The hidden bad assumption behind most dual-axis time-series charts

[Note: As of Monday afternoon, Typepad is having problems rendering images. Please try again later if the charts are not loading properly.]

DC sent me the following chart over Twitter. It supposedly showcases one sector that has bucked the economic collapse, and has conversely been boosted by the stay-at-home orders around the world.

Covid19-pornhubtraffic


At first glance, I was drawn to the yellow line and the axis title on the right side. I understood the line to depict the growth rate in traffic "vs a normal day". The trend is clear as day. Since March 10 or so, the website has become more popular by the week.

For a moment, I thought the thin black line was a trendline that fits the rather ragged traffic growth data. But looking at the last few data points, I was afraid it was a glove that didn't fit. That's when I realized this is a dual-axis chart. The black line shows the worldwide total Covid-19 cases, with the axis shown on the left side.

As with any dual-axis charts, you can modify the relationship between the two scales to paint a different picture.

This next chart says that the site traffic growth lagged Covid-19 growth until around March 14.

Junkcharts_ph_dualaxis1

This one gives an ambiguous picture. One can't really say there is a strong correlation between the two time series.

Junkcharts_ph_dualaxis2

***

Now, let's look at the chart from the DATA corner of the Trifecta Checkup (link). The analyst selected definitions that are as far apart as possible. So this chart gives a good case study of the intricacy of data definitions.

First, notice the smoothness of the line of Covid-19 cases. This data series is naturally "smoothed" because it is an aggregate of country-level counts, which themselves are aggregates of regional counts.

By contrast, the line of traffic growth rates has not been smoothed. That's why we see sharp ups and downs. This series should be smoothed as well.

Junkcharts_ph_smoothedtrafficgrowth

The seven-day moving average line indicates a steady growth in traffic. The day-to-day fluctuations represent noise that distracts us from seeing the trendline.

Second, the Covid-19 series is a cumulative count, which means it's constantly heading upward over time (on rare days, it may go flat but never decrease). The traffic series represents change, is not cumulative, and so it can go up or down over time. To bring the data closer together, the Covid-19 series can be converted into new cases so they are change values.

Junkcharts_ph_smoothedcovidnewcases

Third, the traffic series are growth rates as percentages while the Covid-19 series are counts. It is possible to turn Covid-19 counts into growth rates as well. Like this:

Junkcharts_ph_smoothedcovidcasegrowth

By standardizing the units of measurement, both time series can be plotted on the same axis. Here is the new plot:

Redo_junkcharts_ph_trafficgrowthcasegrowth

Third, the two growth rates have different reference levels. The Covid-19 growth rate I computed is day-on-day growth. This is appropriate since we don't presume there is a seasonal effect - something like new cases on Mondays are typically larger than new cases on Tuesday doesn't seem plausible.

Thanks to this helpful explainer (link), I learned what the data analyst meant by a "normal day". The growth rate of traffic is not day-on-day change. It is the change in traffic relative to the average traffic in the last four weeks on the same day of week. If it's a Monday, the change in traffic is relative to the average traffic of the last four Mondays.

This type of seasonal adjustment is used if there is a strong day-of-week effect. For example, if the website reliably gets higher traffic during weekends than weekdays, then the Saturday traffic may always exceed the Friday traffic; instead of comparing Saturday to the day before, we index Saturday to the previous Saturday, Friday to the previous Friday, and then compare those two values.

***

Let's consider the last chart above, the one where I got rid of the dual axes.

A major problem with trying to establish correlation of two time series is time lag. Most charts like this makes a critical and unspoken assumption - that the effect of X on Y is immediate. This chart assumes that the higher the number Covid-19 cases, the more people stays home that day, the more people swarms the site that day. Said that way, you might see it's ridiculous.

What is true of any correlations in the wild - there is always some amount of time lag. It usually is hard to know how much lag.

***

Finally, the chart omitted a huge factor driving the growth in traffic. At various times dependent on the country, the website rolled out a free premium service offer. This is the primary reason for the spike around mid March. How much of the traffic growth is due to the popular marketing campaign, and how much is due to stay-at-home orders - that's the real question.


