Who trades with Sweden

It's great that the UN is publishing dataviz but it can do better than this effort:


Certain problems are obvious. The country names turned sideways. The meaningless use of color. The inexplicable sequencing of the country/region.

Some problems are subtler. "Area, nes" - upon research - is a custom term used by UN Trade Statistics, meaning "not elsewhere specified".

The gridlines are debatable. Their function is to help readers figure out the data values if they care. The design omitted the top and bottom gridlines, which makes it hard to judge the values for USA (dark blue), Netherlands (orange), and Germany (gray).

See here, where I added the top gridline.


Now, we can see this value is around 3.6, just over the halfway point between gridlines.


A central feature of trading statistics is "balance". The following chart makes it clear that the positive numbers outweigh the negative numbers in the above chart.


At the time I made the chart, I wasn't sure how to interpret the gap of 1.3%. Looking at the chart again, I think it's saying Sweden has a trade surplus equal to that amount.

Funnel is just for fun

This is part 2 of a review of a recent video released by NASA. Part 1 is here.

The NASA video that starts with the spiral chart showing changes in average global temperature takes a long time (about 1 minute) to run through 14 decades of data, and for those who are patient, the chart then undergoes a dramatic transformation.

With a sleight of hand, the chart went from a set of circles to a funnel. Here is a look:


What happens is the reintroduction of a time dimension. Imagine pushing the center of the spiral down into the screen to create a third dimension.

Our question as always is - what does this chart tell readers?


The chart seems to say that the variability of temperature has increased over time (based on the width of the funnel). The red/blue color says the temperature is getting hotter especially in the last 20-40 years.

When the reader looks beneath the surface, the chart starts to lose sense.

The width of the funnel is really a diameter of the spiral chart in the given year. But, if you recall, the diameter of the spiral (polar) chart isn't the same between any pairs of months.


In the particular rendering of this video, the width of the funnel is the diameter linking the April and October values.

Remember the polar gridlines behind the spiral:


Notice the hole in the middle. This hole has arbitrary diameter. It can be as big or as small as the designer makes it. Thus, the width of the funnel is as big or as small as the designer wants it. But the first thing that caught our attention is the width of the funnel.


The entire section between -1 and + 1 is, in fact, meaningless. In the following chart, I removed the core of the funnel, adding back the -1 degree line. Doing so exposes an incompatibility between the spiral and funnel views. The middle of the polar grid is negative infinity, a black hole.


For a moment, the two sides of the funnel look like they are mirror images. That's not correct, either. Each width of the funnel represents a year, and the extreme values represent April and October values. The line between those two values does not signify anything real.

Let's take a pair of values to see what I mean.


I selected two values for October 2021 and October 1899 such that the first value appears as a line double the length of the second. The underlying values are +0.99C and -0.04C, roughly speaking, +1 and 0, so the first value is definitely not twice the size of the second.

The funnel chart can be interpreted, in an obtuse way, as a pair of dot plots. As shown below, if we take dot plots for Aprils and Octobers of every year, turn the chart around, and then connect the corresponding dots, we arrive at the funnel chart.



This NASA effort illustrates a central problem in visual communications: attention (what Andrew Gelman calls "grabbiness") and information integrity. On the one hand, what's the point of an accurate chart when no one is paying attention? On the other hand, what's the point of a grabby chart when anyone who pays attention gets the wrong information? It's not easy to find that happy medium.

What do I think about spirals?

A twitter user asked how I feel about this latest effort (from NASA) to illustrate global warming. To see the entire video, go to their website.


This video hides the lede so be patient or jump ahead to 0:56 and watch till the end.

Let's first describe what we are seeing.

The dataset consists of monthly average global temperature "anomalies" from 1880 to 2021 - an "anomaly" is the deviation of the average temperature that month from a reference level (seems like this is fixed at the average temperatures by month between 1951 and 1980).

A simple visualization of the dataset is this:


We see a gradual rise in temperature from the 1980s to today. The front half of this curve is harder to interpret. The negative values suggest that the average temperatures prior to 1951 are generally lower than the temperature in the reference period. Other than 1880-1910, temperatures have generally been rising.

