Speaking to the choir

A friend found the following chart about the "carbon cycle", and sent me an exasperated note, having given up on figuring it out. The chart came from a report, and was reprinted in Ars Technica (link).

Gcp_s09_2021_global_perturbation-800x371

The problem with the chart is that the designer is speaking to the choir. One must know a lot about the carbon cycle already to make sense of everything that's going on.

We see big and small arrows pointing up or down. Each arrow has a number attached to it, plus a range inside brackets. These numbers have no units, and it's not obvious what they are measuring.

The arrows come in a variety of colors. The colors are explained by labels but the labels dexcribe apparently unrelated concepts (e.g. fossil CO2 and land-use change).

Interspersed with the arrows is a singular dot. The dot also has a number attached to it. The number wears a plus sign, which signals it's being treated differently than the quantities with up arrows.

The singular dot is an outcast, ostracized from the community of dots in the bottom part of the chart. These dots have labels but no numbers. They come in different sizes but no scale is provided.

The background is divided into three parts, showing the atmosphere, the land mass, and the ocean. The placement of the arrows and dots suggests each measured quantity concerns one of these three parts. Well... except the dot labeled "surface sediments" that sit on the boundary of the land mass and the ocean.

The three-way classification is only one layer of the chart. A different classification is embedded in the color scheme. The gray, light green, and aquamarine arrows in the sky find their counterparts in the dots of the land mass, and the ocean.

What's more, the boundaries between land and sky, and between land and ocean are also painted with those colors. These boundary segments have been given different colors so that the lengths of these segments seem to contain data but we aren't sure what.

At this point, I noticed thin arrows which appear to depict back and forth flows. There may be two types of such exchanges, one indicated by a cycle, the other by two straight arrows in opposite directions. The cycles have no numbers while each pair of straight thin arrows gets two numbers, always identical.

At the bottom of the chart is a annotation in red: "Budget imbalance = -1.0". Presumably some formula ties the numbers shown above to this -1.0 result. We still don't know the units, and it's unclear if -1.0 is a bad number. A negative number shown in red typically indicates a bad number but how bad is it?

Finally, on the top right corner, I found a legend. It's not obvious at first because the legend symbols (arrows and dots) are shown in gray, a color not used elsewhere on the chart. It appears as if it represents another color category. The legend labels do little for me. What is an "anthropogenic flux"? What does the unit of "GtCO2" stand for? Other jargon includes "carbon cycling" and "stocks". The entire diagram is titled "carbon cycle" while the "carbon cycling" thin arrows are only a small part of the diagram.

The bottom line is I have no idea what this chart is saying to me, other than that the earth is a complex system, and that the designer has tried valiantly to impregnate the diagram with lots of information. If I am well read in environmental science, my experience is likely different.

 

 

 

 

 


Visualizing fertility rates around the globe

The following chart dropped on my Twitter feed.

Twitter_fertility_chart

It's an ambitious chart that tries to do a lot. The underlying data set contains fertility rate data from over 200 countries over 20 years.

The basic chart form is a column chart that is curled up into a ball. The column chart is given colors that map to continents. All countries are grouped into five continents. The column chart can only take a single data series, so the 2019 fertility rate is chosen.

Beyond this basic setup, the designer embellishes the chart with a trove of information. Here's a close up:

Twitter_fertilityrate_excerpt

The first number is the 2019 fertility rate, which means all the data encoded into the columns are also printed on the chart itself. Then, the flag of each country forms the next ring. Then, the name of the country. Finally, in brackets, the percent change in fertility rate between 2000 and 2019.

That is not all. Some contextual information are injected in those arrows that connect the columns to the data labels. A green arrow indicates that the fertility rate is trending lower - which is the case in most countries around the world. Once in a while, a purple arrow pops up. In the above excerpt, Seychelles gets a purple arrow because this island nation has increased the fertility rate from 2000 to 2019.

Also hiding in the background are several dashed rings. I think only the one that partially overlaps with the column chart contains any information - the other rings are inserted for an artistic reason. To decipher this dashed ring, we must look at the inset in the top left corner. We learn that the value of 2.1 children per woman is known as the replacement fertility rate. So it's also possible to assess whether each country is above or below the replacement fertility rate threshold.