An exposed seam in the crystal ball of coronavirus recovery

One of the questions being asked by the business community is when the economy will recover and how. The Conference Board has offered their outlook in this new article. (This link takes you to the collection of Covid-19 related graphics. You have to find the right one from the carousel. I can't seem to find the direct link to that page.)

This chart summarizes their viewpoint:

TCB-COVID-19-US-level-of-GDP-1170

They considered three scenarios, starting the recovery in May, over the summer, and in the Fall. In all scenarios, the GDP of the U.S. will contract in 2020 relative to 2019. The faster the start of the recovery, the lower the decline.

My reaction to the map icon is different from the oil-drop icon in the previously-discussed chart (link). I think here, the icon steals too much attention. The way lines were placed on the map initially made me think the chart is about cross-country travel.

On the other hand, I love the way he did the horizontal axis / time-line. It elegantly tells us which numbers are actual and which numbers are projected, without explicitly saying so.

Tcb_timelineaxis

Also notice through the use of color, font size and bolding, he organizes the layers of detail, and conveys which items are more important to read first.

***

Trifectacheckup_imageAs I round out the Trifecta Checkup, I found a seam in the Data.

On the right edge, the number for December 2020 is 100.6 which is 0.6 above the reference level. But this number corresponds to a 1.6% reduction. How so?

This seam exposes a gap between how modelers and decision-makers see the world. Evidently, the projections by the analyst are generated using Q3 2019's GDP as baseline (index=100). I'm guessing the analyst chose that quarter because at the time of analysis, the Q4 data have not reached the final round of revision (which came out at the end of March).

A straight-off-the-report conclusion of the analysis is that the GDP would be just back to Q3 2019 level by December 2020 in the most optimistic scenario. (It's clear to me that the data series has been seasonally adjusted as well so that we can compare any month to any month. Years ago, I wrote this primer to understand seasonal adjustments.)

Decision-makers might push back on that conclusion because the reference level of Q3 2019 seems arbitrary. Instead, what they like to know is the year-on-year change to GDP. A small calculation is completed to bridge between the two numbers.

The decision-makers are satisfied after finding the numbers they care about. They are not curious about how the sausage is made, i.e., how the monthly numbers result in the year-on-year change. So the seam is left on the chart.

 


The why axis

A few weeks ago, I replied to a tweet by someone who was angered by the amount of bad graphics about coronavirus. I take a glass-half-full viewpoint: it's actually heart-warming for  dataviz designers to realize that their graphics are being read! When someone critiques your work, it is proof that they cared enough to look at it. Worse is when you publish something, and no one reacts to it.

That said, I just wasted half an hour trying to get into the head of the person who made the following:

Fox31_co_newcases edited

Longtime reader Chris P. forwarded this tweet to me, and I saw that Andrew Gelman got sent this one, too.

The chart looked harmless until you check out the vertical axis labels. It's... um... the most unusual. The best way to interpret what the designer did is to break up the chart into three components. Like this:

Redo_junkcharts_fox31cocases

The big mystery is why the designer spent the time and energy to make this mischief.

The usual suspect is fake news. The clearest sign of malintent is the huge size of the dots. Each dot spans almost the entirety of the space between gridlines.

But there is almost no fake news here. The overall trend line is intact despite the attempted distortion. The following is a superposition of an unmanipulated line (yellow) on top of the manipulated:

Redo_junkcharts_fox31cocases2

***

The next guess is incompetence. The evidence against this view is the amount of energy required to execute these changes. In Excel, it takes a lot of work. It's easier to do this in R or any programming languages with which you can design your own axis.

Even for the R coders, the easy part is to replicate the design, but the hard part is to come up with the concept in the first place!

You can't just stumble onto a design like this. So I am not convinced the designer is an idiot.

