## Several tips for visualizing matrices

##### Nov 07, 2023

Continuing my review of charts that were spammed to my inbox, today I look at the following visualization of a matrix of numbers:

The matrix shows pairwise correlations between the returns of 16 investment asset classes. Correlation is a number between -1 and 1. It is a symmetric scale around 0. It embeds two dimensions: the magnitude of the correlation, and its direction (positive or negative).

The correlation matrix is a special type of matrix: a bit easier to deal with as the data already come “standardized”. As with the other charts in this series, there is a good number of errors in the chart's execution.

I’ll leave the details maybe for a future post. Just check two key properties of a correlation matrix: the diagonal consisting of self-correlations should contain all 1s; and the matrix should be symmetric across that diagonal.

***

For this post, I want to cover nuances of visualizing matrices. The chart designer knows exactly what the message of the chart is - that the asset class called "art" is attractive because it has little correlation with other popular asset classes. Regardless of the chart's errors, it’s hard for the reader to find the message in the matrix shown above.

That's because the specific data carrying the message sit in the bottom row (and the rightmost column). The cells in this row (and column) has a light purple color, which has been co-opted by the even lighter gray color used for the diagonal cells. These diagonal cells pop out of the chart despite being the least informative (they have the same values for all correlation matrices!)

***

Several tactics can be deployed to push the message to the fore.

First, let's bring the key data to the prime location on the chart - this is the top row and left column (for cultures which read top to bottom, left to right).

For all the drafts in this post, I have dropped the text descriptions of the asset classes, and replaced them with numbers so that it's easier to follow the changes. (For those who're paying attention, I also edited the data to make the matrix symmetric.)

Second, let's look at the color choice. Here, the designer made a wise choice of restricting the number of color levels to three (dark, medium and light). I retained that decision in the above revision - actually, I used four colors but there are no values in one of the four sections, therefore, effectively, only three colors appear. But let's look at what happens when the number of color levels is increased.

The more levels of color, the more strain it puts on our processing... with little reward.

Third, and most importantly, the order of the categories affects perception majorly. I have no idea what the designer used as the sorting criterion. In step one of the fix, I moved the art category to the front but left all the other categories in the original order.

The next chart has the asset classes organized from lowest to highest average correlation. Conveniently, using this sorting metric leaves the art category in its prime spot.

Notice that the appearance has completely changed. The new version brings out clusters in the data much more effectively. Most of the assets in the bottom of the chart have high correlation with each other.

Finally, because the correlation matrix is symmetric across the diagonal of self-correlations, the two halves are mirror images and thus redundant. The following removes one of the mirrored halves, and also removes the diagonal, leading to a much cleaner look.

Next time you visualize a matrix, think about how you sort the rows/columns, how you choose the color scale, and whether to plot the mirrored image and the diagonal.

## Elevator shoes for column charts

##### Oct 25, 2023

Continuing my review of some charts spammed to me, I wasn’t expecting to find any interest in the following:

It’s a column chart showing the number of years of data available for different asset classes. The color has little value other than to subtly draw the reader’s attention to the bar called “Art,” which is the focus of the marketing copy.

Do the column heights encode the data?

***

Let’s take a little journey. First I notice there is a grid behind the column chart, hanging above the baseline.

I marked out two columns with values 50 and 25, so the second column should be exactly half the height of the first. Each column consists of two parts, the first overlapping the grid while the second connecting the bottom of the grid to the baseline. The second part is a constant for every column; I label this distance Y.

Against the grid, the column “50” spans 9 cells while the column “25” spans 4 cells. I label the grid height X. Now, if the first column is twice the height of the second, the equation: 9X + Y = 2*(4X+Y) should hold.

The only solution to this equation is X = Y. In other words, the distance between the bottom of the grid to the baseline must be exactly the height of one grid cell if the column heights were to faithfully represent the data. Well – it’s obvious that the former is larger than the latter.

In the revision, I have chopped off the excess height by moving the baseline upwards.

That’s the mechanics. Now, figuring out the motivation is another matter.

## Parsons Student Projects

##### May 19, 2023

I had the pleasure of attending the final presentations of this year's graduates from Parsons's MS in Data Visualization program. You can see the projects here.

***

A few of the projects caught my eye.

A project called "Authentic Food in NYC" explores where to find "authentic" cuisine in New York restaurants. The project is notable for plowing through millions of Yelp reviews, and organizing the information within. Reviews mentioning "authentic" or "original" were extracted.

