The one thing you're afraid to ask about histograms

In the previous post about a variant of the histogram, I glossed over a few perplexing issues - deliberately. Today's post addresses one of these topics: what is going on in the vertical axis of a histogram?

The real question is: what data are encoded in the histogram, and where?


Let's return to the dataset from the last post. I grabbed data from a set of international football (i.e. soccer) matches. Each goal scored has a scoring minute. If the goal is scored in regulation time, the scoring minute is a number between 1 and 90 minutes. Specifically, the data collector applies a rounding up: any goal scored between 0 and 60 seconds is recorded as 1, all the way up to a goal scored between 89 and 90th minute being recorded as 90. In this post, I only consider goals scored in regulation time so the horizontal axis is between 1-90 minutes.

The kneejerk answer to the posed question is: counts in bins. Isn't it the case that in constructing a histogram, we divide the range of values (1-90) into bins, and then plot the counts within bins, i.e. the number of goals scored within each bin of minutes?

The following is what we have in mind:


Let's call this the "count histogram".

Some readers may dislike the scale of the vertical axis, as its interpretation hinges on the total sample size. Hence, another kneejerk answer is: frequencies in bins. Instead of plotting counts directly, plot frequencies, which are just standardized counts. Just divide each value by the sample size. Here's the "frequency histogram":


The count and frequency histograms are identical except for the scale, and appear intuitively clear. The count and frequency data are encoded in the heights of the columns. The column widths are an afterthought, and they adhere to a fixed constant. Unlike a column chart, typically the gap width in a histogram is zero, as we want to partition the horizontal range into adjoining sections.

Now, if you look carefully at the histogram from the last post, reproduced below, you'd find that it plots neither counts nor frequencies:


The numbers on the axis are fractions, and suggest that they may be frequencies, but a quick check proves otherwise: with 9 columns, the average column should contain at least 10 percent of the data. The total of the displayed fractions is nowhere near 100%, which is our expectation if the values are relative frequencies. You may have come across this strangeness when creating histograms using R or some other software.

The purpose of this post is to explain what values are being plotted and why.


What are the kinds of questions we like to answer about the distribution of data?

At a high level, we want to know "where are my data"?

Arguably these two questions are fundamental:

  • what is the probability that the data falls within a given range of values? e.g., what is the probability that a goal is scored in the first 15 minutes of a football match?
  • what is the relative probability of data between two ranges of values? e.g. are teams more likely to score in last 5 minutes of the first half or the last five minutes of the second half of a football match?

In a histogram, the first question is answered by comparing a given column to the entire set of columns while the second question is answered by comparing one column to another column.

Let's see what we can learn from the count histogram.


In a count histogram, the heights encode the count data. To address the relative probability question, we note that the ratio of heights is the ratio of counts, and the ratio of counts is the same as the ratio of frequencies. Thus, we learn that teams are roughly 3000/1500 = 1.5 times more likely to score in the last 5 minutes of the second half than during the last 5 minutes of the first half. (See the green columns).

[For those who follow football, it's clear that the data collector treated goals scored during injury time of either half as scored during the last minute of the half, so this dataset can't be used to analyze timing of goals unless the real minutes were recorded for injury-time goals.]

To address the range probability question, we compare the aggregate height of the three orange columns with the total heights of all columns. Note that I said "height", not "area," because the heights directly encode counts. It's actually taxing to figure out the total height!

We resort to reading the total area of all columns. This should yield the correct answer: the area is directly proportional to the height because the column widths are fixed as a constant. Bear in mind, though, if the column widths vary (the theme of the last post), then areas and heights are not interchangable concepts.

Estimating the total area is still not easy, especially if the column heights exhibit high variance. What we need is the proportion of the total area that is orange. It's possible to see, not easy.

You may interject now to point out that the total area should equal the aggregate count (sample size). But that is a fallacy! It's very easy to make this error. The aggregate count is actually the total height, and because of that, the total area is the aggregate count multiplied by the column width! In my example, the total height is 23,682, which is the number of goals in the dataset, while the total area is 23,682 times 5 minutes.

