Reading an infographic about our climate crisis

Let's explore an infographic by SCMP, which draws attention to the alarming temperature recorded at Verkhoyansk in Russia on June 20, 2020. The original work was on the back page of the printed newspaper, referred to in this tweet.

This view of the globe brings out the two key pieces of evidence presented in the infographic: the rise in temperature in unexpected places, and the shrinkage of the Arctic ice.


A notable design decision is to omit the color scale. On inspection, the scale is present - it was sewn into the graphic.


I applaud this decision as it does not take the reader's eyes away from the graphic. Some information is lost as the scale isn't presented in full details but I doubt many readers need those details.

A key takeaway is that the temperature in Verkhoyansk, which is on the edge of the Arctic Circle, was the same as in New Delhi in India on that day. We can see how the red was encroaching upon the Arctic Circle.


Next, the rapid shrinkage of the Arctic ice is presented in two ways. First, a series of maps.

The annotations are pared to the minimum. The presentation is simple enough such that we can visually judge that the amount of ice cover has roughly halved from 1980 to 2009.

A numerical measure of the drop is provided on the side.

Then, a line chart reinforces this message.

The line chart emphasizes change over time while the series of maps reveals change over space.


This chart suggests that the year 2020 may break the record for the smallest ice cover since 1980. The maps of Australia and India provide context to interpret the size of the Arctic ice cover.

I'd suggest reversing the pink and black colors so as to refer back to the blue and pink lines in the globe above.


The final chart shows the average temperature worldwide and in the Arctic, relative to a reference period (1981-2000).


This one is tough. It looks like an area chart but it should be read as a line chart. The darker line is the anomaly of Arctic average temperature while the lighter line is the anomaly of the global average temperature. The two series are synced except for a brief period around 1940. Since 2000, the temperatures have been dramatically rising above that of the reference period.

If this is a stacked area chart, then we'd interpret the two data series as summable, with the sum of the data series signifying something interesting. For example, the market shares of different web browsers sum to the total size of the market.

But the chart above should not be read as a stacked area chart because the outside envelope isn't the sum of the two anomalies. The problem is revealed if we try to articulate what the color shades mean.


On the far right, it seems like the dark shade is paired with the lighter line and represents global positive anomalies while the lighter shade shows Arctic's anomalies in excess of global. This interpretation only works if the Arctic line always sits above the global line. This pattern is broken in the late 1990s.

Around 1999, the Arctic's anomaly is negative while the global anomaly is positive. Here, the global anomaly gets the lighter shade while the Arctic one is blue.

One possible fix is to encode the size of the anomaly into the color of the line. The further away from zero, the darker the red/blue color.



Dreamy Hawaii

I really enjoyed this visual story by ProPublica and Honolulu Star-Advertiser about the plight of beaches in Hawaii (link).

The story begins with a beautiful invitation:


This design reminds me of Vimeo's old home page. (It no longer looks like this today but this screenshot came from when I was the data guy there.) In both cases, the images are not static but moving.


The tour de force of this visual story is an annotated walk along the Lanikai Beach. Here is a snapshot at one of the stops:


This shows a particular homeowner who, according to documents, was permitted to rebuild a destroyed seawall even though officials were supposed to disallow reconstruction in order to protect beaches from eroding. The property is marked on the map above. The image inside the box is a gif showing waves smashing the seawall.

As the reader scrolls down, the image window runs through a carousel of gifs of houses along the beach. The images are synchronized to the reader's progress along the shore. The narrative makes stops at specific houses at which point a text box pops up to provide color commentary.


The erosion crisis is shown in this pair of maps.


There's some fancy work behind the scenes to patch together images, and estimate the boundaries of th beaches.


The following map is notable for its simplicity. There are no unnecessary details and labels. We don't need to know the name of every street or a specific restaurant. Removing excess details makes readers focus on the informative parts. 


Clicking on the dots brings up more details.