***

How much work? You have to create three separate charts, with three carefully chosen vertical scales, and then clip, merge, and sew the seam. The weirdest bit is throwing away three of the twelve axis labels and writing in three fake numbers.

Here's the recipe: (if the gif doesn't load automatically, click on it)

Fox31_co_cases_B6

Help me readers! I'm stumped. Why oh why did someone make this? What is the point?

 

P.S. [4/9/2020] A conversation with Carlos on Andrew's blog reveals another issue. I pointed out that the "Total cases" printed up top was not the sum of the 15 numbers on the chart. There was a gap of 184 cases. Carlos sent me a link showing a day on which the total cases in Colorado was 183 cases. I didn't quite get the point initially. He explained that it's 183 existing cases prior to the start of the period of this chart, plus the new cases during this period, leading to the "Total cases" as of the end of the period of this chart.

So, another mystery solved. This brings up an important point about making effective charts: one way confusion arises is if there are two things from the visual that seem to contradict each other. In most line charts, if there is a line, and then a "total", the natural expectation is that the "total" is the sum of the data that make up the line. In this case, that "total" is the total new cases during the time period depicted. Total new cases isn't the same as total cases from case #1.

It's clearer to say "Total Cases on 3/17 = 183; on 4/1 = 3342".

 


The epidemic of simple comparisons

Another day, another Twitter user sent a sloppy chart featured on TV news. This CNN graphic comes from Hugo K. by way of Kevin T.

And it's another opportunity to apply the self-sufficiency test.

Junkcharts_cnncovidcases_sufficiency_1

Like before, I removed the data printed on the graphic. In reading this chart, we like to know the number of U.S. reported cases of coronavirus relative to China, and Italy relative to the U.S.

So, our eyes trace these invisible lines:

Junkcharts_cnncovidcases_sufficiency_2

U.S. cases are roughly two-thirds of China while Italian cases are 90% of U.S.

That's what the visual elements, the columns, are telling us. But it's fake news. Here is the chart with the data:

Cnn_covidcases

The counts of reported cases in all three countries were neck and neck around this time.

What this quick exercise shows is that anyone who correctly reads this chart is reading the data off the chart, and ignoring the contradictionary message sent by the relative column heights. Thus, the visual elements are not self-sufficient in conveying the message.

***

In a Trifecta Checkup, I'd be most concerned about the D corner. The naive comparison of these case counts is an epidemic of its own. It sometimes leads to poor decisions that can exacerbate the public-health problems. See this post on my sister blog.

The difference in case counts between different countries (or regions or cities or locales) is not a direct measure of the difference in coronavirus spread in these places! This is because there are many often-unobserved factors that will explain most if not all of the differences.

After a lot of work by epidemiologists, medical researchers, statisticians and the likes, we now realize that different places conduct different numbers of tests. No test, no positive. The U.S. has been slow to get testing ramped up.

Less understood is the effect of testing selection. Consider the U.S. where it is still hard to get tested. Only those who meet a list of criteria are eligible. Imagine an alternative reality in which the U.S. conducted the same number of tests but instead of selecting most likely infected people to be tested, we test a random sample of people. The incidence of the virus in a random sample is much lower than in the severely infected, therefore, in this new reality, the number of positives would be lower despite equal numbers of tests.

That's for equal number of tests. If test kits are readily available, then a targeted (triage) testing strategy will under-count cases since mild cases or asymptomatic infections escape attention. (See my Wired column for problems with triage.)

To complicate things even more, in most countries, the number of tests and the testing selection have changed over time so a cumulative count statistic obscures those differences.

Beside testing, there are a host of other factors that affect reported case counts. These are less talked about now but eventually will be.

Different places have different population densities. A lot of cases in a big city and an equal number of cases in a small town do not signify equal severity.  Clearly, the situation in the latter is more serious.

Because the virus affects age groups differently, a direct comparison of the case counts without adjusting for age is also misleading. The number of deaths of 80-year-olds in a college town is low not because the chance of dying from COVID-19 is lower there than in a retirement community; it's low because 80-year-olds are a small proportion of the population.