During the live presentation, the student clicked on Authentic Chinese, and the name that popped up was Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which serves dim sum in Chinatown that often has lines out the door.

Curiously, the ranking is created from raw counts of authentic reviews, which favors restaurants with more reviews, such as restaurants that have been operating for a longer time. It's unclear what rule is used to transfer authenticity from reviews to restaurants: does a single review mentioning "authentic" qualify a restaurant as "authentic", or some proportion of reviews?

Later, we see a visualization of the key words found inside "authentic" reviews for each cuisine. Below are words for Chinese and Italian cuisines:

These are word clouds with a twist. Instead of encoding the word counts in the font sizes, she places each word inside a bubble, and uses bubble sizes to indicate relative frequency.

Curiously, almost all the words displayed come from menu items. There isn't any subjective words to be found. Algorithms that extract keywords frequently fail in the sense that they surface the most obvious, uninteresting facts. Take the word cloud for Taiwanese restaurants as an example:

The overwhelming keyword found among reviews of Taiwanese restaurants is... "taiwanese". The next most important word is "taiwan". Among the remaining words, "886" is the name of a specific restaurant, "bento" is usually associated with Japanese cuisine, and everything else is a menu item.

Getting this right is time-consuming, and understandably not a requirement for a typical data visualization course.

The most interesting insight is found in this data table.

It appears that few reviewers care about authenticity when they go to French, Italian, and Japanese restaurants but the people who dine at various Asian restaurants, German restaurants, and Eastern European restaurants want "authentic" food. The student concludes: "since most Yelp reviewers are Americans, their pursuit of authenticity creates its own trap: Food authenticity becomes an americanized view of what non-American food is."

This hits home hard because I know what authentic dim sum is, and Nom Wah Tea Parlor it ain't. Let me check out what Yelpers are saying about Nom Wah:

1. Everything was so authentic and delicious - and cheap!!!
2. Your best bet is to go around the corner and find something more authentic.
3. Their dumplings are amazing everything is very authentic and tasty!
4. The food was delicious and so authentic, and the staff were helpful and efficient.
5. Overall, this place has good authentic dim sum but it could be better.
6. Not an authentic experience at all.
7. this dim sum establishment is totally authentic
8. The onions, bean sprouts and scallion did taste very authentic and appreciated that.
9. I would skip this and try another spot less hyped and more authentic.
10. I would have to take my parents here the next time I visit NYC because this is authentic dim sum.

These are the most recent ten reviews containing the word "authentic". Seven out of ten really do mean authentic, the other three are false friends. Text mining is tough business! The student removed "not authentic" which helps. As seen from above, "more authentic" may be negative, and there may be words between "not" and "authentic". Also, think "not inauthentic", "people say it's authentic, and it's not", etc.

One thing I learned from this project is that "authentic" may be a synonym for "I like it" when these diners enjoy the food at an ethnic restaurant. I'm most curious about what inauthentic onions, bean sprouts and scallion taste like.

I love the concept and execution of this project. Nice job!

***

Another project I like is about tourism in Venezuela. The back story is significant. Since a dictatorship took over the country, the government stopped reporting tourism statistics. It's known that tourism collapsed, and that it may be gradually coming back in recent years.

This student does not have access to ready-made datasets. But she imaginatively found data to pursue this story. Specifically, she mentioned grabbing flight schedules into the country from the outside.

The flow chart is a great way to explore this data:

A map gives a different perspective:

I'm glad to hear the student recite some of the limitations of the data. It's easy to look at these visuals and assume that the data are entirely reliable. They aren't. We don't know that what proportion of the people traveling on those flights are tourists, how full those planes are, or the nationalities of those on board. The fact that a flight originated from Panama does not mean that everyone on board is Panamanian.

***

The third project is interesting in its uniqueness. This student wants to highlight the effect of lead in paint on children's health. She used the weight of lead marbles to symbolize the impact of lead paint. She made a dress with two big pockets to hold these marbles.

It's not your standard visualization. One can quibble that dividing the marbles into two pockets doesn't serve a visualziation purpose, and so on. But at the end, it's a memorable performance.

## Following this pretty flow chart

##### Nov 14, 2022

Bloomberg did a very nice feature on how drought has been causing havoc with river transportation of grains and other commodities in the U.S., which included several well-executed graphics.

I'm particularly attracted to this flow chart/sankey diagram that shows the flows of grains from various U.S. ports to foreign countries.

It looks really great.

