Speedometer charts: love or hate

Pie chart hate is tired. In this post, I explain my speedometer hate. (Also called gauges,  dials)

Next to pie charts, speedometers are perhaps the second most beloved chart species found on business dashboards. Here is a typical example:

Speedometers_example

 

For this post, I found one on Reuters about natural gas in Europe. (Thanks to long-time contributor Antonio R. for the tip.)

Eugas_speedometer

The reason for my dislike is the inefficiency of this chart form. In classic Tufte-speak, the speedometer chart has a very poor data-to-ink ratio. The entire chart above contains just one datum (73%). Most of the ink are spilled over non-data things.

This single number has a large entourage:

- the curved axis
- ticks on the axis
- labels on the scale
- the dial
- the color segments
- the reference level "EU target"

These are not mere decorations. Taking these elements away makes it harder to understand what's on the chart.

Here is the chart without the curved axis:

Redo_eugas_noaxis

Here is the chart without axis labels:

Redo_eugas_noaxislabels

Here is the chart without ticks:

Redo_eugas_notickmarks

When the tick labels are present, the chart still functions.

Here is the chart without the dial:

Redo_eugas_nodial

The datum is redundantly encoded in the color segments of the "axis".

Here is the chart without the dial or the color segments:

Redo_eugas_nodialnosegments

If you find yourself stealing a peek at the chart title below, you're not alone.

All versions except one increases our cognitive load. This means the entourage is largely necessary if one encodes the single number in a speedometer chart.

The problem with the entourage is that readers may resort to reading the text rather than the chart.

***

The following is a minimalist version of the Reuters chart:

Redo_eugas_onedial

I removed the axis labels and the color segments. The number 73% is shown using the dial angle.

The next chart adds back the secondary message about the EU target, as an axis label, and uses color segments to show the 73% number.

Redo_eugas_nodialjustsegments

Like pie charts, there are limited situations in which speedometer charts are acceptable. But most of the ones we see out there are just not right.

***

One acceptable situation is to illustrate percentages or proportions, which is what the EU gas chart does. Of course, in that situation, one can alo use a pie chart without shame.

For illustrating proportions, I prefer to use a full semicircle, instead of the circular sector of arbitrary angle as Reuters did. The semicircle lends itself to easy marks of 25%, 50%, 75%, etc, eliminating the need to print those tick labels.

***

One use case to avoid is numeric data.

Take the regional sales chart pulled randomly from a Web search above:

Speedometers_example

These charts are completely useless without the axis labels.

Besides, because the span of the axis isn't 0% to 100%, every tick mark must be labelled with the numeric value. That's a lot of extra ink used to display a single value!


Another reminder that aggregate trends hide information

The last time I looked at the U.S. employment situation, it was during the pandemic. The data revealed the deep flaws of the so-called "not in labor force" classification. This classification is used to dehumanize unemployed people who are declared "not in labor force," in which case they are neither employed nor unemployed -- just not counted at all in the official unemployment (or employment) statistics.

The reason given for such a designation was that some people just have no interest in working, or even looking for a job. Now they are not merely discouraged - as there is a category of those people. In theory, these people haven't been looking for a job for so long that they are no longer visible to the bean counters at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What happened when the pandemic precipitated a shutdown in many major cities across America? The number of "not in labor force" shot up instantly, literally within a few weeks. That makes a mockery of the reason for such a designation. See this post for more.

***

The data we saw last time was up to April, 2020. That's more than two years old.

So I have updated the charts to show what has happened in the last couple of years.

Here is the overall picture.

Junkcharts_unemployment_notinLFparttime_all_2

In this new version, I centered the chart at the 1990 data. The chart features two key drivers of the headline unemployment rate - the proportion of people designated "invisible", and the proportion of those who are considered "employed" who are "part-time" workers.

The last two recessions have caused structural changes to the labor market. From 1990 to late 2000s, which included the dot-com bust, these two metrics circulated within a small area of the chart. The Great Recession of late 2000s led to a huge jump in the proportion called "invisible". It also pushed the proportion of part-timers to all0time highs. The proportion of part-timers has fallen although it is hard to interpret from this chart alone - because if the newly invisible were previously part-time employed, then the same cause can be responsible for either trend.

_numbersense_bookcoverReaders of Numbersense (link) might be reminded of a trick used by school deans to pump up their US News rankings. Some schools accept lots of transfer students. This subpopulation is invisible to the US News statisticians since they do not factor into the rankings. The recent scandal at Columbia University also involves reclassifying students (see this post).