Next, the cumulative counts ignore which stage of the "epi curve" these countries are at. The following chart can replace most of the charts you're inundated with by the media:

Epicurve_coronavirus

(I found the chart here.)

An epi curve traces the time line of a disease outbreak. Every location is expected to move through stages, with cases reaching a peak and eventually the number of newly recovered will exceed the number of newly infected.

Notice that China, Italy and the US occupy different stages of this curve.  It's proper to compare U.S. to China and Italy when they were at a similar early phase of their respective epi curve.

In addition, any cross-location comparison should account for how reliable the data sources are, and the different definitions of a "case" in different locations.

***

Finally, let's consider the Question posed by the graphic designer. It is the morbid question: which country is hit the worst by coronavirus?

This is a Type DV chart. It's got a reasonable question, but the data require a lot more work to adjust for the list of biases. The visual design is hampered by the common mistake of not starting columns at zero.

 


Comparing chance of death of coronavirus and flu

The COVID-19 charts are proving one thing. When the topic of a dataviz is timely and impactful, readers will study the graphics and ask questions. I've been sent some of these charts lately, and will be featuring them here.

A former student saw this chart from Business Insider (link) and didn't like it.

Businesinsider_coronavirus_flu_compare

My initial reaction was generally positive. It's clear the chart addresses a comparison between death rates of the flu and COVID19, an important current question. The side-by-side panel is effective at allowing such a comparison. The column charts look decent, and there aren't excessive gridlines.

Sure, one sees a few simple design fixes, like removing the vertical axis altogether (since the entire dataset has already been printed). I'd also un-slant the age labels.

***

I'd like to discuss some subtler improvements.

A primary challenge is dealing with the different definitions of age groups across the two datasets. While the side-by-side column charts prompt readers to go left-right, right-left in comparing death rates, it's not easy to identify which column to compare to which. This is not fixable in the datasets because the organizations that compile them define their own age groups.

Also, I prefer to superimpose the death rates on the same chart, using something like a dot plot rather than a column chart. This makes the comparison even easier.

Here is a revised visualization:

Redo_businessinsider_covid19fatalitybyage

The contents of this chart raise several challenges to public health officials. Clearly, hospital resources should be preferentially offered to older patients. But young people could be spreading the virus among the community.

Caution is advised as the data for COVID19 suffers from many types of inaccuracies, as outlined here.


How to read this chart about coronavirus risk

In my just-published Long Read article at DataJournalism.com, I touched upon the subject of "How to Read this Chart".

Most data graphics do not come with directions of use because dataviz designers follow certain conventions. We do not need to tell you, for example, that time runs left to right on the horizontal axis (substitute right to left for those living in right-to-left countries). It's when we deviate from the norms that calls for a "How to Read this Chart" box.

***
A discussion over Twitter during the weekend on the following New York Times chart perfectly illustrates this issue. (The article is well worth reading to educate oneself on this red-hot public-health issue. I made some comments on the sister blog about the data a few days ago.)

Nyt_coronavirus_scatter

Reading this chart, I quickly grasp that the horizontal axis is the speed of infection and the vertical axis represents the deadliness. Without being told, I used the axis labels (and some of you might notice the annotations with the arrows on the top right.) But most people will likely miss - at a glance - that the vertical axis utilizes a log scale while the horizontal axis is linear (regular).

The effect of a log scale is to pull the large numbers toward the average while spreading the smaller numbers apart - when compared to a linear scale. So when we look at the top of the coronavirus box, it appears that this virus could be as deadly as SARS.

The height of the pink box is 3.9, while the gap between the top edge of the box and the SARS dot is 6. Yet our eyes tell us the top edge is closer to the SARS dot than it is to the bottom edge!

There is nothing inaccurate about this chart - the log scale introduces such distortion. The designer has to make a choice.

Indeed, there were two camps on Twitter, arguing for and against the log scale.