[For those who think in equations, the total area is the sum over all columns of height(i) x width(i). When width is constant, we can take it outside the sum, and the sum of height(i) is just the total count.]


The count histogram is hard to use because it requires knowing the sample size. It's the first thing that is produced because the raw data are counts in bins. The frequency histogram is better at delivering answers.

In the frequency histogram, the heights encode frequency data. We can therefore just read off the relative probability of the orange column, bypassing the need to compute the total area.

This workaround actually promotes the fallacy described above for the count histogram. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the total area of all columns is 100%. It isn't.

Similar to before, the total height should be the total frequency but the total area is the total frequency multipled by the column width, that is to say, the total area is the reciprocal of the bin width. In the football example, using 5-minute intervals, the total area of the frequency histogram is 1/(5 minutes) in the case of equal bin widths.

How about the relative probability question? On the frequency histogram, the ratio of column heights is the ratio of frequencies, which is exactly what we want. So long as the column width is constant, comparing column heights is easy.


One theme in the above discussion is that in the count and frequency histograms, the count and frequency data are encoded in the column heights but not the column areas. This is a source of major confusion. Because of the convention of using equal column widths, one treats areas and heights as interchangable... but not always. The total column area isn't the same as the total column height.

This observation has some unsettling implications.

As shown above, the total area is affected by the column width. The column width in an equal-width histogram is the range of the x-values divided by the number of bins. Thus, the total area is a function of the number of bins.

Consider the following frequency histograms of the same scoring minutes dataset. The only difference is the number of bins used.


Increasing the number of bins has a series of effects:

  • the columns become narrower
  • the columns become shorter, because each narrower bin can contain at most the same count as the wider bin that contains it.
  • the total area of the columns become smaller.

This last one is unexpected and completely messes up our intuition. When we increase the number of bins, not only are the columns shortening but the total area covered by all the columns is also shrinking. Remember that the total area whether it is a count or frequency histogram has a factor equal to the bin width. Higher number of bins means smaller bin width, which means smaller total area.


What if we force the total area to be constant regardless of how many bins we use? This setting seems more intuitive: in the 5-bin histogram, we partition the total area into five parts while in the 10-bin histogram, we divide it into 10 parts.

This is the principle used by R and the other statistical software when they produce so-called density histograms. The count and frequency data are encoded in the column areas - by implication, the same data could not have been encoded simultaneously in the column heights!

The way to accomplish this is to divide by the bin width. If you look at the total area formulas above, for the count histogram, total area is total count x bin width. If the height is count divided by bin width, then the total area is the total count. Similarly, if the height in the frequency histogram is frequency divided by bin width, then the total area is 100%.

Count divided by some section of the x-range is otherwise known as "density". It captures the concept of how tightly the data are packed inside a particular section of the dataset. Thus, in a count-density histogram, the heights encode densities while the areas encode counts. In this case, total area is the total count. If we want to standardize total area to be 1, then we should compute densities using frequencies rather than counts. Frequency densities are just count densities divided by the total count.

To summarize, in a frequency-density histogram, the heights encode densities, defined as frequency divided by the bin width. This is not very intuitive; just think of densities as how closely packed the data are in the specified bin. The column areas encode frequencies so that the total area is 100%.

The reason why density histograms are confusing is that we are reading off column heights while thinking that the total area should add up to 100%. Column heights and column areas cannot both add up to 100%. We have to pick one or the other.

Comparing relative column heights still works when the density histogram has equal bin widths. In this case, the relative height and relative area are the same because relative density equals relative frequencies if the bin width is fixed.

The following charts recap the discussion above. It shows how the frequency histogram does not preserve the total area when bin sizes are changed while the density histogram does.



The density histogram is a major pain for solving range probability questions because the frequencies are encoded in the column areas, not the heights. Areas are not marked out in a graph.