Twitter_fertility_world_trend

[I'm presuming that this replacement threshold is about the births necessary to avoid a population decline. If that's the case, then comparing each country's fertility rate to a global fertility rate threshold is too simplistic because fertility is only one of several key factors driving a country's population growth. A more sophisticated model should generate country-level thresholds.]

***

Data graphics serve many functions. This chart works well as an embellished data table. It does take some time to find a specific country because the columns have been sorted by decreasing 2019 fertility rate but once we locate the column, all the other data fields are clearly laid out.

As a generator of data insights, this chart is less effective. The main insight I obtained from it is a rough ranking of continents, with African countries predominantly having higher fertility rates, followed by Asia and Oceania, then Americas, and finally, Europe which has the lowest fertility rates. If this is the key message, a standard choropleth map brings it out more directly.

***

Here is a small-multiples rendering of the fertility dataset. I chose 1999 values instead of 2000 to make a complete two-decade view.

Junkcharts_redofertilitychart_1

The columns represent a grouping of countries based on their 1999 fertility rates. The left column contains countries with the lowest number of births per woman, and the fertility rate increases left to right - both within an individual plot and in the grid.

If you're wondering, the hidden vertical axis sorts the countries by their 1999 rank. The lighter colors are 1999 values while the darker colors are 2019 values. For most countries the dots are shifting left over the 20 years. There are some exceptions. I have labeled several of these exceptions (e.g. Kazakhstan and Mongolia), and rendered them in italic.

 

 

 


Charts that ask questions about the German election

In the prior post about Canadian elections, I suggested that designers expand beyond plots of one variable at a time. Today, I look at a project by DataWrapper on the German elections which happened this week. Thanks to long-time blog supporter Antonio for submitting the chart.

The following is the centerpiece of Lisa's work:

Datawrapper_germanelections_cducsu

CDU/CSU is Angela Merkel's party, represented by the black color. The chart answers one question only: did polls correctly predict election results?

The time period from 1994 to 2021 covers eight consecutive elections (counting the one this week). There are eight vertical blocks on the chart representing each administration. The right vertical edge of each block coincides with an election. The chart is best understood as the superposition of two time series.

You can trace the first time series by following a step function - let your eyes follow the flat lines between elections. This dataset shows the popular vote won by the party at each election, with the value updated after each election. The last vertical block represents an election that has not yet happened when this chart was created. As explained in the footnote, Lisa took the average poll result for the last month leading up to the 2021 election - in the context of this chart, she made the assumption that this cycle of polls will be 100% accurate.

The second time series corresponds to the ragged edges of the gray and black areas. If you ignore the colors, and the flat lines, you'll discover that the ragged edges form a contiguous data series. This line encodes the average popularity of the CDU/CSU party according to election polls.

Thus, the area between the step function and the ragged line measures the gap between polls and election day results. When the polls underestimate the actual outcome, the area is colored gray; when the polls are over-optimistic, the area is colored black. In the last completed election of 2017, Merkel's party underperformed relative to the polls. In fact, the polls in the entire period between the 2013 and 2017 uniformly painted a rosier picture for CDU/CSU than actually happened.

The last vertical block is interpreted a little differently. Since the reference level is the last month of polls (rather than the actual popular vote), the abundance of black indicates that Merkel's party has been suffering from declining poll numbers on the approach of this week's election.

***

The picture shown above seems to indicate that these polls are not particularly good. It appears they have limited ability to self-correct within each election cycle. Aside from the 1998-2002 period, the area colors seldom changed within each cycle. That means if the first polling average overestimated the party's popularity, then all subsequent polling averages were also optimistic. (The original post focused on a single pollster, which exacerbates this issue. Compare the following chart with the above, and you'll find even fewer color changes within cycle here:

Datawrapper_germanelections_cdu_singlepoll

Each pollster may be systematically biased but the poll aggregate is less so.)

 

Here's the chart for SDP, which is CDU/CSU's biggest opponent, and likely winner of this week's election:

Datawrapper_germanelections_spd

Overall, this chart has similar features as the CDU/CSU chart. The most recent polls seem to favor the SPD - the pink area indicates that the older polls of this cycle underestimates the last month's poll result.

Both these parties are in long-term decline, with popularity dropping from the 40% range in the 1990s to the 20% range in the 2020s.

One smaller party that seems to have gained followers is the Green party:

Datawrapper_germanelections_green

The excess of dark green, however, does not augur well for this election.