***

I use log scales a lot in analyzing data, but tend not to use log scales in a graph. It's almost a given that using the log scale requires a "How to Read this Chart" message. And the NY Times crew delivers!

Right below the chart is a paragraph:

Nyt_coronavirus_howtoreadthis

To make this even more interesting, the horizontal axis is a hidden "log" scale. That's because infections spread exponentially. Even though the scale is not labeled "log", think as if the large values have been pulled toward the middle.

Here is an over-simplified way to see this. A disease that spreads at a rate of fifteen people at a time is not 3 times worse than one that spreads five at a time. In the former case, the first sick person transmits it to 15, and then each of the 15 transmits the flu to 15 others, thus after two steps, 241 people have been infected (225 + 15 + 1). In latter case, it's 5x5 + 5 + 1 = 31 infections after two steps. So at this point, the number of infected is already 8 times worse, not 3 times. And the gap keeps widening with each step.

P.S. See also my post on the sister blog that digs deeper into the metrics.

 


Bubble charts, ratios and proportionality

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal about a challenger to the dominant weedkiller, Roundup, contains a nice selection of graphics. (Dicamba is the up-and-comer.)

Wsj_roundup_img1


The change in usage of three brands of weedkillers is rendered as a small-multiples of choropleth maps. This graphic displays geographical and time changes simultaneously.

The staircase chart shows weeds have become resistant to Roundup over time. This is considered a weakness in the Roundup business.

***

In this post, my focus is on the chart at the bottom, which shows complaints about Dicamba by state in 2019. This is a bubble chart, with the bubbles sorted along the horizontal axis by the acreage of farmland by state.

Wsj_roundup_img2

Below left is a more standard version of such a chart, in which the bubbles are allowed to overlap. (I only included the bubbles that were labeled in the original chart).

Redo_roundupwsj0

The WSJ’s twist is to use the vertical spacing to avoid overlapping bubbles. The vertical axis serves a design perogative and does not encode data.  

I’m going to stick with the more traditional overlapping bubbles here – I’m getting to a different matter.

***

The question being addressed by this chart is: which states have the most serious Dicamba problem, as revealed by the frequency of complaints? The designer recognizes that the amount of farmland matters. One should expect the more acres, the more complaints.

Let's consider computing directly the number of complaints per million acres.

The resulting chart (shown below right) – while retaining the design – gives a wholly different feeling. Arkansas now owns the largest bubble even though it has the least acreage among the included states. The huge Illinois bubble is still large but is no longer a loner.

Redo_dicambacomplaints1

Now return to the original design for a moment (the chart on the left). In theory, this should work in the following manner: if complaints grow purely as a function of acreage, then the bubbles should grow proportionally from left to right. The trouble is that proportional areas are not as easily detected as proportional lengths.

The pair of charts below depict made-up data in which all states have 30 complaints for each million acres of farmland. It’s not intuitive that the bubbles on the left chart are growing proportionally.

Redo_dicambacomplaints2

Now if you look at the right chart, which shows the relative metric of complaints per million acres, it’s impossible not to notice that all bubbles are the same size.


This Excel chart looks standard but gets everything wrong

The following CNBC chart (link) shows the trend of global car sales by region (or so we think).

Cnbc zh global car sales

This type of chart is quite common in finance/business circles, and has the fingerprint of Excel. After examining it, I nominate it for the Hall of Shame.

***

The chart has three major components vying for our attention: (1) the stacked columns, (2) the yellow line, and (3) the big red dashed arrow.

The easiest to interpret is the yellow line, which is labeled "Total" in the legend. It displays the annual growth rate of car sales around the globe. The data consist of annual percentage changes in car sales, so the slope of the yellow line represents a change of change, which is not particularly useful.

The big red arrow is making the point that the projected decline in global car sales in 2019 will return the world to the slowdown of 2008-9 after almost a decade of growth.

The stacked columns appear to provide a breakdown of the global growth rate by region. Looked at carefully, you'll soon learn that the visual form has hopelessly mangled the data.