The column height gives us densities which are not probabilities. In order to retrieve probabilities, we have to multiply the density by the bin width, that is to say, we must estimate the area of the column. That requires mapping two dimensions (width, height) onto one (area). It is in fact impossible without measurement - unless we make the bin widths constant.

When we make the bin widths constant, we still can't read densities off the vertical axis, and treat them as probabilities. If I must use the density histogram to answer the question of how likely a team scores in the first 15 minutes, I'd sum the heights of the first 3 columns, which is about 0.025, and then multiply it by the bin width of 5 minutes, which gives 0.125 or 12.5%.

At the end of this exploration, I like the frequency histogram best. The density histogram is useful when we are comparing different histograms, which isn't the most common use case.


The histogram is a basic chart in the tool kit. It's more complicated than it seems. I haven't come across any intro dataviz books that explain this clearly.

Most of this post deals with equal-width histograms. If we allow bin widths to vary, it gets even more complicated. Stay tuned.


For those using base R graphics, I hope this post helps you interpret what they say in the manual. The default behavior of the "hist" function depends on whether the bins are equal width:

  • if the bin width is constant, then R produces a count histogram. As shown above, in a count histogram, the column heights indicate counts in bins but the total column area does not equal the total sample size, but the total sample size multiplied by the bin width. (Equal width is the default unless the user specifies bin breakpoints.)
  • if the bin width is not constant, then R produces a (frequency-)density histogram. The column heights are densities, defined as frequencies divided by bin width while the column areas are frequencies, with the total area summing to 100%.

Unfortunately, R does not generate a frequency histogram. To make one, you'd have to divide the counts in bins by the sum of counts. (In making some of the graphs above, I tricked it.) You also need to trick it to make a frequency-density histogram with equal-width bins, as it's coded to produce a count histogram when bin size is fixed.


P.S. [5-2-2023] As pointed out by a reader, I should clarify that R and I use the word "frequency" differently. Specifically, R uses frequency to mean counts, therefore, what I have been calling the "count histogram", R would have called it a "frequency histogram", and what I have been describing as a "frequency histogram", the "hist" function simply does not generate it unless you trick it to do so. I'm using "frequency" in the everyday sense of the word, such as "the frequency of the bus". In many statistical packages, frequency is used to mean "count", as in the frequency table which is just a table of counts. The reader suggested proportion which I like, or something like weight.






Showing both absolute and relative values on the same chart 2

In the previous post, I looked at Visual Capitalist's visualization of the amount of uninsured deposits at U.S. banks. Using a stacked bar chart, I placed both absolute and relative values on the same chart.

In making that chart, I made these three tradeoffs.

First, I elevated absolute values (dollar amounts) over relative values (proportions). The original designer decided the opposite.

Second, I elevated the TBTF banks over the smaller banks. The original designer also decided the opposite.

Third, I elevated the total value over the disaggregated values (insured, uninsured). The original designer only visualized the uninsured values in the bars.

Which chart is better depends on what story one wants to tell.

For today's post, I'm showing another sketch of the same data, with the same goal of putting both absolute and relative values on the same chart.


The starting point of this sketch is the original chart - the stacked bar chart showing relative proportions. I added the insured portion so that it is on almost equal footing as the uninsured portion of the deposits. This edit is crucial to convey the impression of proportions.

My story hasn't changed; I still want to elevate the TBTF banks.

For this version, I try a different way of elevating TBTF banks. The key step is to encode data into the heights of the bars. I use these bar heights to convey the relative importance of banks, as reflected by total deposits.

The areas of the red blocks represent the uninsured amounts. That said, it's not easy to compare rectangular areas when both dimensions are different.

Comparing the total red area with the total yellow area, we learn that the majority of deposits in these banks are uninsured(!)