 

 

 

 

 


Ridings, polls, elections, O Canada

Stephen Taylor reached out to me about his work to visualize Canadian elections data. I took a look. I appreciate the labor of love behind this project.

He led with a streamgraph, which presents a quick overview of relative party strengths over time.

Stephentaylor_canadianelections_streamgraph

I am no Canadian election expert, and I did a bare minimum of research in writing this blog. From this chart, I learn that:

  • the Canadians have an irregular election schedule
  • Canada has a two party plus breadcrumbs system
  • The two dominant parties are Liberals and Conservatives. The Liberals currently hold just less than half of the seats. The Conservatives have more than half of the seats not held by Liberals
  • The Conservative party (maybe) rebranded as "progressive conservative" for several decades. The Reform/Alliance party was (maybe) a splinter movement within the Conservatives as well.
  • Since the "width" of the entire stream increased over time, I'm guessing the number of seats has expanded

That's quite a bit of information obtained at a glance. This shows the power of data visualization. Notice Stephen didn't even have to include a "how to read this" box.

The streamgraph form has its limitations.

The feature that makes it more attractive than an area chart is its middle anchoring, resulting in a form of symmetry. The same feature produces erroneous intuition - the red patch draws out a declining trend; the reader must fight the urge to interpret the lines and focus on the areas.

The breadcrumbs are well hidden. The legend below discloses that the Green Party holds 3 seats currently. The party has never held enough seats to appear on the streamgraph though.

The bars showing proportions in the legend is a very nice touch. (The numbers appear messed up - I have to ask Stephen whether the seats shown are current values, or some kind of historical average.) I am a big fan of informative legends.

***

The next featured chart is a dot plot of polling results since 2020.

Stephentaylor_canadianelections_streamgraph_polls_dotplot

One can see a three-tier system: the two main parties, then the NDP (yellow) is the clear majority of the minority, and finally you have a host of parties that don't poll over 10%.

It looks like the polls are favoring the Conservatives over the Liberals in this election but it may be an election-day toss-up.

The purple dots represent "PPC" which is a party not found elsewhere on the page.

This chart is clear as crystal because of the structure of the underlying data. It just amazes me that the polls are so highly correlated. For example, across all these polls, the NDP has never once polled better than either the Liberals or the Conservatives, and in addition, it has never polled worse than any of the small parties.

What I'd like to see is a chart that merges the two datasets, addressing the question of how well these polls predicted the actual election outcomes.

***

The project goes very deep as Stephen provides charts for individual "ridings" (perhaps similar to U.S. precincts).

Here we see population pyramids for Vancouver Center, versus British Columbia (Province), versus Canada.

Stephentaylor_canadianelections_riding_populationpyramids

This riding has a large surplus of younger people in their twenties and thirties. Be careful about the changing scales though. The relative difference in proportions are more drastic than visually displayed because the maximum values (5%) on the Province and Canada charts are half that on the Riding chart (10%). Imagine squashing the Province and Canada charts to half their widths.

Analyses of income and rent/own status are also provided.

This part of the dashboard exhibits a problem common in most dashboards - they present each dimension of the data separately and miss out on the more interesting stuff: the correlation between dimensions. Do people in their twenties and thirties favor specific parties? Do richer people vote for certain parties?

***

The riding-level maps are the least polished part of the site. This is where I'm looking for a "how to read it" box.

Stephentaylor_canadianelections_ridingmaps_pollwinner

It took me a while to realize that the colors represent the parties. If I haven't come in from the front page, I'd have been totally lost.

Next, I got confused by the use of the word "poll". Clicking on any of the subdivisions bring up details of an actual race, with party colors, candidates and a donut chart showing proportions. The title gives a "poll id" and the name of the riding in parentheses. Since the poll id changes as I mouse over different subdivisions, I'm wondering whether a "poll" is the term for a subdivision of a riding. A quick wiki search indicates otherwise.

Stephentaylor_canadianelections_ridingmaps_donut

My best guess is the subdivisions are indicated by the numbers.

Back to the donut charts, I prefer a different sorting of the candidates. For this chart, the two most logical orderings are (a) order by overall popularity of the parties, fixed for all ridings and (b) order by popularity of the candidate, variable for each riding.

The map shown above gives the winner in each subdivision. This type of visualization dumps a lot of information. Stephen tackles this issue by offering a small multiples view of each party. Here is the Liberals in Vancouver.