Cnbc_globalcarsales_2006

What is the growth rate for Chinese car sales in 2006? Is it 2.5%, the top edge of China's part of the column? Between 1.5% and 2.5%, the extant of China's section? The answer is neither. Because of the stacking, China's growth rate is actually the height of the relevant section, that is to say, 1 percent. So the labels on the vertical axis are not directly useful to learning regional growth rates for most sections of the chart.

Can we read the vertical axis as global growth rate? That's not proper either. The different markets are not equal in size so growth rates cannot be aggregated by simple summing - they must be weighted by relative size.

The negative growth rates present another problem. Even if we agree to sum growth rates ignoring relative market sizes, we still can't get directly to the global growth rate. We would have to take the total of the positive rates and subtract the total of the negative rates.  

***

At this point, you may begin to question everything you thought you knew about this chart. Remember the yellow line, which we thought measures the global growth rate. Take a look at the 2006 column again.

The global growth rate is depicted as 2 percent. And yet every region experienced growth rates below 2 percent! No matter how you aggregate the regions, it's not possible for the world average to be larger than the value of each region.

For 2006, the regional growth rates are: China, 1%; Rest of the World, 1%; Western Europe, 0.1%; United States, -0.25%. A simple sum of those four rates yields 2%, which is shown on the yellow line.

But this number must be divided by four. If we give the four regions equal weight, each is worth a quarter of the total. So the overall average is the sum of each growth rate weighted by 1/4, which is 0.5%. [In reality, the weights of each region should be scaled to reflect its market size.]

***

tldr; The stacked column chart with a line overlay not only fails to communicate the contents of the car sales data but it also leads to misinterpretation.

I discussed several serious problems of this chart form: 

  • stacking the columns make it hard to learn the regional data

  • the trend by region takes a super effort to decipher

  • column stacking promotes reading meaning into the height of the column but the total height is meaningless (because of the negative section) while the net height (positive minus negative) also misleads due to presumptive equal weighting

  • the yellow line shows the sum of the regional data, which is four times the global growth rate that it purports to represent

 

***

PS. [12/4/2019: New post up with a different visualization.]


This chart tells you how rich is rich - if you can read it

Via twitter, John B. sent me the following YouGov chart (link) that he finds difficult to read:

Yougov_whoisrich

The title is clear enough: the higher your income, the higher you set the bar.

When one then moves from the title to the chart, one gets misdirected. The horizontal axis shows pound values, so the axis naturally maps to "the higher your income". But it doesn't. Those pound values are the "cutoff" values - the line between "rich" and "not rich". Even after one realizes this detail, the axis  presents further challenges: the cutoff values are arbitrary numbers such as "45,001" sterling; and these continuous numbers are treated as discrete categories, with irregular intervals between each category.

There is some very interesting and hard to obtain data sitting behind this chart but the visual form suppresses them. The best way to understand this dataset is to first think about each income group. Say, people who make between 20 to 30 thousand sterling a year. Roughly 10% of these people think "rich" starts at 25,000. Forty percent of this income group think "rich" start at 40,000.

For each income group, we have data on Z percent think "rich" starts at X. I put all of these data points into a heatmap, like this:

Redo_junkcharts_yougovuk_whoisrich

Technical note: in order to restore the horizontal axis to a continuous scale, you can take the discrete data from the original chart, then fit a smoothed curve through those points, and finally compute the interpolated values for any income level using the smoothing model.

***

There are some concerns about the survey design. It's hard to get enough samples for higher-income people. This is probably why the highest income segment starts at 50,000. But notice that 50,ooo is around the level at which lower-income people consider "rich". So, this survey is primarily about how low-income people perceive "rich" people.

The curve for the highest income group is much straighter and smoother than the other lines - that's because it's really the average of a number of curves (for each 10,000 sterling segment).

 

P.S. The YouGov tweet that publicized the small-multiples chart shown above links to a page that no longer contains the chart. They may have replaced it due to feedback.