Showing both absolute and relative values on the same chart 1

Visual Capitalist has a helpful overview on the "uninsured" deposits problem that has become the talking point of the recent banking crisis. Here is a snippet of the chart that you can see in full at this link:


This is in infographics style. It's a bar chart that shows the top X banks. Even though the headline says "by uninsured deposits", the sort order is really based on the proportion of deposits that are uninsured, i.e. residing in accounts that exceed $250K.  They used a red color to highlight the two failed banks, both of which have at least 90% of deposits uninsured.

The right column provides further context: the total amounts of deposits, presented both as a list of numbers as well as a column of bubbles. As readers know, bubbles are not self-sufficient, and if the list of numbers were removed, the bubbles lost most of their power of communication. Big, small, but how much smaller?

There are little nuggets of text in various corners that provide other information.

Overall, this is a pretty good one as far as infographics go.


I'd prefer to elevate information about the Too Big to Fail banks (which are hiding in plain sight). Addressing this surfaces the usual battle between relative and absolute values. While the smaller banks have some of the highest concentrations of uninsured deposits, each TBTF bank has multiples of the absolute dollars of uninsured deposits as the smaller banks.

Here is a revised version:


The banks are still ordered in the same way by the proportions of uninsured value. The data being plotted are not the proportions but the actual deposit amounts. Thus, the three TBTF banks (Citibank, Chase and Bank of America) stand out of the crowd. Aside from Citibank, the other two have relatively moderate proportions of uninsured assets but the sizes of the red bars for any of these three dominate those of the smaller banks.

Notice that I added the gray segments, which portray the amount of deposits that are FDIC protected. I did this not just to show the relative sizes of the banks. Having the other part of the deposits allow readers to answer additional questions, such as which banks have the most insured deposits? They also visually present the relative proportions.


The most amazing part of this dataset is the amount of uninsured money. I'm trying to think who these account holders are. It would seem like a very small collection of people and/or businesses would be holding these accounts. If they are mostly businesses, is FDIC insurance designed to protect business deposits? If they are mostly personal accounts, then surely only very wealthy individuals hold most of these accounts.

In the above chart, I'm assuming that deposits and assets are referring to the same thing. This may not be the correct interpretation. Deposits may be only a portion of the assets. It would be strange though that the analysts only have the proportions but not the actual deposit amounts at these banks. Nevertheless, until proven otherwise, you should see my revision as a sketch - what you can do if you have both the total deposits and the proportions uninsured.

Bivariate choropleths

A reader submitted a link to Joshua Stephen's post about bivariate choropleths, which is the technical term for the map that FiveThirtyEight printed on abortion bans, discussed here. Joshua advocates greater usage of maps with two-dimensional color scales.

As a reminder, the fundamental building block is expressed in this bivariate color legend:


Counties are classified into one of these nine groups, based on low/middle/high ratings on two dimensions, distance and congestion.

The nine groups are given nine colors, built from superimposing shades of green and pink. All nine colors are printed on the same map.


Without a doubt, using these nine related colors are better than nine arbitrary colors. But is this a good data visualization?

Specifically, is the above map better than the pair of maps below?


The split map is produced by Josh to explain that the bivariate choropleth is just the superposition of two univariate choropleths. I much prefer the split map to the superimposed one.


Think about what the reader goes through when comparing two counties.


Superimposing the two univariate maps solves one problem: it removes the need to scan back and forth between two maps, looking for the same locations, something that is imprecise. (Unless, the map is interactive, and highlighting one county highlights the same county in the other map.)

For me, that's a small price to pay for quicker translation of color into information.



Finding the story in complex datasets

In CT Mirror's feature about Connecticut, which I wrote about in the previous post, there is one graphic that did not rise to the same level as the others.


This section deals with graduation rates of the state's high school districts. The above chart focuses on exactly five districts. The line charts are organized in a stack. No year labels are provided. The time window is 11 years from 2010 to 2021. The column of numbers show the difference in graduation rates over the entire time window.

The five lines look basically the same, if we ignore what looks to be noisy year-to-year fluctuations. This is due to the weird aspect ratio imposed by stacking.