Stephentaylor_canadianelections_ridingmaps_partystrength

Again, we encounter ambiguity about the color scheme. Liberals have been associated with a red color but we are faced with abundant yellow. After clicking on the other parties, you get the idea that he has switched to a divergent continuous color scale (red - yellow - green). Is red or green the higher value? (The answer is red.)

I'd suggest using a gray scale for these charts. The hardest decision is going to be the encoding between values and shading. Should each gray scale be different for each riding and each party?

If I were to take a guess, Stephen must have spent weeks if not months creating these maps (depending on whether he's full-time or part-time). What he has published here is a great start. Fine-tuning the issues I've mentioned may take more weeks or months more.

****

Stephen is brave and smart to send this project for review. For one thing, he's got some free consulting. More importantly, we should always send work around for feedback; other readers can tell us where our blind spots are.

To read more, start with this post by Stephen in which he introduces his project.


Working hard at clarity

As I am preparing another blog post about the pandemic, I came across the following data graphic, recently produced by the CDC for a vaccine advisory board meeting:

CDC_positivevaccineintent

This is not an example of effective visual communications.

***

For one thing, readers are directed to scour the footnotes to figure out what's going on. If we ignore those for the moment, we see clusters of bubbles that have remained pretty stable from December 2020 to August 2021. The data concern some measure of Americans' intent to take the COVID-19 vaccine. That much we know.

There may have been a bit of an upward trend between January and May, although if you were shown the clusters for December, February and April, you'd think the trend's been pretty flat. 

***

But those colors? What could they represent? You'd surely have to fish this one out of the footnotes. Specifically, this obtuse sentence: "Surveys with multiple time points are shown with the same color bubble for each time point." I had to read it several times. I think it simply means "Color represents the pollster." 

Then it adds: "Surveys with only one time point are shown in gray." which simply means "All pollsters who have only one entry in the dataset are grouped together and shown in gray."

Another problem with this chart is over-plotting. Look at the July cluster. It's impossible to tell how many polls were conducted in July because the circles pile on top of one another. 

***

The appearance of the flat trend is a result of two unfortunate decisions made by the designer. If I retained the chart form, I'd have produced something that looks like this:

Junkcharts_redo_cdcvaccineintent_sameform

The first design choice is to expand the vertical axis to range from 0% to 100%. This effectively squeezes all the bubbles into a small range.

Junkcharts_redo_cdcvaccineintent_startatzero

The second design choice is to enlarge the bubbles causing copious amount of overlapping. 

Junkcharts_redo_cdcvaccineintent_startatzero_bigdots

In particular, this decision blows up the Pew poll (big pink bubble) that contained 10 times the sample size of most of the other polls. The Pew outcome actually came in at 70% but the top of the pink bubble extends to over 80%. Because of this, the outlier poll of December 2020 - which surprisingly printed the highest number of all polls in the entire time window - no longer looks special. 

***

Now, let's see what else we can do to enhance this chart. 

I don't like how bubble size is used to encode the sample size. It creates a weird sensation for anyone who's familiar with sampling errors, and confidence regions. The Pew poll with 10 times the sample size is the most reliable poll of them all. Reliability means the error bars around the Pew poll outcome is the smallest of them all. I tend to think of the area around a point estimate as showing the sampling error so the Pew poll would be a dot, showing the high precision of that estimate. 

But that won't work because larger bubbles catch more of the reader's attention. So, in the following version, all dots have the same size. I encode reliability in the opacity of the color. The darker dots are polls that are more reliable, that have larger sample sizes.

Junkcharts_redo_cdcvaccineintent_opacity

Two of the pollsters have more frequent polling than others. In this next version, I highlighted those two, which reveals the trend better.

Junkcharts_redo_cdcvaccineintent_opacitywithlines

 

 

 


Simple charts are the hardest to do right

The CDC website has a variety of data graphics about many topics, one of which is U.S. vaccinations. I was looking for information about Covid-19 data broken down by age groups, and that's when I landed on these charts (link).

Cdc_vaccinations_by_age_small

The left panel shows people with at least one dose, and the right panel shows those who are "fully vaccinated." This simple chart takes an unreasonable amount of time to comprehend.

***

The analyst introduces three metrics, all of which are described as "percentages". Upon reflection, they are proportions of the people in specific age ranges.

