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.

 


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.

***

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.

 

 


The choice to encode data using colors

NBC News published the following heatmap that shows inflation by product category in the last year or so:

Nbcnews_inflationtracker

The general story might be that inflation was rampant in airfare and electricity prices about a year ago but these prices have moderated recently, especially in airfare. Gas prices appear to have inflated far less than overall inflation during these months.

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Now, if you're someone who cares about the magnitude of differences, not just the direction, then revisit the above statements, and you'll feel a sense of inadequacy.

When we choose to encode data in colors, we're giving up on showing magnitudes or precision. The color scale shown up top sends the message that the continuous nature of the number line is being displayed but it really isn't.

The largest value of the chart is found on the left side of the airfare row:

Nbcnews_inflationtracker_highest

The value is about 36% which strangely enough is far larger than the maximum value shown in the legend above. Even if those values align, it is still impossible to guess what values the different colors and shades in the cells map to from the legend.

***

The following small-multiples chart shows the underlying values more precisely:

Redo_junkcharts_nbcnewsinflation

I have transformed the data differently. In these line charts, the data are indexed to the first month (100) so each chart shows the cumulative change in prices from that month to the current month, for each category, compared to the overall.

The two most interesting categories are airfare and gas. Airfare has recently decreased quite drastically relative to September 2022, and thus the line is far below the overall inflation trend. Gas prices moved in reverse: they dropped in the last quarter of 2022 but have steadily risen over 2023, and in the most recent month, is tracking overall inflation.

 

 


Dataviz in camouflage

This subway timetable in Tokyo caught my eye:

Tokyosubway_timetable_red

It lists the departure times of all trains going toward Shibuya on Saturdays and holidays.

It's a "stem and leaf" plot.

The stem-and-leaf plot is a crude histogram. In this version, the stem is the hour of the day (24-hour clock) and the leaf is the minute (between 0 and 59). The longer the leaf, the higher the frequency of trains.

We can see that there isn't one peak but rather a plateau between hours 9 and 18.

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Contrast this with the weekday schedule in blue:

Tokyosubway_timetable_blue

We can clearly see two rush hours, one peak at hour 8 and a second one at hours 17-18.

Love seeing dataviz in camouflage!

 


Partition of Europe

A long-time reader sent me the following map via twitter:

Europeelects_map

This map tells how the major political groups divide up the European Parliament. I’ll spare you the counting. There are 27 countries, and nine political groups (including the "unaffiliated").

The key chart type is a box of dots. Each country gets its own box. Each box has its own width. What determines the width? If you ask me, it’s the relative span of the countries on the map. For example, the narrow countries like Ireland and Portugal have three dots across while the wider countries like Spain, Germany and Italy have 7, 10 and 8 dots across respectively.

Each dot represents one seat in the Parliament. Each dot has one of 9 possible colors. Each color shows a political lean e.g. the green dots represent Green parties while the maroon dots display “Left” parties.

The end result is a counting game. If we are interested in counts of seats, we have to literally count each dot. If we are interested in proportion of seats, take your poison: either eyeball it or count each color and count the total.

Who does the underlying map serve? Only readers who know the map of Europe. If you don’t know where Hungary or Latvia is, good luck. The physical constraints of the map work against the small-multiples set up of the data. In a small multiples, you want each chart to be identical, except for the country-specific data. The small-multiples structure requires a panel of equal-sized cells. The map does not offer this feature, as many small countries are cramped into Eastern Europe. Also, Europe has a few tiny states e.g. Luxembourg (population 660K)  and Malta (population 520K). To overcome the map, the designer produces boxes of different sizes, substantially loading up the cognitive burden on readers.

The map also dictates where the boxes are situated. The centroids of each country form the scaffolding, with adjustments required when the charts overlap. This restriction ensures a disorderly appearance. By contrast, the regular panel layout of a small multiples facilitates comparisons.

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Here is something I sketched using a tile map.

Eu parties print sm

First, I have to create a tile map of European countries. Some parts, e.g. western part, are straightforward. The eastern side becomes very congested.

The tile map encodes location in an imprecise sense. Think about the scaffolding of centroids of countries referred to prior. The tile map imposes an order to the madness - we're shifting these centroids so that they line up in a tidier pattern. What we gain in comparability we concede in location precision.

For the EU tile map, I decided to show the Baltic countries in a row rather than a column; the latter would have been more faithful to the true geography. Malta is shown next to Italy even though it could have been placed below. Similarly, Cyprus in relation to Greece. I also included several key countries that are not part of the EU for context.

Instead of raw seat counts, I'm showing the proportion of seats within each country claimed by each political group. I think this metric is more useful to readers.

The legend is itself a chart that shows the aggregate statistics for all 27 countries.


Visual story-telling: do you know or do you think?

One of the most important data questions of all time is: do you know? or do you think?

And one of the easiest traps to fall into is: I think, therefore I know.

