The curse of dimensions

Usually the curse of dimensions concerns data with many dimensions. But today I want to talk about a different kind of curse. This is the curse of dimensions in mapping.

We are only talking about a few dimensions, typically between 3 and 6, so small number of dimensions. And yet it's already a curse. Maps are typically drawn in two dimensions. Those two dimensions are usually spoken for: they show the x- and y-coordinate of space. If we want to include a third, fourth or fifth dimension of data on the map, we have to appeal to colors, shapes, and so on. Cartographers have long realized that adding dimensions involves tradeoffs.

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Andrew featured some colored bubble maps in a recent post. Here is one example:

Dorlingmap_percenthispanic

The above map shows the proportion of population in each U.S. county that is Hispanic. Each county is represented by a bubble pinned to the centroid of the county. The color of the bubble shows the data, divided into demi-deciles so they are using a equal-width binning method. The size of a bubble indicates the size of a county.

The map is sometimes called a "Dorling map" after its presumptive original designer.

I'm going to use this map to explore the curse of dimensions.

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It's clear from the design that county-level details are regarded as extremely important. As there are about 3,000 counties in the U.S., I don't see how any visual design can satisfy this requirement without giving up clarity.

More details require more objects, which spread readers' attention. More details contain more stories, but that too dilutes their focus.

Another principle of this map is to not allow bubbles to overlap. Of course, having bubbles overlap or print on top of one another is a visual faux pas. But to prevent such behavior on this particular design means the precise locations are sacrificed. Consider the eastern seaboard where there are densely populated counties: they are not pinned to their centroids. Instead, the counties are pushed out of their normal positions, similar to making a cartogram.

I remarked at the start – erroneously but deliberately – that each bubble is centered at the centroid of each county. I wonder how many of you noticed the inaccuracy of that statement. If that rule were followed, then the bubbles in New England would have overlapped and overprinted. 

This tradeoff affects how we perceive regional patterns, as all the densely populated regions are bent out of shape.

Another aspect of the data that the designer treats as important is county population, or rather relative county population. Relative – because bubble size don't portray absolutes, plus the designer didn't bother to provide a legend to decipher bubble sizes.

The tradeoff is location. The varying bubble sizes, coupled with the previous stipulation of no overlapping, push bubbles from their proper centroids. This forced displacement disproportionately affects larger counties.

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What if we are willing to sacrifice county-level details?

In this setting, we are not obliged to show every single county. One alternative is to perform spatial smoothing. Intuitively, think about the following steps: plot all these bubbles in their precise locations, turn the colors slightly transparent, let them overlap, blend away the edges, and then we have a nice picture of where the Hispanic people are located.

I have sacrificed the county-level details but the regional pattern becomes much clearer, and we don't need to deviate from the well-understood shape of the standard map.

This version reminds me of the language maps that Josh Katz made.

Joshkatz_languagemap

Here is an old post about these maps.

This map design only reduces but does not eliminate the geographical inaccuracy. It uses the same trick as the Dorling map: the "vertical" density of population has been turned into "horizontal" span. It's a bit better because the centroids are not displaced.

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Which map is better depends on what tradeoffs one is making. In the above example, I'd have made different choices.

 

One final thing – it's minor but maybe not so minor. Most of the bubbles on the map especially in the middle are tiny; as most of them have Hispanic proportions that are on the left side of the scale, they should be showing light orange. However, all of them appear darker than they ought to be. That's because each bubble has a dark border. For small bubbles, the ratio of ink on the border is a high proportion of the ink for the entire object.


What's a histogram?

Almost all graphing tools make histograms, and almost all dataviz books cover the subject. But I've always felt there are many unanswered questions. In my talk this Thursday in NYC, I'll provide some answers. You can reserve a spot here.

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Here's the most generic histogram:

Salaries_count_histogram

Even Excel can make this kind of histogram. Notice that we have counts in the y-axis. Is this really a useful chart?

I haven't found this type of histogram useful ever, since I don't do analyses in which I needed to know the exact count of something - when I analyze data, I'm generalizing from the observed sample to a larger group.

Speaking of Excel, I felt that the developers have always hated histograms. Why is it much harder to make histograms than other basic charts?

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Another question. We often think of histograms as a crude approximation to a probability density function (PDF). An example of a PDF is the famous bell curve. Textbooks sometimes show the concept like this:

Histogram_normal_pdf

This is true of only some types of histograms (and not the one shown in the first section!) Instead, we often face the following situation:

Normals_histogram50_undercurve

This isn't a trick. The data in the histogram above were generated by sampling the pink bell curve.

