Same data + same chart form = same story. Maybe.

We love charts that tell stories.

Some people believe that if they situate the data in the right chart form, the stories reveal themselves.

Some people believe for a given dataset, there exists a best chart form that brings out the story.

An implication of these beliefs is that the story is immutable, given the dataset and the chart form.

If you use the Trifecta Checkup, you already know I don't subscribe to those ideas. That's why the Trifecta has three legs, the third is the question - which is related to the message or the story.


I came across the following chart by Statista, illustrating the growth in Covid-19 cases from the start of the pandemic to this month. The underlying data are collected by WHO and cover the entire globe. The data are grouped by regions.


The story of this chart appears to be that the world moves in lock step, with each region behaving more or less the same.

If you visit the WHO site, they show a similar chart:


On this chart, the regions at the bottom of the graph (esp. Southeast Asia in purple) clearly do not follow the same time patterns as Americas (orange) or Europe (green).

What we're witnessing is: same data, same chart form, different stories.

This is a feature, not a bug, of the stacked area chart. The story is driven largely by the order in which the pieces are stacked. In the Statista chart, the largest pieces are placed at the bottom while for WHO, the order is exactly reversed.

(There are minor differences which do not affect my argument. The WHO chart omits the "Other" category which accounts for very little. Also, the Statista chart shows the smoothed data using 7-day averaging.)

In this example, the order chosen by WHO preserves the story while the order chosen by Statista wipes it out.


What might be the underlying question of someone who makes this graph? Perhaps it is to identify the relative prevalence of Covid-19 in different regions at different stages of the pandemic.

Emphasis on the word "relative". Instead of plotting absolute number of cases, I consider plotting relative number of cases, that is to say, the proportion of cases in each region at given times.

This leads to a stacked area percentage chart.


In this side-by-side view, you see that this form is not affected by flipping the order of the regions. Both charts say the same thing: that there were two waves in Europe and the Americas that dwarfed all other regions.



Making graphics last over time

Yesterday, I analyzed the data visualization by the White House showing the progress of U.S. Covid-19 vaccinations. Here is the chart.


John who tweeted this at me, saying "please get a better data viz".

I'm happy to work with them or the CDC on better dataviz. Here's an example of what I do.


Obviously, I'm using made-up data here and this is a sketch. I want to design a chart that can be updated continuously, as data accumulate. That's one of the shortcomings of that bubble format they used.

In earlier months, the chart can be clipped to just the lower left corner.


Circular areas offer misleading cues of their underlying data

John M. pointed me on Twitter to this chart about the progress of U.S.'s vaccination campaign:


This looks like a White House production, retweeted by WHO. John is unhappy about this nested bubble format, which I'll come back to later.

Let's zoom in on what matters:


An even bigger problem with this chart is the Q corner in our Trifecta Checkup. What is the question they are trying to address? It would appear to be the proportion of population that has "already received [one or more doses of] vaccine". And the big words tell us the answer is 8 percent.

_junkcharts_trifectacheckupBut is that really the question? Check out the dark blue circle. It is labeled "population that has already received vaccine" and thus we infer this bubble represents 8 percent. Now look at the outer bubble. Its annotation is "new population that received vaccine since January 27, 2021". The only interpretation that makes sense is that 8 percent  is not the most current number. If that is the case, why would the headline highlight an older statistic, and not the most up-to-date one?

Perhaps the real question is how fast is the progress in vaccination. Perhaps it took weeks to get to the dark circle and then days to get beyond. In order to improve this data visualization, we must first decide what the question really is.


Now let's get to those nested bubbles. The bubble chart is a format that is not "sufficient," by which I mean the visual by itself does not convey the data without the help of aids such as labels. Try to answer the following questions:


In my view, if your answer to the last question is anything more than 5 seconds, the dataviz has failed. A successful data visualization should not make readers solve puzzles.

The first two questions depict the confusing nature of concentric circle diagrams. The first data point is coded to the inner circle. Where is the second data point? Is it encoded to the outer circle, or just the outer ring?

In either case, human brains are not trained to compare circular areas. For question 1, the outer circle is 70% larger than the smaller circle. For question 2, the ring is 70% of the area of the dark blue circle. If you're thinking those numbers seem unreasonable, I can tell you that was my first reaction too! So I made the following to convince myself that the calculation was correct:


Circular areas offer misleading visual cues, and should be used sparingly.

[P.S. 2/10/2021. In the next post, I sketch out an alternative dataviz for this dataset.]