Zooming in on the last two years. It appears that the pandemic-related unemployment situation has reversed.

***

Let's split the data by gender.

American men have been stuck in a negative spiral since the 1990s. With each recession, a higher proportion of men are designated BLS invisibles.

Junkcharts_unemployment_notinLFparttime_men_2

In the grid system set up in this scatter plot, the top right corner is the worse of all worlds - the work force has shrunken and there are more part-timers among those counted as employed. The U.S. men are not exiting this quadrant any time soon.

***
What about the women?

Junkcharts_unemployment_notinLFparttime_women_2

If we compare 1990 with 2022, the story is not bad. The female work force is gradually reaching the same scale as in 1990 while the proportion of part-time workers have declined.

However, celebrating the above is to ignore the tremendous gains American women made in the 1990s and 2000s. In 1990, only 58% of women are considered part of the work force - the other 42% are not working but they are not counted as unemployed. By 2000, the female work force has expanded to include about 60% with similar proportions counted as part-time employed as in 1990. That's great news.

The Great Recession of the late 2000s changed that picture. Just like men, many women became invisible to BLS. The invisible proportion reached 44% in 2015 and have not returned to anywhere near the 2000 level. Fewer women are counted as part-time employed; as I said above, it's hard to tell whether this is because the women exiting the work force previously worked part-time.

***

The color of the dots in all charts are determined by the headline unemployment number. Blue represents low unemployment. During the 1990-2022 period, there are three moments in which unemployment is reported as 4 percent or lower. These charts are intended to show that an aggregate statistic hides a lot of information. The three times at which unemployment rate reached historic lows represent three very different situations, if one were to consider the sizes of the work force and the number of part-time workers.

 

P.S. [8-15-2022] Some more background about the visualization can be found in prior posts on the blog: here is the introduction, and here's one that breaks it down by race. Chapter 6 of Numbersense (link) gets into the details of how unemployment rate is computed, and the implications of the choices BLS made.

P.S. [8-16-2022] Corrected the axis title on the charts (see comment below). Also, added source of data label.


Four numbers, not as easy as it seems

Longtime reader Aleksander B. wasn't convinced by the following chart shown at the bottom of AFP's infographic about gun control.

Afp_guns_bottom

He said:

Finally I was able to figure who got some support from NRA. But as a non-US citizen it was hard to get why 86% of republican tag points to huge red part. Then I figured out that smaller value of alpha channel codes the rest of republicans. I think this could be presented in some better way (pie charts are bad in presenting percentages of some subparts of the same pie chart - but adding a tag for 86% while skipping the tag for remaining 14% is cruel).

It's an example of how a simple chart with just four numbers is so hard to understand.

***

Here is a different view of the same data, using a similar structure as the form I chose for this recent chart on Swedish trade balance (link).

Redo_junkcharts_afpguns


Funnels and scatters

I took a peek at some of the work submitted by Ray Vella's students in his NYU dataviz class recently.

The following chart by Hosanah Bryan caught my eye:

Rich Get Richer_Hosanah Bryan (v2)

The data concern the GDP gap between rich and poor regions in various countries. In some countries, especially in the U.K., the gap is gigantic. In other countries, like Spain and Sweden, the gap is much smaller.

The above chart uses a funnel metaphor to organize the data, although the funnel does not add more meaning (not that it has to). Between that, the color scheme and the placement of text, it's visually clean and pleasant to look at.

The data being plotted are messy. They are not actual currency values of GDP. Each number is an index, and represents the relative level of the GDP gap in a given year and country. The gap being shown by the colored bars are differences in these indices 15 years apart. (The students were given this dataset to work with.)

So the chart is very hard to understand if one focuses on the underlying data. Nevertheless, the same visual form can hold other datasets which are less complicated.

One can nitpick about the slight misrepresentation of the values due to the slanted edges on both sides of the bars. This is yet another instance of the tradeoff between beauty and precision.

***

The next chart by Liz Delessert engages my mind for a different reason.

The Rich Get Richerv2

The scatter plot sets up four quadrants. The top right is "everyone gets richer". The top left, where most of the dots lie, is where "the rich get richer, the poor get poorer".  This chart shows a thoughtfulness about organizing the data, and the story-telling.

The grid setup cues readers toward a particular way of looking at the data.

But power comes with responsibility. Such scatter plots are particularly susceptible to the choice of data, in this case, countries. It is tempting to conclude that there are no countries in which everyone gets poorer. But that statement more likely tells us more about which countries were chosen than the real story.