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If you've used histograms, you probably also have run into strange issues. I haven't found much materials out there to address these questions, and they have been lingering in my mind, hidden, for a long time.

My Thursday talk will hopefully fill in some of these gaps.


My talk next week on histograms

Next Thursday (March 14), I'll be presenting at the Data Visualization New York Meetup, hosted by Naomi and Cameron. The event is in-person at Datadog's office. You can reserve your spot here.

Kfung_dataviznewyorkmeetup_mar2024

This talk is brand new, based on some work inspired by a blog post by Andrew Gelman. One of Andrew's correspondents asked about a particular type of histogram. While exploring this topic, I filled some of my own gaps in knowledge about this deceptively simple chart form. I'll be sharing this story.

Bits and pieces have appeared before on my blog. See this, this, and this for background.

If you're attending the talk, come up and say hi.

To register, click here.


Do you want a taste of the new hurricane cone?

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) put out a press release (link to PDF) to announce upcoming changes (in August 2024) to their "hurricane cone" map. This news was picked up by Miami Herald (link).

New_hurricane_map_2024

The above example is what the map looks like. (The data are probably fake since the new map is not yet implemented.)

The cone map has been a focus of research because experts like Alberto Cairo have been highly critical of its potential to mislead. Unfortunately, the more attention paid to it, the more complicated the map has become.

The latest version of this map comprises three layers.

The bottom layer is the so-called "cone". This is the white patch labeled below as the "potential track area (day 1-5)".  Researchers dislike this element because they say readers tend to misinterpret the cone as predicting which areas would be damaged by hurricane winds when the cone is intended to depict the uncertainty about the path of the hurricane. Prior criticism has led the NHC to add the text at the top of the chart, saying "The cone contains the probable path of the storm center but does not show the size of the storm. Hazardous conditions can occur outside of the cone."

The middle layer are the multi-colored bits. Two of these show the areas for which the NHC has issued "watches" and "warnings". All of these color categories represent wind speeds at different times. Watches and warnings are forecasts while the other colors indicate "current" wind speeds. 

The top layer consists of black dots. These provide a single forecast of the most likely position of the storm, with the S, H, M labels indicating the most likely range of wind speeds at forecast times.

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Let's compare the new cone map to a real hurricane map from 2020. (This older map came from a prior piece also by NHC.)

Old_hurricane_map_2020

Can we spot the differences?

To my surprise, the differences were minor, in spite of the pre-announced changes.

The first difference is a simplification. Instead of dividing the white cone (the bottom layer) into two patches -- a white patch for days 1-3, and a dotted transparent patch for days 4-5, the new map aggregates the two periods. Visually, simplifying makes the map less busy but loses the implicit acknowledge found in the old map that forecasts further out are not as reliable.

The second point of departure is the addition of "inland" warnings and watches. Notice how the red and blue areas on the old map hugged the coastline while the red and blue areas on the new map reach inland.

Both changes push the bottom layer, i.e. the cone, deeper into the background. It's like a shrink-flation ice cream cone that has a tiny bit of ice cream stuffed deep in its base.

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How might one improve the cone map? I'd start by dismantling the layers. The three layers present answers to different problems, albeit connected.

Let's begin with the hurricane forecasting problem. We have the current location of the storm, and current measurements of wind speeds around its center. As a first requirement, a forecasting model predicts the path of the storm in the near future. At any time, the storm isn't a point in space but a "cloud" around a center. The path of the storm traces how that cloud will move, including any expansion or contraction of its radius.

That's saying a lot. To start with, a forecasting model issues the predicted average path -- the expected path of the storm's center. This path is (not competently) indicated by the black dots in the top layer of the cone map. These dots offer only a sampled view of the average path.

Not surprisingly, there is quite a bit of uncertainty about the future path of any storm. Many models simulate future worlds, generating many predictions of the average paths. The envelope of the most probable set of paths is the "cone". The expanding width of the cone over time reflects the higher uncertainty of our predictions further into the future. Confusingly, this cone expansion does not depict spatial expansion of either the storm's size or the potential areas that may suffer the greatest damage. Both of those tend to shrink as hurricanes move inland.

Nevertheless, the cone and the black dots are connected. The path drawn out by the black dots should be the average path of the center of the storm.

The forecasting model also generates estimates of wind speeds. Those are given as labels inside the black dots. The cone itself offers no information about wind speeds. The map portrays the uncertainty of the position of the storm's center but omits the uncertainty of the projected wind speeds.