Enjoy the entire story here.

I made a streamgraph

The folks at FiveThirtyEight were excited about the following dataviz they published last week two weeks ago, illustrating the progression of vote-counting by state. (link) That was indeed the unique and confusing feature of the 2020 Presidential election in the States. For those outside the U.S., what happened (by and large) was that many Americans, skewing Biden supporters, voted by mail before Election Day but their votes were sometimes counted after the same-day votes were tallied.



A number of us kept staring at these charts, hoping for a how-to-read-it explanation. Here is a zoom-in for the state of Michigan:


To save you the trouble, here is how.

The key is to fight your urge to look at the brown area. I know, it's pretty hard to ignore the biggest areas of every chart. But try to make them disappear.

Focus on the top edge of the chart. This line gives the total number of votes counted so far. In Michigan, by hour 12, about 2.4 million votes were counted, and by hour 72, 2.8 million votes were on the book. This line gives the sum of the two major parties' vote totals [since third parties got negligible votes in this election, I'm ignoring them so as to simplify the discussion].

Next, look at the red and blue areas. These represent the gap in the number of votes between the two parties' current vote totals. If the area is red, Trump was leading; if blue, Biden was leading. Each color flip represents a lead change. Suppress the urge to interpret red as the number or share of Trump votes.


What have we learned about the vote counting in Michigan?

Counting significantly slowed after the 12th hour. Trump raced to a lead on Election Day, and around hour 20, the race was dead even, and after that, Biden overtook Trump and never looked back. Throughout most of this period, the vote lead was small compared to the total votes cast although at the end, the Biden lead was noticeable.

If you insist on interpreting the brown area, it is equal to twice the vote total of the second-place candidate, so it really isn't something you want to look at.

Just for contrast, here is the chart for Iowa:


Trump led from beginning to end, with his lead widening slightly as more votes were counted.


As I was stewing over this chart, a ominous thought overcame me. Would a streamgraph work for this data? You don't hear much about streamgraphs here because I rarely favor them (see this long-ago post) but let's just try one and see.


(These streamgraphs were made in R using the streamgraph package. Post-processing was applied to customize the labeling.)

This chart conveys all the key points listed before. You can see how the gap evolved over time, the lead flips, which candidate was in the lead, and the total mass of votes counted at different times. The gap is shown in the middle.

I can't say I'm completely happy with the streamgraph - I hope readers don't care about the numbers because it's hard to evaluate a difference when it's split two ways on either side of the middle axis!


If you come up with a better idea, make sure to leave a comment.





Election visual 3: a strange, mash-up visualization

Continuing our review of FiveThirtyEight's election forecasting model visualization (link), I now look at their headline data visualization. (The previous posts in this series are here, and here.)


It's a set of 22 maps, each showing one election scenario, with one candidate winning. What chart form is this?

Small multiples may come to mind. A small-multiples chart is a grid in which every component graphic has the same form - same chart type, same color scheme, same scale, etc. The only variation from graphic to graphic is the data. The data are typically varied along a dimension of interest, for example, age groups, geographic regions, years. The following small-multiples chart, which I praised in the past (link), shows liquor consumption across the world.

image from

Each component graphic changes according to the data specific to a country. When we scan across the grid, we draw conclusions about country-to-country variations. As with convention, there are as many graphics as there are countries in the dataset. Sometimes, the designer includes only countries that are directly relevant to the chart's topic.


What is the variable FiveThirtyEight chose to vary from map to map? It's the scenario used in the election forecasting model.

This choice is unconventional. The 22 scenarios is a subset of the 40,000 scenarios from the simulation - we are left wondering how those 22 are chosen.

Returning to our question: what chart form is this?

Perhaps you're reminded of the dot plot from the previous post. On that dot plot, the designer summarized the results of 40,000 scenarios using 100 dots. Since Biden is the winner in 75 percent of all scenarios, the dot plot shows 75 blue dots (and 25 red).