I like to see the chart applied to other data transformations that are easier. For example, we can start with the % change in GDP computed separately for rich and for poor. Then we can form a ratio of these two percent changes.

 

 


Dataviz is good at comparisons if we make the right comparisons

In an article about gas prices around the world, the Washington Post uses the following bar chart (link):

Wpost_gasprices_highincome

There are a few wrinkles in this one compared to the most generic bar chart one can produce:

Redo_wpost_gasprices_0

(The numbers on my chart are not the same as Washington Post's. That's because the data vendor charges for data, except for the most recent week. So, my data is from a different week.)

_trifectacheckup_imageThe gas prices are not expressed in dollars but a transformation turns prices into a cost-effectiveness metric: miles per dollar, or more precisely, miles per $40 dollars of gas. The metric has a reverse direction - the higher the price, the lower the miles. The data transformation belongs to the D corner of the Trifecta Checkup framework (link). Depending on how one poses the Q(uestion) of the chart, the shift from dollars to miles can bring the Q and the D in sync.

In the V(isual) corner, the designer embellishes the bars. A car icon is placed at the tip of each bar while the bar itself is turned into a wavy path, symbolizing a dirt path. The driving metaphor is in full play. In fact, the video makes the most out of it. There is no doubt that the embellishment has turned a mere scientific presentation into a form of entertainment.

***

Did the embellishment harm visual clarity? For the most part, no.

The worst it can get is when they compared U.S. and India/South Africa:

Redo_wpost_gasprices_indiasouthafrica

The left column shows the original charts from the article. In  both charts, the two cars are so close together that it is impossible to learn the scale of the difference. The amount of difference is a fraction of the width of a car icon.

The right column shows the "self-sufficiency test". Imagine the data labels are not on the chart. What we learn is that if we wanted to know how big of a gap is between the two countries, when reading the charts on the left, we are relying on the data labels, not the visual elements. On the right side, if we really want to learn the gaps, we have to look through the car icons to find the tips of the bars!

This discussion does not necessarily doom the appealing chart. If the message one wants to send with the India/South Afrcia charts is that there is negligible difference between them, then it is not crucial to present the precise differences in prices.

***

The real problem with this dataviz is in the D corner. Comparing countries is hard.

As shown above, by the miles per $40 spend metric, U.S. and India are rated essentially the same. So is the average American and the average Indian suffering equally?

Far from it. The clue comes from the aggregate chart, in which countries are divided into three tiers: high income, upper middle income and lower middle income. The U.S. belongs to the high-income tier while India falls into the lower-middle-income tier.

The cost of living in India is much lower than in the US. Forty dollars is a much bigger chunk of an Indian paycheck than an American one.

To adjust for cost of living, economists use a PPP (purchasing power parity) value. The following chart shows the difference:

Redo_wpost_gasprices_1

The right graph contains cost-of-living adjustments. It shows a completely different picture. Nominally (left chart), the price of gas in about the same in dollar terms between U.S. and India. In terms of cost of living, gas is actually 5 times more expensive in India. Thus, the adjusted miles per $40 gas number is much smaller for India than the unadjusted. (Because PPP is relative to U.S. prices, the U.S. numbers are not affected.)

PPP is not the end-all here. According to the Economic Times (India), only 22 out of 1,000 Indians own cars, compared to 980 out of 1,000 Americans. Think about the implication of using any statistic that averages the entire population!

***

Why is gas more expensive in California than the U.S. average? The talking point I keep hearing is environmental regulations. Gas prices may be higher in Europe for a similar reason. Residents in those places may be willing to pay higher prices because they get satisfaction from playing their part in preserving the planet for future generations.

The footnote discloses this not-trivial issue.

Wpost_gasprices_footnote

When converting from dollars per gallon/liter into miles per $40, we need data on miles per gallon/liter. Americans notoriously drive cars (trucks, SUVs, etc.) that have much lower mileage than those driven by other countries. However, this factor is artificially removed by assuming the same car with 32 mpg on all countries. A quick hop to the BTS website tells us that the average mpg of American cars is a third of that assumption. [See note below.]

Ignoring cross-country comparisons for the time being, the true number for U.S. is not 247 miles per $40 spent on gas as claimed. It is a third of that value: 82 miles per $40 spent.

It's tough to find data on fuel economy of all passenger cars, not just new passenger cars. I found Australia's number, which is 21 mpg. So this brings the miles per $40 number down from about 230 to 115. These are not small adjustments.