The middle layer of colored patches also inform readers about model projections - but in an interpreted manner. The colors portray hurricane warnings and watches for specific areas, which are based on projected wind speeds from the same forecasting models described above. The colors represent NHC's interpretation of these model outputs. Each warning or watch simultaneously uses information on location, wind speed and time. The uncertainty of the projected values is suppressed.

I think it's better to use two focused maps instead of having one that captures a bit of this and a bit of that.

One map can present the interpreted data, and show the areas that have current warnings and watches. This map is about projected wind strength in the next 1-3 days. It isn't about the center of the storm, or its projected path. Uncertainty can be added by varying the tint of the colors, reflecting the confidence of the model's prediction.

Another map can show the projected path of the center of the storm, plus the cone of uncertainty around that expected path. I'd like to bring more attention to the times of forecasting, perhaps shading the cone day by day, if the underlying model has this level of precision.

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Back in 2019, I wrote a pretty long post about these cone maps. Well worth revisiting today!


Lost in the middle class

Washington Post asks people what it means to be middle class in the U.S. (link; paywall)

The following graphic illustrates one type of definition, purely based on income ranges.

Wpost_middleclass

For me, this chart is more taxing to read than it appears.

It can be read column by column. Each column represents a hypotheticial annual income for a family of four. People are asked whether they consider that family lower/working class, middle class or upper class. Be careful as the increments from column to column are not uniform.

Now, what's the question again? We're primarily interested in what incomes constitute middle class.

So, we should be looking at the deep green blocks that hang in the middle of each column. It's not easy to read the proportion of middle blocks in a stacked column chart.

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I tried separating out the three perceived income classes, using a small-multiples design.

Junkcharts_redo_wpost_middleclass

One can more directly see what income ranges are most popularly perceived as being in each income class.

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The article also goes into alternative definitions of middle class, using more qualitative metrics, such as "able to pay all bills on time without worry". That's a whole other post.

 


Neither the forest nor the trees

On the NYT's twitter feed, they featured an article titled "These Seven Tech Stocks are Driving the Market". The first sentence of the article reads: "The S&P 500 is at an all-time high, and investors have just a handful of stocks to thank for it."

Without having seen any data, I'd surmise from that line that (a) the S&P 500 index has gone up recently, and (b) most if not all of the gain in the index can be attributed to gains in the tech stocks mentioned in the headline. (For purists, a handful is five, not seven.)

The chart accompanying the tweet is a treemap:

Nyt_magnificentseven

The treemap is possibly the most overhyped chart type of the modern era. Its use here is tangential to the story of surging market value. That's because the treemap presents a snapshot of the composition of the index, but contains nothing about the trend (change over time) of the average index value or of its components.

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Even in representing composition, the treemap is inferior to, gasp, a pie chart. Of course, we can only use a pie chart for small numbers of components. The following illustration takes the data from the NYT chart on the Magnificent Seven tech stocks, and compares a treemap versus a pie chart side by side:

Junkcharts_redo_nyt_magnificent7

The reason why the treemap is worse is that both the width and the height of the boxes are changing while only the radius (or angle) of the pie slices is varying. (Not saying use a pie chart, just saying the treemap is worse.)

There is a reason why the designer appended data labels to each of the seven boxes. The effect of not having those labels is readily felt when our eyes reach the next set of stocks – which carry company names but not their market values. What is the market value of Berkshire Hathaway?

Even more so, what proportion of the total is the market value of Berkshire Hathaway? Indeed, if the designer did not write down 29%, it would take a bit of work to figure out the aggregate value of yellow boxes relative to the entire box!

This design sucessfully draws our attention to the structural importance of various components of the whole. There are three layers - the yellow boxes (Magnificent Seven), the gray boxes with company names, and the other gray boxes. I also like how they positioned the text on the right column.

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Going inside the NYT article itself, we find two line charts that convey the story as told.

Here's the first one:

Nyt_magnificent7_linechart1

They are comparing the most recent stock prices with those from October 12 2022, which is identified as the previous "low". (I'm actually confused by how the most recent "low" is defined, but that's a different subject.)

This chart carries a lot of good information, even though it does not plot "all the data", as in each of the 500 S&P components individually. Over the period under analysis, the average index value has gone up about 35% while the Magnificent Seven's value have skyrocketed by 65% in aggregate. The latter accounted for 30% of the total value at the most recent time point.