Illustrating differential growth rates

Reader Mirko was concerned about a video published in Germany that shows why the new coronavirus variant is dangerous. He helpfully provided a summary of the transcript:

The South African and the British mutations of the SARS-COV-2 virus are spreading faster than the original virus. On average, one infected person infects more people than before. Researchers believe the new variant is 50 to 70 % more transmissible.

Here are two key moments in the video:


This seems to be saying the original virus (left side) replicates 3 times inside the infected person while the new variant (right side) replicates 19 times. So we have a roughly 6-fold jump in viral replication.


Later in the video, it appears that every replicate of the old virus finds a new victim while the 19 replicates of the new variant land on 13 new people, meaning 6 replicates didn't find a host.

As Mirko pointed out, the visual appears to have run away from the data. (In our Trifecta Checkup, we have a problem with the arrow between the D and the V corners. What the visual is saying is not aligned with what the data are saying.)


It turns out that the scientists have been very confusing when talking about the infectiousness of this new variant. The most quoted line is that the British variant is "50 to 70 percent more transmissible". At first, I thought this is a comment on the famous "R number". Since the R number around December was roughly 1 in the U.K, the new variant might bring the R number up to 1.7.

However, that is not the case. From this article, it appears that being 5o to 70 percent more transmissible means R goes up from 1 to 1.4. R is interpreted as the average number of people infected by one infected person.

Mirko wonders if there is a better way to illustrate this. I'm sure there are many better ways. Here's one I whipped up:


The left side is for the 40% higher R number. Both sides start at the center with 10 infected people. At each time step, if R=1 (right side), each of the 10 people infects 10 others, so the total infections increase by 10 per time step. It's immediately obvious that a 40% higher R is very serious indeed. Starting with 10 infected people, in 10 steps, the total number of infections is almost 1,000, almost 10 times higher than when R is 1.

The lines of the graphs simulate the transmission chains. These are "average" transmission chains since R is an average number.


P.S. [1/29/2021: Added the missing link to the article in which it is reported that 50-70 percent more transmissible implies R increasing by 40%.]



A beautiful curve and its deadly misinterpretation

When the preliminary analyses of their Phase 3 trials came out , vaccine developers pleased their audience of scientists with the following data graphic:


The above was lifted out of the FDA briefing document for the Pfizer / Biontech vaccine.

Some commentators have honed in on the blue line for the vaccinated arm of the Pfizer trial.


Since the vertical axis shows cumulative number of cases, it is noted that the vaccine reached peak efficacy after 14 days following the first dose. The second dose was administered around Day 21. At this point, the vaccine curve appeared almost flat. Thus, these commentators argued, we should make a big bet on the first dose.


The chart is indeed very beautiful. It's rare to see such a huge gap between the test group and the control group. Notice that I just described the gap between test and control. That's what a statistician is looking at in that chart - not the blue line, but the gap between the red and blue lines.

Imagine: if the curve for the placebo group looked the same as that for the vaccinated group, then the chart would lose all its luster. Screams of victory would be replaced by tears of sadness.

Here I bring back both lines, and you should focus on the gaps between the lines:


Does the action stop around day 14? The answer is a resounding No! In fact, the red line keeps rising so over time, the vaccine's efficacy improves (since VE is a ratio between the two groups).

The following shows the vaccine efficacy curve:


Right before the second dose, VE is just below 50%. VE keeps rising and reaches 70% by day 50, which is about a month after the second dose.

If the FDA briefing document has shown the VE curve, instead of the cumulative-cases curve, few would argue that you don't need the second dose!


What went wrong here? How come the beautiful chart may turn out to be lethal? (See this post on my book blog for reasons why I think foregoing or delaying the second dose will exacerbate the pandemic.)

It's a bit of bait and switch. The original chart plots cumulative case counts, separately for each treatment group. Cumulative case counts are inputs to computing vaccine efficacy. It is true that as the blue line for the vaccine flattens, VE would likely rise. But the case count for the vaccine group is an imperfect proxy for VE. As I showed above, the VE continues to gain strength long after the vaccine case count has levelled.

The important lesson for data visualization designers is: plot the metric that matters to decision-makers; avoid imperfect proxies.


P.S. [1/19/2021: For those who wants to get behind the math of all this, the following several posts on my book blog will help.