The map is the new dot. The 75 blue dots become 16 blue maps (rounded down) while the 25 red dots become 6 red maps.

Is it a pictogram of maps? If we ignore the details on the maps, and focus on the counts of colors, then yes. It's just a bit challenging because of the hole in the middle, and the atypical number of maps.

As with the dot plot, the map details are a nice touch. It connects readers with the simulation model which can feel very abstract.

Oddly, if you're someone familiar with probabilities, this presentation is quite confusing.

With 40,000 scenarios reduced to 22 maps, each map should represent 1818 scenarios. On the dot plot, each dot should represent 400 scenarios. This follows the rule for creating pictograms. Each object in a pictogram - dot, map, figurine, etc. - should encode an equal amount of the data. For the 538 visualization, is it true that each of the six red maps represents 1818 scenarios? This may be the case but not likely.

Recall the dot plot where the most extreme red dot shows a scenario in which Trump wins 376 out of 538 electoral votes (margin = 214). Each dot should represent 400 scenarios. The visualization implies that there are 400 scenarios similar to the one on display. For the grid of maps, the following red map from the top left corner should, in theory, represent 1,818 similar scenarios. Could be, but I'm not sure.


Mathematically, each of the depicted scenario, including the blowout win above, occurs with 1/40,000 chance in the simulation. However, one expects few scenarios that look like the extreme scenario, and ample scenarios that look like the median scenario.  

So, the right way to read the 538 chart is to ignore the map details when reading the embedded pictogram, and then look at the small multiples of detailed maps bearing in mind that extreme scenarios are unique while median scenarios have many lookalikes.

(Come to think about it, the analogous situation in the liquor consumption chart is the relative population size of different countries. When comparing country to country, we tend to forget that the data apply to large numbers of people in populous countries, and small numbers in tiny countries.)


There's a small improvement that can be made to the detailed maps. As I compare one map to the next, I'm trying to pick out which states that have changed to change the vote margin. Conceptually, the number of states painted red should decrease as the winning margin decreases, and the states that shift colors should be the toss-up states.

So I'd draw the solid Republican (Democratic) states with a lighter shade, forming an easily identifiable bloc on all maps, while the toss-up states are shown with a heavier shade.


Here, I just added a darker shade to the states that disappear from the first red map to the second.

Election visuals 2: informative and playful

In yesterday's post, I reviewed one section of 538's visualization of its election forecasting model, specifically, the post focuses on the probability plot visualization.

The visualization, technically called  a pdf, is a mainstay of statistical graphics. While every one of 40,000 scenarios shows up on this chart, it doesn't offer a direct answer to our topline question. What is Nate's call at this point in time? Elsewhere in their post, we learn that the 538 model currently gives Biden a 75% chance of winning, thrice that of Trump's.


In graphical terms, the area to the right of the 270-line is three times the size of the left area (on the bottom chart). That's not apparent in the pdf representation. Addressing this, statisticians may convert the pdf into a cdf, which depicts the cumulative area as we sweep from the left to the right along the horizontal axis.  

The cdf visualization rarely leaves the pages of a scientific journal because it's not easy for a novice to understand. Not least because the relevant probability is 1 minus the cumulative probability. The cdf for the bottom chart will show 25% at the 270-line while the chance of Biden winning is 1 - 25% = 75%.

The cdf presentation is also wasteful for the election scenario. No one cares about any threshold other than the 270 votes needed to win, but the standard cdf shows every possible threshold.

The second graphical concept in the 538 post (link) is an attempt to solve this problem.


If you drop all the dots to an imaginary horizontal baseline, the above dotplot looks like this:


There is a recent trend toward centering dots to produce symmetry. It's actually harder to perceive the differences in heights of the band.

The secret sauce is to put down 100 dots, with a 75-25 blue-red split that conveys the 75% chance of a Biden win. Imposing the pdf line from the other visualization, I find that the density of dots roughly mimics the probability of outcomes.