If we set the S&P 500 index value in 2024 as 100, then the M7 value in 2024 is 30. After unwinding the 65% growth, the M7 value in October 2022 was 18; the S&P 500 in October 2022 was 74. Thus, the weight of M7 was 24% (18/74) in October 2022, compared to 30% now. Consequently, the weight of the other 473 stocks declined from 76% to 70%.

This isn't even the full story because most of the action within the M7 is in Nvidia, the stock most tightly associated with the current AI hype, as shown in the other line chart.

Nyt_magnificent7_linechart2

Nvidia's value jumped by 430% in that time window. From the treemap, the total current value of M7 is $12.3 b while Nvidia's value is $1.4 b, thus Nvidia is 11.4% of M7 currently. Since M7 is 29% of the total S&P 500, Nvidia is 11.4%*29% = 3% of the S&P. Thus, in 2024, against 100 for the S&P, Nvidia's share is 3. After unwinding the 430% growth, Nvidia's share in October 2022 was 0.6, about 0.8% of 74. Its weight tripled during this period of time.


A nice plot of densities, but what's behind the colors?

I came across this chart by Planet Anomaly that compares air quality across the world's cities (link). The chart is in long form. The top part looks like this:

Visualcapitalist_airqualityinches_top

The bottom part looks like this:

Visualcapitalist_airqualityinches_bottom

You can go to the Visual Capitalist website to see the entire chart.

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Plots of densities are relatively rare. The metric for air quality is micrograms of fine particulate matter (PM) per cubic meter, so showing densities is natural.

It's pretty clear the cities with the worst air quality at the bottom has a lot more PM in the air than the cleanest cities shown at the top.

This density chart plays looser with the data than our canonical chart types. The perceived densities of dots inside the squares do not represent the actual concentrations of PM. It's certainly not true that in New Delhi, the air is packed tightly with PM.

Further, a random number generator is required to scatter the red dots inside the circle. Thus, different software or designers will make the same chart look a bit different - the densities will be the same but the locations of the dots will not be.

I don't have a problem with this. Do you?

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Another notable feature of this chart is the double encoding. The same metric is not just presented as densities; it is also encoded in a color scale.

Visualcapitalist_airqualityinches_color_scale

I don't think this adds much.

Both color and density are hard for humans to perceive precisely so adding color does not convey  precision to readers.

The color scale is gradated, so it effectively divided the cities into seven groups. But I don't attach particular significance to the classification. If that is important, it would be clearer to put boxes around the groups of plots. So I don't think the color scale convey clustering to readers effectively.

There is one important grouping which is defined by WHO's safe limit of 5 pg/cubic meter. A few cities pass this test while almost every other place fails. But the design pays no attention to this test, as it uses the same hue on both sides, and even the same tint changes on either side of the limit.

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Another notable project that shows densities as red dots is this emotional chart by Mona Chalabi about measles, which I wrote about in 2019.

Monachalabi_measles

 


The art of making simple things harder

It's no longer a shock when a TV network such as MSNBC plays loose with the scaling of the column heights, as in this recent example:

Rachelbitecofer_markp_2024candidatescashonhand

Hat tip to Mark P. for forwarding the image, and Rachel for the original tweet.

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What's shocking is that the designer appears to believe that the column heights of a column chart can be determined without reference to the data.

There is not a single relationship that has been retained on this chart. The designer just picks whatever size column is desired.

One obvious distortion is between the Biden and Trump columns. Trump's number is about 1/3 of Biden's (120 vs 40), and yet the red column's height is 70% of the blue's.

Furthermore, amongst the red columns, the heights are also haphazard. Trump's number is almost 3 times larger than Haley's; the ratio of column heights is almost 4 times. Haley's number is just a tad higher than DeSantis and yet Haley's column is twice the height of DeSantis.

Junkcharts_msnbc_candidatecash_analysis

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There is a further, subtle distortion of the column's widths. By curving the chart canvas, certain columns are widened more than others. The diagram above retains the distorted widths and you can see that the Desantis column is wider than that of Haley's.

Here is what the undistorted column chart looks like:

Junkcharts_redo_msnbc_candidatecash

It's easy to make such a chart in Excel or any charting software, so it's mystery why this type of distortion happens. Did the designer open up an empty canvas and start putting up columns of any size?


The cult of raw unadjusted data

Long-time reader Aleks came across the following chart on Facebook:

Unadjusted temp data fgfU4-ia fb post from aleks

The author attached a message: "Let's look at raw, unadjusted temperature data from remote US thermometers. What story do they tell?"

I suppose this post came from a climate change skeptic, and the story we're expected to take away from the chart is that there is nothing to see here.

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What are we looking at, really?