Readers are thus invited to compare these proportions. It's not clear, however, which comparisons are intended. The first item listed in the legend states "Percent among Persons who completed all recommended doses in last 14 days". For most readers, including me, this introduces an unexpected concept. The 14 days here do not refer to the (in)famous 14-day case-counting window but literally the most recent two weeks relative to when the chart was produced.

It would have been clearer if the concept of Proportions were introduced in the chart title or axis title, while the color legend explains the concept of the base population. From the lighter shade to the darker shade (of red and blue) to the gray color, the base population shifts from "Among Those Who Completed/Initiated Vaccinations Within Last 14 Days" to "Among Those Who Completed/Initiated Vaccinations Any Time" to "Among the U.S. Population (regardless of vaccination status)".

Also, a reverse order helps our comprehension. Each subsequent category is a subset of the one above. First, the whole population, then those who are fully vaccinated, and finally those who recently completed vaccinations.

The next hurdle concerns the Q corner of our Trifecta Checkup. The design leaves few hints as to what question(s) its creator intended to address. The age distribution of the U.S. population is useless unless it is compared to something.

One apparently informative comparison is the age distribution of those fully vaccinated versus the age distribution of all Americans. This is revealed by comparing the lengths of the dark blue bar and the gray bar. But is this comparison informative? It's telling me that people aged 50 to 64 account for ~25% of those who are fully vaccinated, and ~20% of all Americans. Because proportions necessarily add to 100%, this implies that other age groups have been less vaccinated. Duh! Isn't that the result of an age-based vaccination prioritization? During the first week of the vaccination campaign, one might expect close to 100% of all vaccinations to be in the highest age group while it was 0% for the other age groups.

This is a chart in search of a question. The 25% vs 20% comparison does not assist readers in making a judgement. Does this mean the vaccination campaign is working as expected, worse than expected or better than expected? The problem is the wrong baseline. The designer of this chart implies that the expected proportions should conform to the overall age distribution - but that clearly stands in the way of CDC's initial prioritization of higher-risk age groups.

***

In my version of the chart, I illustrate the proportion of people in each age group who have been fully vaccinated.

Junkcharts_cdcvaccinationsbyage_1

Among those fully vaccinated, some did it within the most recent two weeks:

Junkcharts_cdcvaccinationsbyage_2

***

Elsewhere on the CDC site, one learns that on these charts, "fully vaccinated" means one shot of J&J or 2 shots of Pfizer or Moderna, without dealing with the 14-day window or other complications. Why do we think different definitions are used in different analyses? Story-first thinking, as I have explained here. When it comes to telling the story about vaccinations, the story is about the number of shots in arms. They want as big a number as possible, and abandon any criterion that decreases the count. When it comes to reporting on vaccine effectiveness, they want as small a number of cases as possible.

 

 

 

 

 


Ranking data provide context but can also confuse

This dataviz from the Economist had me spending a lot of time clicking around - which means it is a success.

Econ_usaexcept_hispanic

The graphic presents four measures of wellbeing in society - life expectancy, infant mortality rate, murder rate and prison population. The primary goal is to compare nations across those metrics. The focus is on comparing how certain nations (or subgroups) rank against each other, as indicated by the relative vertical position.

The Economist staff has a particular story to tell about racial division in the US. The dotted bars represent the U.S. average. The colored bars are the averages for Hispanic, white and black Americans. The wider the gap between the colored bars, the more variant is the experiences between American races.

The chart shows that the racial gap of life expectancy is the widest. For prison population, the U.S. and its racial subgroups occupy many of the lowest (i.e. least desirable) ranks, with the smallest gap in ranking.

***

The primary element of interactivity is hovering on a bar, which then highlights the four bars corresponding to the particular nation selected. Here is the picture for Thailand:

Econ_usaexcept_thailand

According to this view of the world, Thailand is a close cousin of the U.S. On each metric, the Thai value clings pretty near the U.S. average and sits within the range by racial groups. I'm surprised to learn that the prison population in Thailand is among the highest in the world.

Unfortunately, this chart form doesn't facilitate comparing Thailand to a country other than the U.S as one can highlight only one country at a time.

***

While the main focus of the chart is on relative comparison through ranking, the reader can extract absolute difference by reading the lengths of the bars.

This is a close-up of the bottom of the prison population metric:

Econ_useexcept_prisonpop_bottomThe length of each bar displays the numeric data. The red line is an outlier in this dataset. Black Americans suffer an incarceration rate that is almost three times the national average. Even white Americans (blue line) is imprisoned at a rate higher than most countries around the world.

