Metaphors, maps, and communicating data

There are some data visualization that are obviously bad. But what makes them bad?

Here is an example of such an effort:

Carbon footprint 2021-02-15_0

This visualization of carbon emissions is not successful. There is precious little that a reader can learn from this chart without expensing a lot of effort. It's relatively easy to identify the largest emitters of carbon but since the data are not expressed per-capita, the chart mainly informs us which countries have the largest populations. 

The color of the bubbles informs readers which countries belong to which parts of the world. However, it distorts the location of countries within regions, and regions relative to regions, as the primary constraint is fitting the bubbles inside the shape of a foot.

The visualization gives a very rough estimate of the relative sizes of total emissions. The circles not being perfect circles don't help. 

It's relatively easy to list the top emitters in each region but it's hard to list the top 10 emitters in the world (try!) 

The small emitters stole all of the attention as they account for most of the labels - and they engender a huge web of guiding lines - an unsightly nuisance.

The diagram clings dearly to the "carbon footprint" metaphor. Does this metaphor help readers consume the emissions data? Conversely, does it slow them down?

A more conventional design uses a cartogram, a type of map in which the positioning of countries are roughly preserved while the geographical areas are coded to the data. Here's how it looks:

Carbonatlasthumb

I can't seem to source this effort. If any reader can find the original source, please comment below.

This cartogram is a rearrangement of the footprint illustration. The map construct eliminates the need to include a color legend which just tells people which country is in which continent. The details of smaller countries are pushed to the bottom. 

In the footprint visualization, I'd even consider getting rid of the legend completely. This means trusting that readers know South Africa is part of Africa, and China is part of Asia.

Carbonfootprint_part

Imagine: what if this chart comes without a color legend? Do we really need it?

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I'd like to try a word cloud visual for this dataset. Something that looks like this (obviously with the right data encoding):

Michaeltompsett_worldmapwords

(This map is by Michael Tompsett who sells it here.)

 


The time has arrived for cumulative charts

Long-time reader Scott S. asked me about this Washington Post chart that shows the disappearance of pediatric flu deaths in the U.S. this season:

Washingtonpost_pediatricfludeaths

The dataset behind this chart is highly favorable to the designer, because the signal in the data is so strong. This is a good chart. The key point is shown clearly right at the top, with an informative title. Gridlines are very restrained. I'd draw attention to the horizontal axis. The master stroke here is omitting the week labels, which are likely confusing to all but the people familiar with this dataset.

Scott suggested using a line chart. I agree. And especially if we plot cumulative counts, rather than weekly deaths. Here's a quick sketch of such a chart:

Junkcharts_redo_wppedflu_panel

(On second thought, I'd remove the week numbers from the horizontal axis, and just go with the month labels. The Washington Post designer is right in realizing that those week numbers are meaningless to most readers.)

The vaccine trials have brought this cumulative count chart form to the mainstream. For anyone who have seen the vaccine efficacy charts, the interpretation of the panel of line charts should come naturally.

Instead of four plots, I prefer one plot with four superimposed lines. Like this:

Junkcharts_redo_wppeddeaths_superpose2

 

 

 


Dreamy Hawaii

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

The story begins with a beautiful invitation:

Propublica_hawaiibeachesfrontimage

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

Vimeo-homepage

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

Propublica_hawaiibeaches_1368MokuluaDr_small

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

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

***

The erosion crisis is shown in this pair of maps.

Propublica_hawaiibeaches_oldnewshoreline-sm

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

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

Propublica_hawaiibeaches_simplemap-sm

Clicking on the dots brings up more details.

***

Enjoy the entire story here.


Is this an example of good or bad dataviz?

This chart is giving me feelings:

Trump_mcconnell_chart

I first saw it on TV and then a reader submitted it.

Let's apply a Trifecta Checkup to the chart.

Starting at the Q corner, I can say the question it's addressing is clear and relevant. It's the relationship between Trump and McConnell's re-election. The designer's intended message comes through strongly - the chart offers evidence that McConnell owes his re-election to Trump.

Visually, the graphic has elements of great story-telling. It presents a simple (others might say, simplistic) view of the data - just the poll results of McConnell vs McGrath at various times, and the election result. It then flags key events, drawing the reader's attention to those. These events are selected based on key points on the timeline.