Why are those five districts chosen? Upon investigation, we learn that these are the five districts with the biggest improvement in graduation rates during the 11-year time window.

The same five schools also had some of the lowest graduation rates at the start of the analysis window (2010). This must be so because if a school graduated 90% of its class in 2010, it would be mathematically impossible for it to attain a 35% percent point improvement! This is a dissatisfactory feature of the dataviz.


In preparing an alternative version, I start by imagining how readers might want to utilize a visualization of this dataset. I assume that the readers may have certain school(s) they are particularly invested in, and want to see its/their graduation performance over these 11 years.

How does having the entire dataset help? For one thing, it provides context. What kind of context is relevant? As discussed above, it's futile to compare a school at the top of the ranking to one that is near the bottom. So I created groups of schools. Each school is compared to other schools that had comparable graduation rates at the start of the analysis period.

Amistad School District, which takes pole position in the original dataviz, graduated only 58% of its pupils in 2010 but vastly improved its graduation rate by 35% over the decade. In the chart below (left panel), I plotted all of the schools that had graduation rates between 50 and 74% in 2010. The chart shows that while Amistad is a standout, almost all schools in this group experienced steady improvements. (Whether this phenomenon represents true improvement, or just grade inflation, we can't tell from this dataset alone.)


The right panel shows the group of schools with the next higher level of graduation rates in 2010. This group of schools too increased their graduation rates almost always. The rate of improvement in this group is lower than in the previous group of schools.

The next set of charts show school districts that already achieved excellent graduation rates (over 85%) by 2010. The most interesting group of schools consists of those with 85-89% rates in 2010. Their performance in 2021 is the most unpredictable of all the school groups. The majority of districts did even better while others regressed.


Overall, there is less variability than I'd expect in the top two school groups. They generally appeared to have been able to raise or maintain their already-high graduation rates. (Note that the scale of each chart is different, and many of the lines in the second set of charts are moving within a few percentages.)

One more note about the charts: The trend lines are "smoothed" to focus on the trends rather than the year to year variability. Because of smoothing, there is some awkward-looking imprecision e.g. the end-to-end differences read from the curves versus the observed differences in the data. These discrepancies can easily be fixed if these charts were to be published.

Thoughts on Daniel's fix for dual-axes charts

I've taken a little time to ponder Daniel Z's proposed "fix" for dual-axes charts (link). The example he used is this:


In that long post, Daniel explained why he preferred to mix a line with columns, rather than using the more common dual lines construction: to prevent readers from falsely attributing meaning to crisscrossing lines. There are many issues with dual-axes charts, which I won't repeat in this post; one of their most dissatisfying features is the lack of connection between the two vertical scales, and thus, it's pretty easy to manufacture an image of correlation when it doesn't exist. As shown in this old post, one can expand or restrict one of the vertical axes and shift the line up and down to "match" the other vertical axis.

Daniel's proposed fix retains the dual axes, and he even restores the dual lines construction.


How is this chart different from the typical dual-axes chart, like the first graph in this post?

Recall that the problem with using two axes is that the designer could squeeze, expand or shift one of the axes in any number of ways to manufacture many realities. What Daniel effectively did here is selecting one specific way to transform the "New Customers" axis (shown in gray).

His idea is to run a simple linear regression between the two time series. Think of fitting a "trendline" in Excel between Revenues and New Customers. Then, use the resulting regression equation to compute an "estimated" revenues based on the New Customers series. The coefficients of this regression equation then determines the degree of squeezing/expansion and shifting applied to the New Customers axis.

The main advantage of this "fix" is to eliminate the freedom to manufacture multiple realities. There is exactly one way to transform the New Customers axis.

The chart itself takes a bit of time to get used to. The actual values plotted in the gray line are "estimated revenues" from the regression model, thus the blue axis values on the left apply to the gray line as well. The gray axis shows the respective customer values. Because we performed a linear fit, each value of estimated revenues correspond to a particular customer value. The gray line is thus a squeezed/expanded/shifted replica of the New Customers line (shown in orange in the first graph). The gray line can then be interpreted on two connected scales, and both the blue and gray labels are relevant.


