was small in the print magazine that I was reading, and they selected a dark blue encroaching on black, I had to squint hard to find the blue line.

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I see these abused often, but they have their charms. If all of the variables are semantically related and the magnitudes are similar or normalized, then the area inscribed by the closed figure conveys some meaning that can be compared to other items.

I have reason to compare mutual funds across an array of CAPM statistics. My "Radar" plots say "If the enclosed area of Fund A is bigger than Fund B, Fund A is (or was) better.

AS: Are you not bothered by the fact that the shape of the enclosed area is a function of the order in which you place the metrics around the perimeter (regardless of the data)? That's why I never pay attention to areas or shapes in a radar plot.

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