Here are some things one can learn from this chart:

• The Mississippi River (blue flow) is by far the most important conduit of American grain exports
• China is by far the largest importer of American grains
• Mexico is the second largest importer of American grains, and it has a special relationship with the "interior" ports (yellow). Notice how the Interior almost exclusively sends grains to Mexico
• Similarly, the Puget Sound almost exclusively trades with China

The above list is impressive for one chart.

***

Some key questions are not as easy to see from this layout:

• What proportion of the total exports does the Mississippi River account for? (Turns out to be almost exactly half.)
• What proportion of the total exports go to China? (About 40%. This question is even harder than the previous one because of all the unlabeled values for the smaller countries.)
• What is the relative importance of different ports to Japan/Philippines/Indonesia/etc.? (Notice how the green lines merge from the other side of the country names.)
• What is the relative importance of any of the countries listed, outside the top 5 or so?
• What is the ranking of importance of export nations to each port? For Mississippi River, it appears that the countries may have been drawn from least important (up top) to most important (down below). That is not the case for the other ports... otherwise the threads would tie up into knots.

***

Some of the features that make the chart look pretty are not data-driven.

See this artificial "hole" in the brown branch.

In this part of the flow, there are two tiny outflows to Myanmar and Yemen, so most of the goods that got diverted to the right side ended up merging back to the main branch. However, the creation of this hole allows a layering effect which enhances the visual cleanliness.

Next, pay attention to the yellow sub-branches:

At the scale used by the designer, all of the countries shown essentially import about the same amount from the Interior (yellow). Notice the special treatment of Singapore and Phillippines. Instead of each having a yellow sub-branch coming off the "main" flow, these two countries share the sub-branch, which later splits.

## Unlocking the secrets of a marvellous data visualization

##### Sep 01, 2020

The graphics team in my hometown paper SCMP has developed a formidable reputation in data visualization, and I lapped every drop of goodness on this beautiful graphic showing how the coronavirus spread around Hong Kong (in the first wave in April). Marcelo uploaded an image of the printed version to his Twitter. This graphic occupied the entire back page of that day's paper.

An online version of the chart is found here.

The data graphic is a masterclass in organizing data. While it looks complicated, I had no problem unpacking the different layers.

Cases were divided into imported cases (people returning to Hong Kong) and local cases. A small number of cases are considered in-betweens.

The two major classes then occupy one half page each. I first looked at the top half, where my attention is drawn to the thickest flows. The majority of imported cases arrived from the U.K., and most of those were returning students. The U.S. is the next largest source of imported cases. The flows are carefully ordered by continent, with the Americas on the left, followed by Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

Where there are interesting back stories, the flow blossoms into a flower. An annotation explains the cluster of cases. Each anther represents a case. Eight people caught the virus while touring Bolivia together.

One reads the local cases in the same way. Instead of flowers, think of roots. The biggest cluster by far was a band that played at clubs in three different parts of the city, infecting a total of 72 people.

Everything is understood immediately, without a need to read text or refer to legends. The visual elements carry that kind of power.

***

This data graphic presents a perfect amalgam of art and science. For a flow chart, the data are encoded in the relative thickness of the lines. This leaves two unused dimensions of these lines: the curvature and lengths. The order of the countries and regions take up the horizontal axis, but the vertical axis is free. Unshackled from the data, the designer introduced curves into the lines, varied their lengths, and dispersed their endings around the white space in an artistic manner.

The flowers/roots present another opportunity for creativity. The only data constraint is the number of cases in a cluster. The positions of the dots, and the shape of the lines leading to the dots are part of the playground.

What's more, the data visualization is a powerful reminder of the benefits of testing and contact tracing. The band cluster led to the closure of bars, which helped slow the spread of the coronavirus.

## Powerful photos visualizing housing conditions in Hong Kong

##### Jul 29, 2019

I was going to react to Alberto's post about the New York Times's article about economic inequality in Hong Kong, which is proposed as one origin to explain the current protest movement. I agree that the best graphic in this set is the "photoviz" showing the "coffins" or "cages" that many residents live in, because of the population density.

Then I searched the archives, and found this old post from 2015 which is the perfect response to it. What's even better, that post was also inspired by Alberto.

The older post featured a wonderful campaign by human rights organization Society for Community Organization that uses photoviz to draw attention to the problem of housing conditions in Hong Kong. They organized a photography exhibit on this theme in 2014. They then updated the exhibit in 2016.

Here is one of the iconic photos by Benny Lam:

I found more coverage of Benny's work here. There is also a book that we can flip on Vimeo.