As noted above, the prison population metric exhibits the smallest gap between racial subgroups. This chart is a great example of why ranking data frequently hide important information. The small gap in ranking masks the extraordinary absolute difference in incareration rates between white and black America.

The difference between rank #1 and rank #2 is enormous.

Econ_useexcept_lifeexpect_topThe opposite situation appears for life expectancy. The life expectancy values are bunched up especially at the top of the scale. The absolute difference between Hispanic and black America is 82 - 75 = 7 years, which looks small because the axis starts at zero. On a ranking scale, Hispanic is roughly in the top 15% while black America is just above the median. The relative difference is huge.

For life expectancy, ranking conveys the view that even a 7-year difference is a big deal because the countries are tightly bunched together. For prison population, ranking shows the view that a multiple fold difference is "unimportant" because a 20-0 blowout and a 10-0 blowout are both heavy defeats.

***

Whenever you transform numeric data to ranks, remember that you are artificially treating the gap between each value and the next value as a constant, even when the underlying numeric gaps show wide variance.

 

 

 

 

 


One of the most frequently produced maps is also one of the worst

Summer is here, many Americans are putting the pandemic in their rear-view mirrors, and gas prices are soaring. Business Insider told the story using this map:

Businessinsider_gasprices_1

What do we want to learn about gas prices this summer?

Which region has the highest / lowest prices?

How much higher / lower than the national average are the regional prices?

How much has prices risen, compared to last year, or compared to the last few weeks?

***

How much work did you have to do to get answers to those questions from the above map?

Unfortunately, this type of map continues to dominate the popular press. It merely delivers a geography lesson and not much else. Its dominant feature tells readers how to classify the 50 states into regions. Its color encodes no data.

Not surprisingly, this map fails the self-sufficiency test (link). The entire dataset is printed on the map, and if those numbers were removed, we would be left with a map of the regions of the U.S. The graphical elements of the chart are not doing much work.

***

In the following chart, I used the map as a color legend. Also, an additional plot shows each region's price level against the national average.

Junkcharts_redo_businessinsider_gasprices2021

One can certainly ditch the map altogether, which makes having seven colors unnecessary. To address other questions, just stack on other charts, for example, showing the price increase versus last year.

***

_trifectacheckup_imageFrom a Trifecta Checkup perspective, we find that the trouble starts with the Q corner. There are several important questions not addressed by the graphic. In the D corner, no context is provided to interpret the data. Are these prices abnormal? How do they compare to the national average or to a year ago? In the V corner, the chart takes too much effort to comprehend a basic fact, such as which region has the highest average price.

For more on the Trifecta Checkup, see this guide.

 


Did prices go up or down? Depends on how one looks at the data

The U.S. media have been flooded with reports of runaway inflation recently, and it's refreshing to see a nice article in the Wall Street Journal that takes a second look at the data. Because as my readers know, raw data can be incredibly deceptive.

Inflation typically describes the change in price level relative to the prior year. The month-on-month change in price levels is a simple seasonal adjustment used to remove the effect of seasonality that masks the true change in price levels. (See this explainer of seasonal adjustment.)

As the pandemic enters the second year, this methodology is comparing 2021 price levels to pandemic-impacted price levels of 2020. This produces a very confusing picture. As the WSJ article explains, prices can be lower than they were in 2019 (pre-pandemic) and yet substantially higher than they were in 2020 (during the pandemic). This happens in industry sectors that were heavily affected by the economic shutdown, e.g. hotels, travel, entertainment.

Wsj_pricechangehotels_20192021Here is how they visualized this phenomenon. Amusingly, some algorithm estimated that it should take 5 minutes to read the entire article. It may take that much time to understand properly what this chart is showing.

Let me save you some time.

The chart shows monthly inflation rates of hotel price levels.

The pink horizontal stripes represent the official inflation numbers, which compare each month's hotel prices to those of a year prior. The most recent value for May of 2021 says hotel prices rose by 9% compared to May of 2020.

The blue horizontal stripes show an alternative calculation which compares each month's hotel prices to those of two years prior. Think of 2018-9 as "normal" years, pre-pandemic. Using this measure, we find that hotel prices for May of 2021 are about 4% lower than for May of 2019.