 

 


How to read this cost-benefit chart, and why it is so confusing

Long-time reader Antonio R. found today's chart hard to follow, and he isn't alone. It took two of us multiple emails and some Web searching before we think we "got it".

Ar_submit_Fig-3-2-The-policy-cost-curve-525

 

Antonio first encountered the chart in a book review (link) of Hal Harvey et. al, Designing Climate Solutions. It addresses the general topic of costs and benefits of various programs to abate CO2 emissions. The reviewer praised the "wealth of graphics [in the book] which present complex information in visually effective formats." He presented the above chart as evidence, and described its function as:

policy-makers can focus on the areas which make the most difference in emissions, while also being mindful of the cost issues that can be so important in getting political buy-in.

(This description is much more informative than the original chart title, which states "The policy cost curve shows the cost-effectiveness and emission reduction potential of different policies.")

Spend a little time with the chart now before you read the discussion below.

Warning: this is a long read but well worth it.

 

***

 

If your experience is anything like ours, scraps of information flew at you from different parts of the chart, and you had a hard time piecing together a story.

What are the reasons why this data graphic is so confusing?

Everyone recognizes that this is a column chart. For a column chart, we interpret the heights of the columns so we look first at the vertical axis. The axis title informs us that the height represents "cost effectiveness" measured in dollars per million metric tons of CO2. In a cost-benefit sense, that appears to mean the cost to society of obtaining the benefit of reducing CO2 by a given amount.

That's how far I went before hitting the first roadblock.

For environmental policies, opponents frequently object to the high price of implementation. For example, we can't have higher fuel efficiency in cars because it would raise the price of gasoline too much. Asking about cost-effectiveness makes sense: a cost-benefit trade-off analysis encapsulates the something-for-something principle. What doesn't follow is that the vertical scale sinks far into the negative. The chart depicts the majority of the emissions abatement programs as having negative cost effectiveness.

What does it mean to be negatively cost-effective? Does it mean society saves money (makes a profit) while also reducing CO2 emissions? Wouldn't those policies - more than half of the programs shown - be slam dunks? Who can object to programs that improve the environment at no cost?

I tabled that thought, and proceeded to the horizontal axis.

I noticed that this isn't a standard column chart, in which the width of the columns is fixed and uneventful. Here, the widths of the columns are varying.

***

In the meantime, my eyes are distracted by the constellation of text labels. The viewing area of this column chart is occupied - at least 50% - by text. These labels tell me that each column represents a program to reduce CO2 emissions.

The dominance of text labels is a feature of this design. For a conventional column chart, the labels are situated below each column. Since the width does not usually carry any data, we tend to keep the columns narrow - Tufte, ever the minimalist, has even advocated reducing columns to vertical lines. That leaves insufficient room for long labels. Have you noticed that government programs hold long titles? It's tough to capture even the outline of a program with fewer than three big words, e.g. "Renewable Portfolio Standard" (what?).

The design solution here is to let the column labels run horizontally. So the graphical element for each program is a vertical column coupled with a horizontal label that invades the territories of the next few programs. Like this:

Redo_fueleconomystandardscars

The horror of this design constraint is fully realized in the following chart, a similar design produced for the state of Oregon (lifted from the Plan Washington webpage listed as a resource below):

Figure 2 oregon greenhouse

In a re-design, horizontal labeling should be a priority.

 

***

Realizing that I've been distracted by the text labels, back to the horizontal axis I went.

This is where I encountered the next roadblock.

The axis title says "Average Annual Emissions Abatement" measured in millions metric tons. The unit matches the second part of the vertical scale, which is comforting. But how does one reconcile the widths of columns with a continuous scale? I was expecting each program to have a projected annual abatement benefit, and those would fall as dots on a line, like this:

Redo_abatement_benefit_dotplot

Instead, we have line segments sitting on a line, like this:

Redo_abatement_benefit_bars_end2end_annuallabel

Think of these bars as the bottom edges of the columns. These line segments can be better compared to each other if structured as a bar chart:

Redo_abatement_benefit_bars

Instead, the design arranges these lines end-to-end.