Washington Post's analysis paints a simplistic picture that presupposes that price is the only thing people care about. I call this issue xyopia. It's when the analyst frames the problem as factor x explaining outcome y, and when factor x is not the only, and frequently not even the most important, factor affecting y.

More on xyopia.

More discussion of Washington Post graphics.

 

[P.S. 7-25-2022. Reader Cody Curtis pointed out in the comments that the Bureau of Transportation Statistics report was using km/liter as units, not miles per gallon. The 10 km/liter number for average cars is roughly 23 mpg. I'll leave the text as is in the post as the larger point is valid: that there is variation in average fuel economy between nations - partly due to environemental regulation and consumer behavior - and thus, a proper comparison requires adjusting for this factor.]


Metaphors give and take

Another submission came in from Euro Twitter. The following chart is probably from Germany:

Twitter_financialpyramid

As JB noted, this chart explains a financial pyramid scheme. I believe the numbers on the left are participants while the numbers on the right are the potential ill-gotten gains per person. The longer the pyramid scheme lasts, the more people participate, the more money flows to the top.

The pyramid is a natural metaphor for visualizing pyramid schemes. The levels of the pyramid correspond to levels of a pyramid scheme - the newly recruited participants expand the base while passing revenues up the pyramid.

***

The chart fails because it's not really a dataviz. There are exactly three bars that are scaled according to data. Everything else is presented as data labels.

Let's look at the two data series separately:

Financialpyramid_data

Each series is exponentially growing (in opposite directions). [Some of the data labels for participants may be incorrect.]

Unfortunately, the triangle is not a good medium to display exponential growth. In fact, the triangular structure imposes a linear growth constraint. The length of the base is directly proportional to the height from the top. As one traverses downwards level by level, the width of the base grows linearly - not exponentially.

To illustrate exponential growth, the edge of the triangle cannot be a straight line - it has to be s steep curve!

Redo_financialpyramid

While natural, the pyramid metaphor is also severely restricting. The choice of chart form has unexpected consequences.

 


Visualizing the impossible

Note [July 6, 2022]: Typepad's image loader is broken yet again. There is no way for me to fix the images right now. They are not showing despite being loaded properly yesterday. I also cannot load new images. Apologies!

Note 2: Manually worked around the automated image loader.

Note 3: Thanks Glenn for letting me about the image loading problem. It turns out the comment approval function is also broken, so I am not able to approve the comment.

***

A twitter user sent me this chart:

twitter_greatreplacement

It's, hmm, mystifying. It performs magic, as I explain below.

What's the purpose of the gridlines and axis labels? Even if there is a rationale for printing those numbers, they make it harder, not easier, for readers to understand the chart!

I think the following chart shows the main message of this poll result. Democrats are much more likely to think of immigration as a positive compared to Republicans, with Independents situated in between.

Redo_greatreplacement

***

The axis title gives a hint as to what the chart designer was aiming for with the unconventional axis. It reads "Overall Percentage for All Participants". It appears that the total length of the stacked bar is the weighted aggregate response rate. Roughly 17% of Americans thought this development to be "very positive" which include 8% of Republicans, 27% of Democrats and 12% of Independents. Since the three segments are not equal in size, 17% is a weighted average of the three proportions.

Within each of the three political affiliations, the data labels add to 100%. These numbers therefore are unweighted response rates for each segment. (If weighted, they should add up to the proportion of each segment.)

This sets up an impossible math problem. The three segments within each bar then represent the sum of three proportions, each unweighted within its segment. Adding these unweighted proportions does not yield the desired weighted average response rate. To get the weighted average response rate, we need to sum the weighted segment response rates instead.

This impossible math problem somehow got resolved visually. We can see that each bar segment faithfully represent the unweighted response rates shown in the respective data labels. Summing them would not yield the aggregate response rates as shown on the axis title. The difference is not a simple multiplicative constant because each segment must be weighted by a different multiplier. So, your guess is as good as mine: what is the magic that makes the impossible possible?

[P.S. Another way to see this inconsistency. The sum of all the data labels is 300% because the proportions of each segment add up to 100%. At the same time, the axis title implies that the sum of the lengths of all five bars should be 100%. So, the chart asserts that 300% = 100%.]

***

This poll question is a perfect classroom fodder to discuss how wording of poll questions affects responses (something called "response bias"). Look at the following variants of the same questions. Are we likely to get answers consistent with the above question?