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Visual story-telling can be great but it can also mislead. Deception sometimes happens when readers are nudged to "fill in the blanks" with stuff they think they know, but they don't.

A Twitter reader asked me to look at the map in this Los Angeles Times (paywall) opinion column.

Latimes_lifeexpectancy_postcovid

The column promptly announces its premise:

Years of widening economic inequality, compounded by the pandemic and political storm and stress, have given Americans the impression that the country is on the wrong track. Now there’s empirical data to show just how far the country has run off the rails: Life expectancies have been falling.

The writer creates the expectation that he will reveal evidence in the form of data to show that life expectancies have been driven down by economic inequality, pandemic, and politics. Does he succeed?

***

The map portrays average life expectancy (at birth) for some mysterious, presumably very recent, year for every county in the United States. From the color legend, we learn that the bottom-to-top range is about 20 years. There is a clear spatial pattern, with the worst results in the south (excepting south Florida).

The choice of colors is telling. Red and blue on a U.S. map has heavy baggage, as they signify the two main political parties in the country. Given that the author believes politics to be a key driver of health outcomes, the usage of red and blue here is deliberate. Throughout the article, the columnist connects the lower life expectancies in southern states to its politics.

For example, he said "these geographical disparities aren't artifacts of pure geography or demographics; they're the consequences of policy decisions at the state level... Of the 20 states with the worst life expectancies, eight are among the 12 that have not implemented Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act..."

Casual readers may fall into a trap here. There is nothing on the map itself that draws the connection between politics and life expectancies; the idea is evoked purely through the red-blue color scheme. So, as readers, we are filling in the blanks with our own politics.

What could have been done instead? Let's look at the life expectancy map side by side with the map of the U.S. 2020 Presidential election.

Junkcharts_lifeexpectancy_elections

Because of how close recent elections have been, we may think the political map has a nice balance of red and blue but it isn't. The Democrats' votes are heavily concentrated in densely-populated cities so most of the Presidential election map is red. When placed next to each other, it's obvious that politics don't explain the variance in life expectancy well. The Midwest is deep red and yet they have above average life expectancies. I have circled out various regions that contradict the claim that Republican politics drove life expectancies down.

It's not sufficient to point to the South, in which Republican votes and life expectancy are indeed inversely correlated. A good theory has to explain most of the country.

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The columnist also suggests that poverty is the cause of low life expectancy. That too cannot be gleaned from the published map. Again, readers are nudged to use their wild imagination to fill in the blank.

Data come to the rescue. Here is a side-by-side comparison of the map of life expectancies and the map of median incomes.

Junkcharts_lifeexpectancy_income

A similar conundrum. While the story feels right in the South, it fails to explain the northwest, Florida, and various other parts of the country. Take a look again at the circled areas. Lower income brackets are also sometimes associated with high life expectancies.

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The author supplies a third cause of lower life expectancies: Covid-19 response. Because Covid-19 was the "most obvious and convenient" explanation for the loss of life expectancy during the pandemic, this theory suggests that the red areas on the life expectancy map should correspond to the regions most ravaged by Covid-19.

Let's see the data.

Junkcharts_lifeexpectancy_covidcases

The map on the right shows the number of confirmed cases until June 2021. As before, the correlation holds somewhat in the South but there are notable exceptions, e.g. the Midwest. We also have states with low Covid-19 cases but below-average life expectancy.

***

What caused the decline of life expectancy in the U.S. - which began before the pandemic, and has continued beyond - is highly complex, beyond what a single map or a pair of maps or a few pairs of maps could convey. Showing a red-blue map presents a trap for readers to fall into, in which they start thinking, without knowing.

 


Deconstructing graphics as an analysis tool in dataviz

One of the useful exercises I like to do with charts is to "deconstruct" them. (This amounts to a deeper version of the self-sufficiency test.)

Here is a chart stripped down to just the main visual elements.

Junkcharts_cbcrevenues_deconstructed1

The game is to guess what is the structure of the data given these visual elements.

I guessed the following:

  • The data has a top-level split into two groups
  • Within each group, the data is further split into 3 parts, corresponding to the 3 columns
  • With each part, there are a variable number of subparts, each of which is given a unique color
  • The color legend suggests that each group's data are split into 7 subparts, so I'm guessing that the 7 subparts are aggregated into 3 parts
  • The core chart form is a stacked column chart with absolute values so relative proportions within each column (part) is important
  • Comparing across columns is not supported because each column has its own total value
  • Comparing same-color blocks across the two groups is meaningful. It's easier to compare their absolute values but harder to compare the relative values (proportions of total)

If I knew that the two groups are time periods, I'd also guess that the group on the left is the earlier time period, and the one on the right is the later time period. In addition to the usual left-to-right convention for time series, the columns are getting taller going left to right. Many things (not all, obviously) grow over time.