To unravel this mystery, we go back to the objective of the chart, as announced by the book reviewer. Here it is again:

policy-makers can focus on the areas which make the most difference in emissions, while also being mindful of the cost issues that can be so important in getting political buy-in.

The primary goal of the chart is a decision-making tool for policy-makers who are evaluating programs. Each program has a cost and also a benefit. The cost is shown on the vertical axis and the benefit is shown on the horizontal. The decision-maker will select some subset of these programs based on the cost-benefit analysis. That subset of programs will have a projected total expected benefit (CO2 abatement) and a projected total cost.

By stacking the line segments end to end on top of the horizontal axis, the chart designer elevates the task of computing the total benefits of a subset of programs, relative to the task of learning the benefits of any individual program. Thus, the horizontal axis is better labeled "Cumulative annual emissions abatement".

 

Look at that axis again. Imagine you are required to learn the specific benefit of program titled "Fuel Economy Standards: Cars & SUVs".  

Redo_abatement_benefit_bars_end2end_cumlabel

This is impossible to do without pulling out a ruler and a calculator. What the axis labels do tell us is that if all the programs to the left of Fuel Economy Standards: Cars & SUVs were adopted, the cumulative benefits would be 285 million metric tons of CO2 per year. And if Fuel Economy Standards: Cars & SUVs were also implemented, the cumulative benefits would rise to 375 million metric tons.

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At long last, we have arrived at a reasonable interpretation of the cost-benefit chart.

Policy-makers are considering throwing their support behind specific programs aimed at abating CO2 emissions. Different organizations have come up with different ways to achieve this goal. This goal may even have specific benchmarks; the government may have committed to an international agreement, for example, to reduce emissions by some set amount by 2030. Each candidate abatement program is evaluated on both cost and benefit dimensions. Benefit is given by the amount of CO2 abated. Cost is measured as a "marginal cost," the amount of dollars required to achieve each million metric ton of abatement.

This "marginal abatement cost curve" aids the decision-making. It lines up the programs from the most cost-effective to the least cost-effective. The decision-maker is presumed to prefer a more cost-effective program than a less cost-effective program. The chart answers the following question: for any given subset of programs (so long as we select them left to right contiguously), we can read off the cumulative amount of CO2 abated.

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There are still more limitations of the chart design.

  • We can't directly read off the cumulative cost of the selected subset of programs because the vertical axis is not cumulative. The cumulative cost turns out to be the total area of all the columns that correspond to the selected programs. (Area is height x width, which is cost per benefit multiplied by benefit, which leaves us with the cost.) Unfortunately, it takes rulers and calculators to compute this total area.

  • We have presumed that policy-makers will make the Go-No-go decision based on cost effectiveness alone. This point of view has already been contradicted. Remember the mystery around negatively cost-effective programs - their existence shows that some programs are stalled even when they reduce emissions in addition to making money!

  • Since many, if not most, programs have negative cost-effectiveness (by the way they measured it), I'd flip the metric over and call it profitability (or return on investment). Doing so removes another barrier to our understanding. With the current cost-effectiveness metric, policy-makers are selecting the "negative" programs before the "positive" programs. It makes more sense to select the "positive" programs before the "negative" ones!

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In a Trifecta Checkup (guide), I rate this chart Type V. The chart has a great purpose, and the design reveals a keen sense of the decision-making process. It's not a data dump for sure. In addition, an impressive amount of data gathering and analysis - and synthesis - went into preparing the two data series required to construct the chart. (Sure, for something so subjective and speculative, the analysis methodology will inevitably be challenged by wonks.) Those two data series are reasonable measures for the stated purpose of the chart.

The chart form, though, has various shortcomings, as shown here.  

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In our email exchange, Antonio and I found the Plan Washington website useful. This is where we learned that this chart is called the marginal abatement cost curve.

Also, the consulting firm McKinsey is responsible for popularizing this chart form. They have published this long report that explains even more of the analysis behind constructing this chart, for those who want further details.