In 2017, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) published drone footage showing the outside view of the apartment buildings.

***

What's missing is the visual comparison to the luxury condos where the top 1 percent live. For these, one can  visit the real estate sites, such as Sotheby's. Here is their "12 luxury homes for sales" page.

Another comparison: a 1000 sq feet apartment that sits between those extremes. The photo by John Butlin comes from SCMP's Post Magazine's feature on the apartment:

***

Also check out my review of Alberto's fantastic, recent book, How Charts Lie.

## Measles babies

##### May 22, 2019

Mona Chalabi has made this remarkable graphic to illustrate the effect of the anti-vaccine movement on measles cases in the U.S.: (link)

As a form of agitprop, the graphic seizes upon the fear engendered by the defacing red rash of the disease. And it's very effective in articulating its social message.

***

I wasn't able to find the data except for a specific year or two. So, this post is more inspired by the graphic than a direct response to it.

I think the left-side legend should say "1 case of measles in someone who was not vaccinated" (as opposed to 1 case of measles in aggregate).

The chart encodes the data in the density of the red dots. What does the density of the red dots signify? There are two possibilities: case counts or case rates.

2013 is a year in which I could find data. In 2013, the U.S. saw 187 cases of measles, only 4 of them in someone who was vaccinated. In other words, there are 49 times as many measles cases among the unvaccinated as the vaccinated.

But note that about 90 percent of the population (using 13-17 year olds as a proxy) are vaccinated. The chance of getting measles in the unvaccinated is 0.8 per million, compared to 0.002 per million in the vaccinated - 422 times higher.

The following chart shows the relative appearance of the dot densities. The bottom row which compares the relative chance of getting measles is the more appropriate metric, and it looks much worse.

***

Mona's instagram has many other provocative graphics.

## Pretty circular things

##### Feb 28, 2019

National Geographic features this graphic illustrating migration into the U.S. from the 1850s to the present.

What to Like

It's definitely eye-catching, and some readers will be enticed to spend time figuring out how to read this chart.

The inset reveals that the chart is made up of little colored strips that mix together. This produces a pleasing effect of gradual color gradation.

The white rings that separate decades are crucial. Without those rings, the chart becomes one long run-on sentence.

Once the reader invests time in learning how to read the chart, the reader will grasp the big picture. One learns, for example, that migrants from the most recent decades have come primarily from Latin America (orange) or Asia (pink). Migrants from Europe (green) and Canada (blue) came in waves but have been muted in the last few decades.

What's baffling

Initially, the chart is disorienting. It's not obvious whether the compass directions mean anything. We can immediately understand that the further out we go, the larger numbers of migrants. But what about which direction?

The key appears in the legend - which should be moved from bottom right to top left as it's so important. Apparently, continent/country of origin is coded in the directions.

This region-to-color coding seems to be rough-edged by design. The color mixing discussed above provides a nice artistic effect. Here, the reader finds out that mixing is primarily between two neighboring colors, thus two regions placed side by side on the chart. Thus, because Europe (green) and Asia (pink) are on opposite sides of the rings, those two colors do not mix.

Another notable feature of the chart is the lack of any data other than the decade labels. We won't learn how many migrants arrived in any decade, or the extent of migration as it impacts population size.

A couple of other comments on the circular design.

The circles expand in size for sure as time moves from inside out. Thus, this design only works well for "monotonic" data, that is to say, migration always increases as time passes.

The appearance of the chart is only mildly affected by the underlying data. Swapping the regions of origin changes the appearance of this design drastically.

## The art of contaminating data

##### Jun 05, 2017

This is one of those innocent-looking charts that could have been a poster child for artistic embellishment. The straightforward time-series chart is deemed too boring. The designer shows admirable constraint in inserting “information-free” content, such as the dense gridlines (graph paper) and the 3D effect (ticker).

Seem harmless but not really.

Here I turn off the color.

After the 3D effect is applied, the reader no longer knows whether to look at the top or bottom edge of the ticker.

This view makes this point even clearer.

The art contaminates the data.

## Light entertainment: Making art by making data

##### Feb 23, 2017

Chris P. sent in this link to a Wired feature on "infographics."

The first entry is by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec.

These are fun images and I enjoy looking at it as hand-drawn art. But it's a stretch to call them "data visualization," "data," or "data analysis," which are all tags used by the Wired editing staff.

(PS. Wired chose a particular example of their work. There are many examples of Lupi's work that strike a balance between handicraft and data communications.)