The color choice is a bit confusing because if the subparts are what I think they are, then it makes more sense to use one color and different shades within each column.

***

The above guesses are a mixed bag. What one learns from the exercise is what cues readers are receiving from the visual structure.

Here is the same chart with key contextual information added back:

Junkcharts_cbcrevenues_deconstructed2

Now I see that the chart concerns revenues of a business over two years.

My guess on the direction of time was wrong. The more recent year is placed on the left, counter to convention. This entity therefore suffered a loss of revenues from 2017-8 to 2018-9.

The entity receives substantial government funding. In 2017-8, it has 1 dollar of government funds for every 2 dollars of revenues. In 2018-9, it's roughly 2 dollars of government funds per every 3 dollars of revenues. Thus, the ratio of government funding to revenues has increased.

On closer inspection, the 7 colors do not represent 7 components of this entity's funding. The categories listed in the color legend overlap.

It's rather confusing but I missed one very important feature of the chart in my first assessment: the three columns within each year group are nested. The second column breaks down revenues into 3 parts while the third column subdivides advertising revenues into two parts.

What we've found is that this design does not offer any visual cues to help readers understand how the three columns within a year-group relates to each other. Adding guiding lines or changing the color scheme helps.

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Next, I add back the data labels:

Cbc_revenues_original

The system of labeling can be described as: label everything that is not further broken down into parts on the chart.

Because of the nested structure, this means two of the column segments, which are the sums of subparts, are not labeled. This creates a very strange appearance: usually, the largest parts are split into subparts, so such a labeling system means the largest parts/subparts are not labeled while the smaller, less influential, subparts are labeled!

You may notice another oddity. The pink segment is well above $1 billion but it is roughly the size of the third column, which represents $250 million. Thus, these columns are not drawn to scale. What happened? Keep reading.

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Here is the whole chart:

Cbc_revenues_original

A twitter follower sent me this chart. Elon Musk has been feuding with the Canadian broadcaster CBC.

Notice the scale of the vertical axis. It has a discontinuity between $700 million and $1.7 billion. In other words, the two pink sections are artificially shortened. The erased section contains $1 billion (!) Notice that the erased section is larger than the visible section.

The focus of Musk's feud with CBC is on what proportion of the company's funds come from the government. On this chart, the only way to figure that out is to copy out the data and divide. It's roughly 1.2/1.7 = 70% approx.

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The exercise of deconstructing graphics helps us understand what parts are doing what, and it also reveals what cues certain parts send to readers.

In better dataviz, every part of the chart is doing something useful, it's free of redundant parts that take up processing time for no reason, and the cues to readers move them towards the intended message, not away from it.

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A couple of additional comments:

I'm not sure why old data was cited because in the most recent accounting report, the proportion of government funding was around 65%.

Source of funding is not a useful measure of pro- or anti-government bias, especially in a democracy where different parties lead the government at different times. There are plenty of mouthpiece media that do not apparently receive government funding.


Bivariate choropleths

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

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

Fivethirtyeight_abortionmap_colorlegend

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

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

Joshuastephens_singlemap

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

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

Joshuastephens_twomaps

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

***

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

Junkcharts_bivariatechoropleths

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

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

 

 


Yet another off radar plot

Bloomberg compares people's lives in retirement in this interesting dataviz project (link, paywall). The "showcase" chart is a radar plot that looks like this:

Bloomberg_retirementages_radar_male

The radar plot may count as the single chart type that has the most number of lives. I'm afraid this one does not go into the hall of fame, either.

The setup leading to this plot is excellent, though. The analytical framework is to divide the retirement period into two parts: healthy and not so healthy. The countries in the radar plot are in fact ordered by the duration of the "healthy retirement period", with France leading the pack. The reference levels used throughout the article is the OECD average. On average, the OECD resident retires at age 64, and dies at age 82, so they spend 18 years in retirement, and 13 of them while "healthy".

In the radar plot, the three key dates are plotted as yellow, green and purple dots. The yellow represents the retirement age, the green, the end of the healthy period, and the purple, the end of life.

Now, take 10, 20, 30 seconds, and try to come up with a message for the above chart.

Not easy at all.

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Notice the control panel up top. The male and female data are plotted separately. I place the two segments next to each other:

Bloomberg_retirementages_radar_malefemale

It's again hard to find any insight - other than the most obvious, which is that female life expectancy is higher.

But note that the order for the countries is different for each chart, and so even the above statement takes a bit of time to verify.

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There are many structural challenges to using radar charts. I'll cover one of these here - the amount of non data-ink baggage that comes with using this chart form.

In the Bloomberg example, the baggage includes radial gridlines for countries, concentric gridlines for the years dimension, the country labels around the circle, the age labels in the middle, the color legend, the set of arrows that map to the healthy retirement period, and the country ranks (and little arrow) that indicate the direction of reading. That's a lot of information to process.

In the next post, I'll try a different visual form.