As you know, the demographic makeup of America is changing and becoming more diverse, while the U.S. Census estimates that white people will still be the largest race in approximately 25 years. Generally speaking, do you find these changes to be very positive, somewhat positive, somewhat negative or very negative?

***

As you know, the demographic makeup of America is changing and becoming more diverse, with the U.S. Census estimating that black people will still be a minority in approximately 25 years. Generally speaking, do you find these changes to be very positive, somewhat positive, somewhat negative or very negative?

***

As you know, the demographic makeup of America is changing and becoming more diverse, with the U.S. Census estimating that Hispanic, black, Asian and other non-white people together will be a majority in approximately 25 years. Generally speaking, do you find these changes to be very positive, somewhat positive, somewhat negative or very negative?

What is also amusing is that in the world described by the pollster in 25 years, every race will qualify as a "minority". There will be no longer majority since no race will constitute at least 50% of the U.S. population. So at that time, the word "minority" will  have lost meaning.


Who trades with Sweden

It's great that the UN is publishing dataviz but it can do better than this effort:

Untradestats_sweden

Certain problems are obvious. The country names turned sideways. The meaningless use of color. The inexplicable sequencing of the country/region.

Some problems are subtler. "Area, nes" - upon research - is a custom term used by UN Trade Statistics, meaning "not elsewhere specified".

The gridlines are debatable. Their function is to help readers figure out the data values if they care. The design omitted the top and bottom gridlines, which makes it hard to judge the values for USA (dark blue), Netherlands (orange), and Germany (gray).

See here, where I added the top gridline.

Redo_untradestats_sweden_gridline

Now, we can see this value is around 3.6, just over the halfway point between gridlines.

***

A central feature of trading statistics is "balance". The following chart makes it clear that the positive numbers outweigh the negative numbers in the above chart.

Redo_untradestats_sweden

At the time I made the chart, I wasn't sure how to interpret the gap of 1.3%. Looking at the chart again, I think it's saying Sweden has a trade surplus equal to that amount.


A German obstacle course

Tagesschau_originalA twitter user sent me this chart from Germany.

It came with a translation:

"Explanation: The chart says how many car drivers plan to purchase a new state-sponsored ticket for public transport. And of those who do, how many plan to use their car less often."

Because visual language should be universal, we shouldn't be deterred by not knowing German.

The structure of the data can be readily understood: we expect three values that add up to 100% from the pie chart. The largest category accounts for 58% of the data, followed by the blue category (40%). The last and smallest category therefore has 2% of the data.

The blue category is of the most interest, and the designer breaks that up into four sub-groups, three of which are roughly similarly popular.

The puzzle is the identities of these categories.

The sub-categories are directly labeled so these are easy for German speakers. From a handy online translator, these labels mean "definitely", "probably", "rather not", "definitely not". Well, that's not too helpful when we don't know what the survey question is.

According to our correspondent, the question should be "of those who plan to buy the new ticket, how many plan to use their car less often?"

I suppose the question is found above the column chart under the car icon. The translator dutifully outputs "Thus rarer (i.e. less) car use". There is no visual cue to let readers know we are supposed to read the right hand side as a single column. In fact, for this reader, I was reading horizontally from top to bottom.

Now, the two icons on the left and the middle of the top row should map to not buying and buying the ticket. The check mark and cross convey that message. But... what do these icons map to on the chart below? We get no clue.

In fact, the will-buy ticket group is the 40% blue category while the will-not group is the 58% light gray category.

What about the dark gray thin sector? Well, one needs to read the fine print. The footnote says "I don't know/ no response".

Since this group is small and uninformative, it's fine to push it into the footnote. However, the choice of a dark color, and placing it at the 12-o'clock angle of the pie chart run counter to de-emphasizing this category!

Another twitter user visually depicts the journey we take to understand this chart:

Tagesschau_reply

The structure of the data is revealed better with something like this:

Redo_tagesschau_newticket

The chart doesn't need this many colors but why not? It's summer.

 

 

 

 


Variance is a friend of dataviz

Seven years ago, I wrote a post about "invariance" in data visualization, which is something we should avoid (link). Yesterday, Business Insider published the following chart in an article about rising gas prices (link):

Businessinsider_gasprices_prices

The map shows the average prices at the pump in seven regions of the United States. 

This chart is succeeded by the following map:

Businessinsider_gasprices_pricechange

This second map shows the change in average gas prices in the same seven regions.

This design is invariant to the data! While the data change, the visualization looks identical. That's because the data are not encoded to any visual element - they are just printed as labels.