One-dose Pfizer is not happening, and here's why

The case for one-dose vaccines is lacking key details

One-dose vaccine strategy elevates PR over science


[1/21/2021: The Guardian chimes in with "Single Covid vaccine dose in Israel 'less effective than we thought'" (link). "In remarks reported by Army Radio, Nachman Ash said a single dose appeared “less effective than we had thought”, and also lower than Pfizer had suggested." To their credit, Pfizer has never publicly recommended a one-dose treatment.]

[1/21/2021: For people in marketing or business, I wrote up a new post that expresses the one-dose vs two-dose problem in terms of optimizing an email drip campaign. It boils down to: do you accept that argument that you should get rid of your latter touches because the first email did all the work? Or do you want to run an experiment with just one email before you decide? You can read this on the book blog here.]

Why you should expunge the defaults from Excel or (insert your favorite graphing program)

Yesterday, I posted the following chart in the post about Cornell's Covid-19 case rate after re-opening for in-person instruction.


This is an edited version of the chart used in Peter Frazier's presentation.


The original chart carries with it the burden of Excel defaults.

What did I change and why?

I switched away from the default color scheme, which ignores the relationships between the two lines. In particular, the key comparison on this chart should be the actual case rate versus the nominal case rate. In addition, the three lines at the top are related as they all come from the same underlying mathematical model. I used the same color but different shades.

Also, instead of placing the legend as far away from the data labels as possible, I moved the line labels next to the data labels.

Instead of daily date labels, I moved to weekly labels, and set the month names on a separate level than the day names.

The dots were removed from the top three lines but I'd have retained them, perhaps with some level of transparency, if I spent more time making the edits. I'd definitely keep the last dot to make it clear that the blue lines contain one extra dot.


Every graphing program has defaults, typically computed by some algorithm tuned to the average chart. Don't settle for the average chart. Get rid of any default setting that slows down understanding.



Putting vaccine trials in boxes

Bloomberg Businessweek has a special edition about vaccines, and I found this chart on the print edition:


The chart's got a lot of white space. Its structure is a series of simple "treemaps," one for each type of vaccine. Though simple, such a chart burns a few brain cells.

Here, I've extracted the largest block, which corresponds to vaccines that work with the virus's RNA/DNA. I applied a self-sufficiency test, removing the data from the boxes. 


What proportion of these projects have moved from pre-clinical to Phase 1?  To answer this question, we have to understand the relative areas of boxes, since that's how the data are encoded. How many yellow boxes can fit into the gray box?

It's not intuitive. We'd need a ruler to do this task properly.

Then, we learn that the gray box is exactly 8 times the size of the yellow box (72 projects are pre-clinical while 9 are in Phase I). We can cram eight yellows into the gray box. Imagine doing that, and it's pretty clear the visual elements fail to convey the meaning of the data.

Self-sufficiency is the idea that a data graphic should not rely on printed data to convey its meaning; the visual elements of a data graphic should bear much of the burden. Otherwise, use a data table. To test for self-sufficiency, cover up the printed data and see if the chart still works.


A key decision for the designer is the relative importance of (a) the number of projects reaching Phase III, versus (b) the number of projects utilizing specific vaccine strategies.

This next chart emphasizes the clinical phases:



Contrast this with the version shown in the online edition of Bloomberg (link), which emphasizes the vaccine strategies.


If any reader can figure out the logic of the ordering of the vaccine strategies, please leave a comment below.

Deaths as percent neither of cases nor of population. Deaths as percent of normal.

Yesterday, I posted a note about excess deaths on the book blog (link). The post was inspired by a nice data visualization by the New York Times (link). This is a great example of data journalism.


Excess deaths is a superior metric for measuring the effect of Covid-19 on public health. It's better than deaths as percent of cases. Also better than percent of the population.What excess deaths measure is deaths as a percent of normal. Normal is usually defined as the average deaths in the respective week in years past.

The red areas indicate how far the deaths in the Southern states are above normal. The highest peak, registered in Texas in late July, is 60 percent above the normal level.


The best way to appreciate the effort that went into this graphic is to imagine receiving the outputs from the model that computes excess deaths. A three-column spreadsheet with columns "state", "week number" and "estimated excess deaths".

The first issue is unequal population sizes. More populous states of course have higher death tolls. Transforming death tolls to an index pegged to the normal level solves this problem. To produce this index, we divide actual deaths by the normal level of deaths. So the spreadsheet must be augmented by two additional columns, showing the historical average deaths and actual deaths for each state for each week. Then, the excess death index can be computed.