What are we staring at?

The blue line shows the observed revenues while the gray line displays the estimated revenues (predicted by the regression line). Thus, the vertical gaps between the two lines are the "residuals" of the regression model, i.e. the estimation errors. If you have studied Statistics 101, you may remember that the residuals are the components that make up the R-squared, which measures the quality of fit of the regression model. R-squared is the square of r, which stands for the correlation between Customers and the observed revenues. Thus the higher the (linear) correlation between the two time series, the higher the R-squared, the better the regression fit, the smaller the gaps between the two lines.


There is some value to this chart, although it'd be challenging to explain to someone who has not taken Statistics 101.

While I like that this linear regression approach is "principled", I wonder why this transformation should be preferred to all others. I don't have an answer to this question yet.


Daniel's fix reminds me of a different, but very common, chart.


This chart shows actual vs forecasted inflation rates. This chart has two lines but only needs one axis since both lines represent inflation rates in the same range.

We can think of the "estimated revenues" line above as forecasted or expected revenues, based on the actual number of new customers. In particular, this forecast is based on a specific model: one that assumes that revenues is linearly related to the number of new customers. The "residuals" are forecasting errors.

In this sense, I think Daniel's solution amounts to rephrasing the question of the chart from "how closely are revenues and new customers correlated?" to "given the trend in new customers, are we over- or under-performing on revenues?"

Instead of using the dual-axes chart with two different scales, I'd prefer to answer the question by showing this expected vs actual revenues chart with one scale.

This does not eliminate the question about the "principle" behind the estimated revenues, but it makes clear that the challenge is to justify why revenues is a linear function of new customers, and no other variables.

Unlike the dual-axes chart, the actual vs forecasted chart is independent of the forecasting method. One can produce forecasted revenues based on a complicated function of new customers, existing customers, and any other factors. A different model just changes the shape of the forecasted revenues line. We still have two comparable lines on one scale.






All about Connecticut

This dataviz project by CT Mirror is excellent. The project walks through key statistics of the state of Connecticut.

Here are a few charts I enjoyed.

The first one shows the industries employing the most CT residents. The left and right arrows are perfect, much better than the usual dot plots.


The industries are sorted by decreasing size from top to bottom, based on employment in 2019. The chosen scale is absolute, showing the number of employees. The relative change is shown next to the arrow heads in percentages.

The inclusion of both absolute and relative scales may be a source of confusion as the lengths of the arrows encode the absolute differences, not the relative differences indicated by the data labels. This type of decision is always difficult for the designer. Selecting one of the two scales may improve clarity but induce loss aversion.


The next example is a bumps chart showing the growth in residents with at least a bachelor's degree.


This is more like a slopegraph as it appears to draw straight lines between two time points 9 years apart, omitting the intervening years. Each line represents a state. Connecticut's line is shown in red. The message is clear. Connecticut is among the most highly educated out of the 50 states. It maintained this advantage throughout the period.

I'd prefer to use solid lines for the background states, and the axis labels can be sparser.

It's a little odd that pretty much every line has the same slope. I'm suspecting that the numbers came out of a regression model, with varying slopes by state, but the inter-state variance is low.

In the online presentation, one can click on each line to see the values.


The final example is a two-sided bar chart:


This shows migration in and out of the state. The red bars represent the number of people who moved out, while the green bars represent those who moved into the state. The states are arranged from the most number of in-migrants to the least.

I have clipped the bottom of the chart as it extends to 50 states, and the bottom half is barely visible since the absolute numbers are so small.

I'd suggest showing the top 10 states. Then group the rest of the states by region, and plot them as regions. This change makes the chart more compact, as well as more useful.


There are many other charts, and I encourage you to visit and support this data journalism.