"Nothing to see" probably refers to the patch of blue squares that cover the entire plot area, as time runs left to right from the 1910s to the present.

But we can't really see what's going on in the middle of the patch. So, "nothing to see" is effectively only about the top-to-bottom range of roughly 29.8 to 82.0. What does that range signify?

The blue patch is subdivided into vertical lines consisting of blue squares. Each line is a year's worth of temperature measurements. Each square is the average temperature on a specific day. The vertical range is the difference between the maximum and minimum daily temperatures in a given year. These are extreme values that say almost nothing about the temperatures in the other ~363 days of the year.

We know quite a bit more about the density of squares along each vertical line. They are broken up roughly by seasons. Those values near the top came from summers while the values near the bottom came from winters. The density is the highest near the middle, where the overplotting is so severe that we can barely see anything.

Within each vertical line, the data are not ordered chronologically. This is a very key observation. From left to right, the data are ordered from earliest to latest but not from top to bottom! Therefore, it is impossible for the human eye to trace the entire trajectory of the daily temperature readings from this chart. At best, you can trace the yearly average temperature – but only extremely roughly by eyeballing where the annual averages are inside the blue patch.

Indeed, there is "nothing to see" on this chart because its design has pulverized the data.

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_numbersense_bookcoverIn Numbersense (link), I wrote "not adjusting the raw data is to knowingly publish bad information. It is analogous to a restaurant's chef knowingly sending out spoilt fish."

It's a fallacy to think that "raw unadjusted" data are the best kind of data. It's actually the opposite. Adjustments are designed to correct biases or other problems in the data. Of course, adjustments can be subverted to introduce biases in the data as well. It is subversive to presume that all adjustments are of the subversive kind.

What kinds of adjustments are of interest in this temperature dataset?

Foremost is the seasonal adjustment. See my old post here. If we want to learn whether temperatures have risen over these decades, we can't do so without separating out the seasons.

The whole dataset can be simplified by drawing the smoothed annual average temperature grouped by season of the year, and when that is done, the trend of rising temperatures is obvious.

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The following chart by the EPA roughly implements the above:

Epa-seasonal-temperature_2022

The original can be found here. They made one adjustment which isn't the one I expected.

Note the vertical scale is titled "temperature anomaly". So, they are not plotting the actual recorded average temperatures, but the "anomalies", i.e. the difference between the recorded temperatures and some kind of "expected" temperature. This is a type of data adjustment as well. The purpose is to focus attention on the relative rather than absolute values. Think of this formula: recorded value = expected value + anomaly. The chart shows how many degrees above or below expectation, rather than how many degrees.

For a chart like this, there should be a required footnote that defines what "anomaly" is. Specifically, the reader should know about the model behind the "expectation". Typically, it's a kind of long-term average value.

For me, this adjustment is not necessary. Without the adjustment, the four panels can be combined into one panel with four lines. That's because the data nicely fit into four levels based on seasons.

The further adjustment I'd have liked to see is "smoothing". Each line above has a "smooth" trend, as well as some variability around this trend. The latter is not a big part of the story.

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It's weird to push back on climate change advocacy by attacking data adjustments. The more productive direction, in my view, is to ask whether the observed trend is caused by human activities or part of some long-term up-and-down cycle. That is a very challenging question to answer.


Messing with expectations

A co-worker sent me to the following map, found in Forbes:

Forbes_gastaxmap

It shows the amount of state tax surcharge per gallon of gas in the U.S. And it's got one of the most common issues found in choropleth maps - the color scheme runs opposite to reader expectations.

Typically, if we see a red-green color scale, we would expect red to represent large numbers and green, small numbers. This map reverses the typical setup: California, the state with the heftiest gas tax, is shown green.

I know, I know - if we apply the typical color scheme, California would bleed red, and it's a blue state, damn it.

The solution is to avoid the red color. Just don't use red or blue.

Junkcharts_redo_forbes_gastaxmap_green

There is no need to use two colors either.

***

A few minor fixes. Given that all dollar amounts on the map are shown to two decimal places, the legend labels should also be shown to 2 decimal places, and with dollar signs.

Forbes_gastaxmap_legend

The subtitle should read "Dollars per gallon" instead of "Cents per gallon". Alternatively, keep "Cents per gallon" but convert all data labels into cents.

Some of the states are missing data labels.

***

I recast this as a small-multiples by categorizing states into four subgroups.

Junkcharts_redo_forbes_gastaxmap_split

With this change, one can almost justify using maps because there is sort of a spatial pattern.