The journalist builds a story around the migration of the coronavirus between different regions as it rages across different states  during different weeks. To this end, the designer first divides the dataset into four regions (South, West, Midwest and Northeast). Within each region, the states must be ordered. For each state, the week of peak excess deaths is identified, and the peak index is used to sort the states.

The graphic utilizes a small-multiples framework. Time occupies the horizontal axis, by convention. The vertical axis is compressed so that the states are not too distant. For the same reason, the component graphs are allowed to overlap vertically. The benefit of the tight arrangement is clearer for the Northeast as those peaks are particularly tall. The space-saving appearance reminds me of sparklines, championed by Ed Tufte.

There is one small tricky problem. In most of June, Texas suffered at least 50 percent more deaths than normal. The severity of this excess death toll is shortchanged by the low vertical height of each component graph. What forced such congestion is probably the data from the Northeast. For example, New York City:



New York City's death toll was almost 8 times the normal level at the start of the epidemic in the U.S. If the same vertical scale is maintained across the four regions, then the Northeastern states dwarf all else.


One key takeaway from the graphic for the Southern states is the persistence of the red areas. In each state, for almost every week of the entire pandemic period, actual deaths have exceeded the normal level. This is strong indication that the coronavirus is not under control.

In fact, I'd like to see a second set of plots showing the cumulative excess deaths since March. The weekly graphic is better for identifying the ebb and flow while the cumulative graphic takes measure of the total impact of Covid-19.


The above description leaves out a huge chunk of work related to computing excess deaths. I assumed the designer receives these estimates from a data scientist. See the related post in which I explain how excess deaths are estimated from statistical models.


Everything in Texas is big, but not this BIG

Long-time reader John forwarded the following chart via Twitter.


The chart shows the recent explosive growth in deaths due to Covid-19 in Texas. John flagged this graphic as yet another example in which the data are encoded to the lengths of the squares, not their areas.

Fixing this chart just requires fixing the length of one side of the square. I also flipped it to make a conventional column chart.


The final product:


An important qualification lurks in the footnote; it is directly applied to the label of July.

How much visual distortion is created when data are encoded to the lengths and not the areas? The following chart shows what readers see, assuming they correctly perceive the areas of those squares. The value for March is held the same as above while the other months show the death counts implied by the relative areas of the squares.


Owing to squaring, the smaller counts are artificially compressed while the big numbers are massively exaggerated.

This chart shows why the PR agency for the UK government deserves a Covid-19 bonus

The Economist illustrated some interesting consumer research with this chart (link):


The survey by Dalia Research asked people about the satisfaction with their country's response to the coronavirus crisis. The results are reduced to the "Top 2 Boxes", the proportion of people who rated their government response as "very well" or "somewhat well".

This dimension is laid out along the horizontal axis. The chart is a combo dot and bubble chart, arranged in rows by region of the world. Now what does the bubble size indicate?

It took me a while to find the legend as I was expecting it either in the header or the footer of the graphic. A larger bubble depicts a higher cumulative number of deaths up to June 15, 2020.

The key issue is the correlation between a country's death count and the people's evaluation of the government response.

Bivariate correlation is typically shown on a scatter plot. The following chart sets out the scatter plots in a small multiples format with each panel displaying a region of the world.


The death tolls in the Asian countries are low relative to the other regions, and yet the people's ratings vary widely. In particular, the Japanese people are pretty hard on their government.

In Europe, the people of Greece, Netherlands and Germany think highly of their government responses, which have suppressed deaths. The French, Spaniards and Italians are understandably unhappy. The British appears to be the most forgiving of their government, despite suffering a higher death toll than France, Spain or Italy. This speaks well of their PR operation.

Cumulative deaths should be adjusted by population size for a proper comparison across nations. When the same graphic is produced using deaths per million (shown on the right below), the general story is preserved while the pattern is clarified:


The right chart shows deaths per million while the left chart shows total deaths.


In the original Economist chart, what catches our attention first is the bubble size. Eventually, we notice the horizontal positioning of these bubbles. But the star of this chart ought to be the new survey data. I swapped those variables and obtained the following graphic:


Instead of using bubble size, I switched to using color to illustrate the deaths-per-million metric. If ratings of the pandemic response correlate tightly with deaths per million, then we expect the color of these dots to evolve from blue on the left side to red on the right side.

The peculiar loss of correlation in the U.K. stands out. Their PR firm deserves a bonus!