Area chart is not the solution

A reader left a link to a Wiki chart, which is ghastly:


This chart concerns the trend of relative proportions of House representatives in the U.S. Congress by state, and can be found at this Wikipedia entry. The U.S. House is composed of Representatives, and the number of representatives is roughly proportional to each state's population. This scheme actually gives small states disporportional representation, since the lowest number of representatives is 1 while the total number of representatives is fixed at 435.

We can do a quick calculation: 1/435 = 0.23% so any state that has less than 0.23% of the population is over-represented in the House. Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming are all close to that level. The primary way in which small states get larger representation is via the Senate, which sits two senators per state no matter the size. (If you've wondered about Nate Silver's website: 435 Representatives + 100 Senators + 3 for DC = 538 electoral votes for U.S. Presidental elections.)


So many things have gone wrong with this chart. There are 50 colors for 50 states. The legend arranges the states by the appropriate metric (good) but in ascending order (bad). This is a stacked area chart, which makes it very hard to figure out the values other than the few at the bottom of the chart.

A nice way to plot this data is a tile map with line charts. I found a nice example that my friend Xan put together in 2018:


A tile map is a conceptual representation of the U.S. map in which each state is represented by equal-sized squares. The coordinates of the states are distorted in order to line up the tiles. A tile map is a small-multiples setup in which each square contains a chart of the same design to faciliate inter-state comparisons.

In the above map, Xan also takes advantage of the foregrounding concept. Each chart actually contains all 50 lines for every state, all shown in gray while the line for the specific state is bolded and shown in red.


A chart with 50 lines looks very different from one with 50 areas stacked on each other. California, the most populous state, has 12% of the total population so the line chart has 50 lines that will look like spaghetti. Thus, the fore/backgrounding is important to make sure it's readable.

I suspect that the designer chose a stacked area chart because the line chart looked like spaghetti. But that's the wrong solution. While the lines no longer overlap each other, it is a real challenge to figure out the state-level trends - one has to focus on the heights of the areas, rather than the boundary lines.

[P.S. 2/27/2023] As we like to say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Twitter reader with the handle LHZGJG made the tile map I described above. It looks like this:


You can pick out the states with the key changes really fast. California, Texas, Florida on the upswing, and New York, Pennsylvania going down. I like the fact that the state names are spelled out. Little tweaks are possible but this is a great starting point. Thanks LHZGJG! ]


Visual cues affect how data are perceived

Here's a recent NYT graphic showing California's water situation at different time scales (link to article).


It's a small multiples display, showing the spatial distribution of the precipitation amounts in California. The two panels show, respectively, the short-term view (past month) and the longer-term view (3 years). Precipitation is measured in relative terms,  so what is plotted is the relative ratio of precipitation in the reference period, with 100 being the 30-year average.

Green is much wetter than average while brown is much drier than average.

The key to making this chart work is a common color scheme across the two panels.

Also, the placement of major cities provides anchor points for our eyes to move back and forth between the two panels.


The NYT graphic is technically well executed. I'm a bit unhappy with the headline: "Recent rains haven't erased California's long-term drought".

At the surface, the conclusion seems sensible. Look, there is a lot of green, even deep green, on the left panel, which means the state got lots more rain than usual in the past month. Now, on the right panel, we find patches of brown, and very little green.

But pay attention to the scale. The light brown color, which covers the largest area, has value 70 to 90, thus, these regions have gotten 10-30% less precipitation than average in the past three years relative to the 30-year average.

Here's the question: what does it mean by "erasing California's long-term drought"? Does the 3-year average have to equal or exceed the 30-year average? Why should that be the case?

If we took all 3-year windows within those 30 years, we're definitely not going to find that each such 3-year average falls at or above the 30-year average. To illustrate this, I pulled annual rainfall data for San Francisco. Here is a histogram of 3-year averages for the 30-year period 1991-2020.