It's easier to estimate the blue vs red areas using those dots than the lines.

The dots are stuffed toys. Clicking on each dot reveals a map showing one of the 40,000 scenarios. It displays which candidate wins which state. For example, the most extreme example of a Trump win is:


Here is a scenario of a razor-tight election won by Trump:


This presentation has a weakness as well. It gives the impression that each of the dots is equally important because they are the same size. In reality, the importance of each dot is proportional to the height of the band. Since the band is generally wider near the middle, the dots near the middle are more likely scenarios than the dots shown on the two edges.

On balance, I like this visualization that is both informative and playful.

As before, what strikes me about the simulation result is the flatness of the probability surface. This feature is obscured when we summarize the result as 75% chance of a Biden victory.

Designs of two variables: map, dot plot, line chart, table

The New York Times found evidence that the richest segments of New Yorkers, presumably those with second or multiple homes, have exited the Big Apple during the early months of the pandemic. The article (link) is amply assisted by a variety of data graphics.

The first few charts represent different attempts to express the headline message. Their appearance in the same article allows us to assess the relative merits of different chart forms.

First up is the always-popular map.


The advantage of a map is its ease of comprehension. We can immediately see which neighborhoods experienced the greater exoduses. Clearly, Manhattan has cleared out a lot more than outer boroughs.

The limitation of the map is also in view. With the color gradient dedicated to the proportions of residents gone on May 1st, there isn't room to express which neighborhoods are richer. We have to rely on outside knowledge to make the correlation ourselves.

The second attempt is a dot plot.


We may have to take a moment to digest the horizontal axis. It's not time moving left to right but income percentiles. The poorest neighborhoods are to the left and the richest to the right. I'm assuming that these percentiles describe the distribution of median incomes in neighborhoods. Typically, when we see income percentiles, they are based on households, regardless of neighborhoods. (The former are equal-sized segments, unlike the latter.)

This data graphic has the reverse features of the map. It does a great job correlating the drop in proportion of residents at home with the income distribution but it does not convey any spatial information. The message is clear: The residents in the top 10% of New York neighborhoods are much more likely to have left town.

In the following chart, I attempted a different labeling of both axes. It cuts out the need for readers to reverse being home to not being home, and 90th percentile to top 10%.


The third attempt to convey the income--exit relationship is the most successful in my mind. This is a line chart, with time on the horizontal axis.


The addition of lines relegates the dots to the background. The lines show the trend more clearly. If directly translated from the dot plot, this line chart should have 100 lines, one for each percentile. However, the closeness of the top two lines suggests that no meaningful difference in behavior exists between the 20th and 80th percentiles. This can be conveyed to readers through a short note. Instead of displaying all 100 percentiles, the line chart selectively includes only the 99th , 95th, 90th, 80th and 20th percentiles. This is a design choice that adds by subtraction.

Along the time axis, the line chart provides more granularity than either the map or the dot plot. The exit occurred roughly over the last two weeks of March and the first week of April. The start coincided with New York's stay-at-home advisory.

This third chart is a statistical graphic. It does not bring out the raw data but features aggregated and smoothed data designed to reveal a key message.

I encourage you to also study the annotated table later in the article. It shows the power of a well-designed table.

[P.S. 6/4/2020. On the book blog, I have just published a post about the underlying surveillance data for this type of analysis.]



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.)


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.

Choosing between individuals and aggregates

Friend/reader Thomas B. alerted me to this paper that describes some of the key chart forms used by cancer researchers.

It strikes me that many of the "new" charts plot granular data at the individual level. This heatmap showing gene expressions show one column per patient:


This so-called swimmer plot shows one bar per patient:


This spider plot shows the progression of individual patients over time. Key events are marked with symbols.


These chart forms are distinguished from other ones that plot aggregated statistics: statistical averages, medians, subgroup averages, and so on.