Now imagine chopping up the above chart into yearly increments, 12 months per year. Then wrap each year's line into a circle, and place all these lines onto the following polar grid system.


Close but not quite there. The circles in the NASA video look much smoother. Two possibilities here. First is the aspect ratio. Note that the polar grid stretches the time axis to the full circle while the vertical axis is squashed. Not enough to explain the smoothness, as seen below.


The second possibility is additional smoothing between months.


The end result is certainly pretty:



Is it a good piece of scientific communications?

What is the chart saying?

I see red rings on the outside, white rings in the middle, and blue rings near the center. Red presumably means hotter, blue cooler.

The gridlines are painted over. The 0 degree (green) line is printed over again and again.

The biggest red circles are just beyond the 1 degree line with the excess happening in the January-March months. In making that statement, I'm inferring meaning to excess above 1 degree. This inference is purely based on where the 1-degree line is placed.

I also see in the months of December and January, there may have been "cooling", as the blue circles edge toward the -1 degree gridline. Drawing this inference actually refutes my previous claim. I had said that the bulge beyond the +1 degree line is informative because the designer placed the +1 degree line there. If I applied the same logic, then the location of the -1 degree line implies that only values more negative than -1 matter, which excludes the blue bulge!

Now what years are represented by these circles? Test your intuition. Are you tempted to think that the red lines are the most recent years, and the blue lines are the oldest years? If you think so, like I do, then we fall into a trap. We have now imputed two meanings to color -- temperature and recency, when the color coding can only hold one.

The only way to find out for sure is to rewind the tape and watch from the start. The year dimension is pushed to the background in this spiral chart. Instead, the month dimension takes precedence. Recall that at the start, the circles are white. The bluer circles appear in the middle of the date range.

This dimensional flip flop is a key difference between the spiral chart and the line chart (shown again for comparison).


In the line chart, the year dimension is primary while the month dimension is pushed to the background.

Now, we have to decide what the message of the chart should be. For me, the key message is that on a time scale of decades, the world has experienced a significant warming to the tune of about 1.5 degrees Celsius (35 F2.7 F). The warming has been more pronounced in the last 40 years. The warming is observed in all twelve months of the year.

Because the spiral chart hides the year dimension, it does not convey the above messages.

The spiral chart shares the same weakness as the energy demand chart discussed recently (link). Our eyes tend to focus on the outer and inner envelopes of these circles, which by definition are extreme values. Those values do not necessarily represent the bulk of the data. The spiral chart in fact tells us that there is not much to learn from grouping the data by month. 

The appeal of a spiral chart for periodic data is similar to a map for spatial data. I don't recommend using maps unless the spatial dimension is where the signal lies. Similarly, the spiral chart is appropriate if there are important deviations from a seasonal pattern.



Improving simple bar charts

Here's another bar chart I came across recently. The chart - apparently published by Kaggle - appeared to present challenges data scientists face in industry:


This chart is pretty standard, and inoffensive. But we can still make it better.

Version 1


I removed the decimals from the data labels.

Version 2


Since every bar is labelled, is anyone looking at the axis labels?

Version 3


You love axis labels. Then, let's drop the data labels.

Version 4


Ahh, so data scientists struggle with data problems, and people issues. They don't need better tools.

Easy breezy bar charts, perhaps

I came across the following bar chart (link), which presents the results of a survey of CMOs (Chief Marketing Officers) on their attitudes toward data analytics.

Big-Data-and-the-CMO_chart5-Hurdle-800_30Apr2013Responses are tabulated to the question about the most significant hurdle(s) against the increasing use of data and analytics for marketing.

Eleven answers were presented, in addition to the catchall "Other" response. I'm unable to divine the rule used by the designer to sequence the responses.

It's not in order of significance, the most obvious choice. It's not alphabetical, either.


I think this indiscretion is partially redeemed by the use of color shades. The darkest blue shade points our eyes to the most significant hurdle - lack of investment in technology (44% of respondents). The second most significant hurdle is "availability of credible tools for measuring effectiveness" (31%), and that too is in dark blue.

Now what? The third most popular answer has 30% of the respondents, but it's shown by the second palest blue! I then realize the colors don't actually convey any information. Five shades of blue were selected, and they are laid out from top to bottom, from palest to darkest, in a sequential, recursive manner.