For example, the first value is the average rainfall for years 1989, 1990 and 1991, the next value is the average of 1990, 1991, and 1992, and so on. Each value is a relative value relative to the overall average in the 30-year window. There are two more values beyond 2020 that is not shown in the histogram. These are 57%, and 61%, so against the 30-year average, those two 3-year averages were drier than usual.

The above shows the underlying variability of the 3-year averages inside the reference time window. We have to first define "normal", and that might be a value between 70% and 130%.

In the same way, we can establish the "normal" range for the entire state of California. If it's also 70% to 130%, then the last 3 years as shown in the map above should be considered normal.



Trying too hard

Today, I return to the life expectancy graphic that Antonio submitted. In a previous post, I looked at the bumps chart. The centerpiece of that graphic is the following complicated bar chart.


Let's start with the dual axes. On the left, age, and on the right, year of birth. I actually like this type of dual axes. The two axes present two versions of the same scale so the dual axes exist without distortion. It just allows the reader to pick which scale they want to use.

It baffles me that the range of each bar runs from 2.5 years to 7.5 years or 7.5 years to 2.5 years, with 5 or 10 years situated in the middle of each bar.

Reading the rest of the chart is like unentangling some balled up wires. The author has created a statistical model that attributes cause of death to male life expectancy in such a way that you can take the difference in life expectancy between two time points, and do a kind of waterfall analysis in which each cause of death either adds to or subtracts from the prior life expectancy, with the sum of these additions and substractions leading to the end-of-period life expectancy.

The model is complicated enough, and the chart doesn't make it any easier.

The bars are rooted at the zero value. The horizontal axis plots addition or substraction to life expectancy, thus zero represents no change during the period. Zero does not mean the cause of death (e.g. cancer) does not contribute to life expectancy; it just means the contribution remains the same.

The changes to life expectancy are shown in units of months. I'd prefer to see units of years because life expectancy is almost always given in years. Using years turn 2.5 months into 0.2 years which is a fraction, but it allows me to see the impact on the reported life expectancy without having to do a month-to-year conversion.

The chart highlights seven causes of death with seven different colors, plus gray for others.

What really does a number on readers is the shading, which adds another layer on top of the hues. Each color comes in one of two shading, referencing two periods of time. The unshaded bar segments concern changes between 2010 and "2019" while the shaded segments concern changes between "2019" and 2020. The two periods are chosen to highlight the impact of COVID-19 (the red-orange color), which did not exist before "2019".

Let's zoom in on one of the rows of data - the 72.5 to 77.5 age group.

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COVID-19 (red-orange) has a negative impact on life expectancy and that's the easy one to see. That's because COVID-19's contribution as a cause of death is exactly zero prior to "2019". Thus, the change in life expectancy is a change from zero. This is not how we can interpret any of the other colors.

Next, we look at cancer (blue). Since this bar segment sits on the right side of zero, cancer has contributed positively to change in life expectancy between 2010 and 2020. Practically, that means proportionally fewer people have died from cancer. Since the lengths of these bar segments correspond to the relative value, not absolute value, of life expectancy, longer bars do not necessarily indicate more numerous deaths.

Now the blue segment is actually divided into two parts, the shaded and not shaded. The not-shaded part is for the period "2019" to 2020 in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The shaded part is for the period 2010 to "2019". It is a much wider span but it also contains 9 years of changes versus "1 year" so it's hard to tell if the single-year change is significantly different from the average single-year change of the past 9 years. (I'm using these quotes because I don't know whether they split the year 2019 in the middle since COVID-19 didn't show up till the end of that year.)

Next, we look at the yellow-brown color correponding to CVD. The key feature is that this block is split into two parts, one positive, one negative. Prior to "2019", CVD has been contributing positively to life expectancy changes while after "2019", it has contributed negatively. This observation raises some questions: why would CVD behave differently with the arrival of the pandemic? Are there data problems?


A small multiples design - splitting the period into two charts - may help here. To make those two charts comparable, I'd suggest annualizing the data so that the 9-year numbers represent the average annual values instead of the cumulative values.