One obvious limitation of such charts is their lack of scalability. The number of patients, the variability of the metric, and the timing of trends all drive up the amount of messiness.

I am left wondering what Question is being addressed by these plots. If we are concerned about treatment of an individual patient, then showing each line by itself would be clearer. If we are interested in the average trends of patients, then a chart that plots the overall average, or subgroup averages would be more accurate. If the interpretation of the individual's trend requires comparing with similar patients, then showing that individual's line against the subgroup average would be preferred.

When shown these charts of individual lines, readers are tempted to play the statistician - without using appropriate tools! Readers draw aggregate conclusions, performing the aggregation in their heads.

The authors of the paper note: "Spider plots only provide good visual qualitative assessment but do not allow for formal statistical inference." I agree with the second part. The first part is a fallacy - if the visual qualitative assessment is good enough, then no formal inference is necessary! The same argument is often made when people say they don't need advanced analysis because their simple analysis is "directionally accurate". When is something "directionally inaccurate"? How would one know?

Reference: Chia, Gedye, et. al., "Current and Evolving Methods to Visualize Biological Data in Cancer Research", JNCI, 2016, 108(8). (link)


Meteoreologists, whom I featured in the previous post, also have their own spider-like chart for hurricanes. They call it a spaghetti map:


Compare this to the "cone of uncertainty" map that was featured in the prior post:


These two charts build upon the same dataset. The cone map, as we discussed, shows the range of probable paths of the storm center, based on all simulations of all acceptable models for projection. The spaghetti map shows selected individual simulations. Each line is the most likely trajectory of the storm center as predicted by a single simulation from a single model.

The problem is that each predictive model type has its own historical accuracy (known as "skill"), and so the lines embody different levels of importance. Further, it's not immediately clear if all possible lines are drawn so any reader making conclusions of, say, the envelope containing x percent of these lines is likely to be fooled. Eyeballing the "cone" that contains x percent of the lines is not trivial either. We tend to naturally drift toward aggregate statistical conclusions without the benefit of appropriate tools.

Plots of individuals should be used to address the specific problem of assessing individuals.

As Dorian confounds meteorologists, we keep our minds clear on hurricane graphics, and discover correlation as our friend

As Hurricane Dorian threatens the southeastern coast of the U.S., forecasters are fretting about the lack of consensus among various predictive models used to predict the storm’s trajectory. The uncertainty of these models, as reflected in graphical displays, has been a controversial issue in the visualization community for some time.

Let’s start by reviewing a visual design that has captured meteorologists in recent years, something known as the cone map.


If asked to explain this map, most of us trace a line through the middle of the cone understood to be the center of the storm, the “cone” as the areas near the storm center that are affected, and the warmer colors (red, orange) as indicating higher levels of impact. [Note: We will  design for this type of map circa 2000s.]

The above interpretation is complete, and feasible. Nevertheless, the data used to make the map are forward-looking, not historical. It is still possible to stick to the same interpretation by substituting historical measurement of impact with its projection. As such, the “warmer” regions are projected to suffer worse damage from the storm than the “cooler” regions (yellow).

After I replace the text that was removed from the map (see below), you may notice the color legend, which discloses that the colors on the map encode probabilities, not storm intensity. The text further explains that the chart shows the most probable path of the center of the storm – while the coloring shows the probability that the storm center will reach specific areas.



When reading a data graphic, we rarely first look for text about how to read the chart. In the case of the cone map, those who didn’t seek out the instructions may form one of these misunderstandings:

  1. For someone living in the yellow-shaded areas, the map does not say that the impact of the storm is projected to be lighter; it’s that the center of the storm has a lower chance of passing right through. If, however, the storm does pay a visit, the intensity of the winds will reach hurricane grade.
  2. For someone living outside the cone, the map does not say that the storm will definitely bypass you; it’s that the chance of a direct hit is below the threshold needed to show up on the cone map. Thee threshold is set to attain 66% accurate. The actual paths of storms are expected to stay inside the cone two out of three times.