This chart is wild. Notice how the heights of the bars are variable. It seems that some bars have been widened to accommodate wrapped lines of text. These small edits introduce visual distortion so that the areas of these bars no longer are proportional to the data.

I like a pair of design decisions. Not showing decimal places and appending the % sign on each bar label is good. They also extend the horizontal axis to 100%. This shows what proportion of the respondents selected any particular answer - we note that a respondent is allowed to select more than one response.

The following is a more standard way of making a bar chart. (The color shading is not necessary.)


This example proves that the V corner of the Trifecta Checkup is still relevant. After one develops a good question, collects useful data and selects a standard chart form, figuring out how to visually display the information is not as easy breezy as one might think.

Best chart I have seen this year

Marvelling at this chart:



The credit ultimately goes to a Reddit user (account deleted). I first saw it in this nice piece of data journalism by my friends at System 2 (link). They linked to Visual Capitalism (link).

There are so many things on this one chart that makes me smile.

The animation. The message of the story is aging population. Average age is moving up. This uptrend is clear from the chart, as the bulge of the population pyramid is migrating up.

The trend happens to be slow, and that gives the movement a mesmerizing, soothing effect.

Other items on the chart are synced to the time evolution. The year label on the top but also the year labels on the right side of the chart, plus the counts of total population at the bottom.

OMG, it even gives me average age, and life expectancy, and how those statistics are moving up as well.

Even better, the designer adds useful context to the data: look at the names of the generations paired with the birth years.

This chart is also an example of dual axes that work. Age, birth year and current year are connected to each other, and given two of the three, the third is fixed. So even though there are two vertical axes, there is only one scale.

The only thing I'm not entirely convinced about is placing the scroll bar on the very top. It's a redundant piece that belongs to a less prominent part of the chart.

Start at zero, or start at wherever

Andrew's post about start-at-zero helps me refine my own thinking on this evergreen topic.

The specific example he gave is this one:


The dataset is a numeric variable (y) with values over time (x). The minimum numeric value is around 3 and the range of values is from around 3 to just above 20. His advice is "If zero is in the neighborhood, invite it in". (Link)

The rule, as usual, sounds simpler than it really is. In the discussion, Andrew highlights several considerations.

Is zero a meaningful reference value? In his example, we assume it is and so we invite zero in. But, as Andrew also says, if zero is meaningless, then recall the invitation. So context must be accounted for.

In Chapter 1 of Numbersense (link), I looked at some SAT score data of applicants to competitive colleges. Is zero a meaningful reference value for SAT scores? Someone might argue yes, since it is the theoretical minimum score that anyone could get from the test. Any statistician will likely say no, since a competitive college will have never seen an applicant submitting a score of zero, or anywhere close to zero. Thus, starting such a chart at zero inserts a lot of whitespace and draws attention to a useless insight - how far above the theoretical worst performer is someone's score.


What about the left panel of Andrew's chart makes us uncomfortable? I ask myself this question. My answer is that the horizontal axis highlights an arbitrary value that distracts from the key patterns of the data.

As shown below, the arbitrary value is ~2.5. This is utterly meaningless.


What if 0 is also a meaningless value for this dataset? I'd recommend "bench the axis". Like this:


An axis is a tool to help readers understand a chart. If it isn't serving a function, an axis doesn't need to be there. When I choose a line chart for time-series data, I'm drawing attention to temporal change in the numeric values, or the range of values. I'm not saying something about the values relative to some reference number.

From this example, we also see that the horizontal axis should not be regarded as a hanger for time labels. Time labels can exist by themselves.



To explain or to eliminate, that is the question

Today, I take a look at another project from Ray Vella's class at NYU.

Rich Get Richer Assigment 2 top

(The above image is a honeypot for "smart" algorithms that don't know how to handle image dimensions which don't fit their shadow "requirement". Human beings should proceed to the full image below.)

As explained in this post, the students visualized data about regional average incomes in a selection of countries. It turns out that remarkable differences persist in regional income disparity between countries, almost all of which are more advanced economies.

Rich Get Richer Assigment 2 Danielle Curran_1

The graphic is by Danielle Curran.