(This situation affects all of our economic statistics. We may see an expansion in employment levels from a year ago which still leaves us behind where we were before the pandemic.)

What confused me on the WSJ chart are the blocks of color. In a previous chart, the readers learn that solid colors mean inflation rose while diagonal lines mean inflation decreased. It turns out that these are month-over-month changes in inflation rates (notice that one end of the column for the previous month touches one end of the column of the next month).

The color patterns become the most dominant feature of this chart, and yet the month-over-month change in inflation rates isn't the crux of the story. The real star of the story should be the difference in inflation rates - for any given month - between two reference years.

***

In the following chart, I focus attention on the within-month, between-reference-years comparisons.

Junkcharts_redo_wsj_inflationbaserate

Because hotel prices dropped drastically during the pandemic, and have recovered quite well in recent months as the U.S. reopens the economy, the inflation rate of hotel prices is almost 10%. Nevertheless, the current price level is still 7% below the pre-pandemic level.

 



 


Start at zero improves this chart but only slightly

The following chart was forwarded to me recently:

Average_female_height

It's a good illustration of why the "start at zero" rule exists for column charts. The poor Indian lady looks extremely short in this women's club. Is the average Indian woman really half as tall as the average South African woman? (Surely not!)

Junkcharts_redo_womenheight_columnThe problem is only superficially fixed by starting the vertical axis at zero. Doing so highlights the fact that the difference in average heights is but a fraction of the average heights themselves. The intra-country differences are squashed in such a representation - which works against the primary goal of the data visualization itself.

Recall the Trifecta Checkup. At the top of the trifecta is the Question. The designer obviously wants to focus our attention on the difference of the averages. A column chart showing average heights fails the job!

This "proper" column chart sends the message that the difference in average heights is noise, unworthy of our attention. But this is a bad take of the underlying data. The range of average heights across countries isn't that wide, by virtue of large population sizes.

According to Wikipedia, they range from 4 feet 10.5 to 5 feet 6 (I'm ignoring several entries in the table based on non representative small samples.) How do we know that the difference of 2 inches between averages of South Africa and India is actually a sizable difference? The Wikipedia table has the average heights for most of the world's countries. There are perhaps 200 values. These values are sprinkled inside the range of about 8 inches top to bottom. If we divide the full range into 10 equal bins, that's roughly 0.8 inches per bin. So if we have two numbers that are 2 inches apart, they almost span 2 bins. If the data were evenly distributed, that's a huge shift.

(In reality, the data should be normally distributed, bell-shaped, with much more at the center than on the edges. That makes a difference of 2 inches even more significant if these are normal values near the center but less significant if these are extreme values on the tails. Stats students should be able to articulate why we are sure the data are normally distributed without having to plot the data.)

***

The original chart has further problems.

Another source of distortion comes from the scaling of the stick figures. The aspect ratio is being preserved, which means the area is being scaled. Given that the heights are scaled as per the data, the data are encoded twice, the second time in the widths. This means that the sizes of these figures grow at the rate of the square of the heights. (Contrast this with the scaling discussed in my earlier post this week which preserves the relative areas.)

At the end of that last post, I discuss why adding colors to a chart when the colors do not encode any data is a distraction to the reader. And this average height chart is an example.

From the Data corner of the Trifecta Checkup, I'm intrigued by the choice of countries. Why is Scotland highlighted instead of the U.K.? Why Latvia? According to Wikipedia, the Latvia estimate is based on a 1% sample of only 19 year olds.

Some of the data appear to be incorrect (or the designer used a different data source). Wikipedia lists the average height of Latvian women as 5 ft 6.5 while the chart shows 5 ft 5 in. Peru's average height of females is listed as 4 ft 11.5 and of males as 5 ft 4.5. The chart shows 5 ft 4 in.

***

Lest we think only amateurs make this type of chart, here is an example of a similar chart in a scientific research journal:

Fnhum-14-00338-g007

(link to original)

I have seen many versions of the above column charts with error bars, and the vertical axes not starting at zero. In every case, the heights (and areas) of these columns do not scale with the underlying data.

***

I tried a variant of the stem-and-leaf plot:

Junkcharts_redo_womenheight_stemleaf

The scale is chosen to reflect the full range of average heights given in Wikipedia. The chart works better with more countries to fill out the distribution. It shows India is on the short end of the scale but not quite the lowest. (As mentioned above, Peru actually should be placed close to the lower edge.)