Adding to the confusion, other designers have produced cone maps in which color is encoding projections of wind speeds. Here is the one for Dorian.


This map displays essentially what we thought the first cone map was showing.

One way to differentiate the two maps is to roll time forward, and imagine what the maps should look like after the storm has passed through. In the wind-speed map (shown below right), we will see a cone of damage, with warmer colors indicating regions that experienced stronger winds.


In the storm-center map (below right), we should see a single curve, showing the exact trajectory of the center of the storm. In other words, the cone of uncertainty dissipates over time, just like the storm itself.



After scientists learned that readers were misinterpreting the cone maps, they started to issue warnings, and also re-designed the cone map. The cone map now comes with a black-box health warning right up top. Also, in the storm-center cone map, color is no longer used. The National Hurricane Center even made a youtube pointing out the dos and donts of using the cone map.



The conclusion drawn from misreading the cone map isn’t as devastating as it’s made out to be. This is because the two issues are correlated. Since wind speeds are likely to be stronger nearer to the center of the storm, if one lives in a region that has a low chance of being a direct hit, then that region is also likely to experience lower average wind speeds than those nearer to the projected center of the storm’s path.

Alberto Cairo has written often about these maps, and in his upcoming book, How Charts Lie, there is a nice section addressing his work with colleagues at the University of Miami on improving public understanding of these hurricane graphics. I highly recommended Cairo’s book here.

P.S. [9/5/2019] Alberto also put out a post about the hurricane cone map.




Water stress served two ways

Via Alberto Cairo (whose new book How Charts Lie can be pre-ordered!), I found the Water Stress data visualization by the Washington Post. (link)

The main interest here is how they visualized the different levels of water stress across the U.S. Water stress is some metric defined by the Water Resources Institute that, to my mind, measures the demand versus supply of water. The higher the water stress, the higher the risk of experiencing droughts.

There are two ways in which the water stress data are shown: the first is a map, and the second is a bubble plot.


This project provides a great setting to compare and contrast these chart forms.

How Data are Coded

In a map, the data are usually coded as colors. Sometimes, additional details can be coded as shades, or moire patterns within the colors. But the map form locks down a number of useful dimensions - including x and y location, size and shape. The outline map reserves all these dimensions, rendering them unavailable to encode data.

By contrast, the bubble plot admits a good number of dimensions. The key ones are the x- and y- location. Then, you can also encode data in the size of the dots, the shape, and the color of the dots.

In our map example, the colors encode the water stress level, and a moire pattern encodes "arid areas". For the scatter plot, x = daily water use, y = water stress level, grouped by magnitude, color = water stress level, size = population. (Shape is constant.)

Spatial Correlation

The map is far superior in displaying spatial correlation. It's visually obvious that the southwestern states experience higher stress levels.

This spatial knowledge is relinquished when using a bubble plot. The designer relies on the knowledge of the U.S. map in the head of the readers. It is possible to code this into one of the available dimensions, e.g. one could make x = U.S. regions, but another variable is sacrificed.

Non-contiguous Spatial Patterns

When spatial patterns are contiguous, the map functions well. Sometimes, spatial patterns are disjoint. In that case, the bubble plot, which de-emphasizes the physcial locations, can be superior. In our example, the vertical axis divides the states into five groups based on their water stress levels. Try figuring out which states are "medium to high" water stress from the map, and you'll see the difference.

Finer Geographies

The map handles finer geographical units like counties and precincts better. It's completely natural.

In the bubble plot, shifting to finer units causes the number of dots to explode. This clutters up the chart. Besides, while most (we hope) Americans know the 50 states, most of us can't recite counties or precincts. Thus, the designer can't rely on knowledge in our heads. It would be impossible to learn spatial patterns from such a chart.


The key, as always, is to nail down your message, then select the right chart form.