I noticed two smart decisions.

First, she came up with a different main metric for gauging regional disparity, landing on a metric that is simple to grasp.

Based on hints given on the chart, I surmised that Danielle computed the change in per-capita income in the richest and poorest regions separately for each country between 2000 and 2015. These regional income growth values are expressed in currency, not indiced. Then, she computed the ratio of these growth rates, for each country. The end result is a simple metric for each country that describes how fast income has been growing in the richest region relative to the poorest region.

One of the challenges of this dataset is the complex indexing scheme (discussed here). Carlos' solution keeps the indices but uses design to facilitate comparisons. Danielle avoids the indices altogether.

The reader is relieved of the need to make comparisons, and so can focus on differences in magnitude. We see clearly that regional disparity is by far the highest in the U.K.


The second smart decision Danielle made is organizing the countries into clusters. She took advantage of the horizontal axis which does not encode any data. The branching structure places different clusters of countries along the axis, making it simple to navigate. The locations of these clusters are cleverly aligned to the map below.


Danielle's effort is stronger on communications while Carlos' effort provides more information. The key is to understand who your readers are. What proportion of your readers would want to know the values for each country, each region and each year?


A couple of suggestions

a) The reference line should be set at 1, not 0, for a ratio scale. The value of 1 happens when the richest region and the poorest region have identical per-capita incomes.

b) The vertical scale should be fixed.

Displaying convoluted indices

I reviewed another batch of projects from Ray Vella's class at NYU. The following piece by Carlos Lasso made an impression on me. There are no pyrotechnics but he made one decision that added a lot of clarity to the graphic.

The Rich get Richer - Carlos Lasso

The underlying dataset gauges the income disparity of regions within nine countries. The richest and the poorest regions are selected for each country. Two time points are shown. Altogether, there are 9x2x2 = 36 numbers.


Let's take a deeper look at these numbers. Notice they are not in dollars, or any kind of currency, despite being about incomes. The numbers are index values, relative to 100. What does the reference level of 100 represent?

The value of 100 crosses every bar of the chart so that 100 has meaning in each country and each year. In fact, there are 18 definitions of 100 in this chart with 36 numbers, one for each country-year pair. The average national income is set to 100 for each country in each year. This is a highly convoluted indexing strategy.

The following chart is a re-visualization of the bottom part of Carlos' infographic.


I shifted the scale of the horizontal axis. The value of zero does not hold special meaning in Carlos' chart. I subtracted 100 from the relative regional income indices, thus all regions with income above the average have positive values while those below the national average have negative values. (There are other challenges with the ratio scale, which I'll skip over in this post. The minimum value is -100 while the maximum value can be very large.)

The rescaling is not really the point of this post. To see what Carlos did, we have to look at the example shown in class. The graphic which the students were asked to improve has the following structure:


This one-column structure places four bars beside each country, grouped by year. Carlos pulled the year dimension out, and showed the same dataset in two columns.

This small change makes a great difference in ease of comprehension. Carlos' version unpacks the two key types of comparisons one might want to make: trend within a given country (horizontal comparison) and contrast between countries in a given year (vertical comparison).


I always try to avoid convoluted indexing. The cost of using such indices is the big how-to-read-this box.

Asymmetry and orientation

An author in Significance claims that a single season of Premier League football without live spectators is enough to prove that the so-called home field advantage is really a live-spectator advantage.

The following chart depicts the data going back many seasons:


I find this bar chart challenging.

It plots the ratio of home wins to away wins using an odds scale, which is not intuitive. The odds scale (probability of success divided by probability of failure) runs from 0 to positive infinity, with 1 being a special value indicating equal odds. But all the values for which away wins exceed home wins are squeezed into the interval between 0 and 1 while the values for which home wins exceed away wins are laid out between 1 and infinity. So it's an inherently asymmetric graphic for a symmetric formula.

The section labeled "more away wins than home wins" are filled with red bars for all those seasons with positive home field advantage while the most recent season, the outlier, has a shorter bar in that section than the rest.

Here's an alternative view:


I have incorporated dual axes here - but both axes are different only by scaling. There are 380 games in a Premier League season so the percentage scale is just a re-expression of the counts.