The chart includes wise design choices, such as no gridlines, infusing the legend into the chart title, no decimals (except for last pair of numbers, the intention of which I'm not getting), and leading with the key message.

I can nitpick a few things. Get rid of the vertical axis. Also, expand the scale so that the difference between 51%-40% and 58%-38% becomes more apparent. Space the time points in proportion to the dates. The box at the bottom is a confusing afterthought that reduces rather than assists the messaging.

But the designer got the key things right. The above suggestions do not alter the reader's expereince that much. It's a nice piece of visual story-telling, and from what I can see, has made a strong impact with the audience it is intended to influence.

_trifectacheckup_junkchartsThis chart is proof why the Trifecta Checkup has three corners, plus linkages between them. If we just evaluate what the visual is conveying, this chart is clearly above average.

***

In the D corner, we ask: what the Data are saying?

This is where the chart runs into several problems. Let's focus on the last two sets of numbers: 51%-40% and 58%-38%. Just add those numbers and do you notice something?

The last poll sums to 91%. This means that up to 10% of the likely voters responded "not sure" or some other candidate. If these "shy" voters show up at the polls as predicted by the pollsters, and if they voted just like the not shy voters, then the election result would have been 56%-44%, not 51%-40%. So, the 58%-38% result is within the margin of error of these polls. (If the "shy" voters break for McConnell in a 75%-25% split, then he gets 58% of the total votes.)

So, the data behind the line chart aren't suggesting that the election outcome is anomalous. This presents a problem with the Q-D and D-V green arrows as these pairs are not in sync.

***

In the D corner, we should consider the totality of the data available to the designer, not just what the designer chooses to utilize. The pivot of the chart is the flag annotating the "Trump robocall."

Here are some questions I'd ask the designer:

What else happened on October 31 in Kentucky?

What else happened on October 31, elsewhere in the country?

Was Trump featured in any other robocalls during the period portrayed?

How many robocalls were made by the campaign, and what other celebrities were featured?

Did any other campaign event or effort happen between the Trump robocall and election day?

Is there evidence that nothing else that happened after the robocall produced any value?

The chart commits the XYopia (i.e. X-Y myopia) fallacy of causal analysis. When the data analyst presents one cause and one effect, we are cued to think the cause explains the effect but in every scenario that is not a designed experiment, there are multiple causes at play. Sometimes, the more influential cause isn't the one shown in the chart.

***

Finally, let's draw out the connection between the last set of poll numbers and the election results. This shows why causal inference in observational data is such a beast.

Poll numbers are about a small number of people (500-1,000 in the case of Kentucky polls) who respond to polling. Election results are based on voters (> 2 million). An assumption made by the designer is that these polls are properly conducted, and their results are credible.

The chart above makes the claim that Trump's robocall gave McConnell 7% more votes than expected. This implies the robocall influenced at least 140,000 voters. Each such voter must fit the following criteria:

  • Was targeted by the Trump robocall
  • Was reached by the Trump robocall (phone was on, etc.)
  • Responded to the Trump robocall, by either picking up the phone or listening to the voice recording or dialing a call-back number
  • Did not previously intend to vote for McConnell
  • If reached by a pollster, would refuse to respond, or say not sure, or voting for McGrath or a third candidate
  • Had no other reason to change his/her behavior

Just take the first bullet for example. If we found a voter who switched to McConnell after October 31, and if this person was not on the robocall list, then this voter contributes to the unexpected gain in McConnell votes but weakens the case that the robocall influenced the election.

As analysts, our job is to find data to investigate all of the above. Some of these are easier to investigate. The campaign knows, for example, how many people were on the target list, and how many listened to the voice recording.

 

 

 

 


Aligning the visual and the data

The Washington Post reported a surge in donations to the Democrats after the death of Justice Ruth Ginsberg (link). A secondary effect, perhaps unexpected, was that donors decided to spread the money around; the proportion of donors who gave to six or more candidates jumped to 65%, where normally it is at 5%.

Wapo_donations

The text tells us what to look for, and the axis labels are commendably restrained. The color scheme is also intuitive.

There is something frustrating about this chart, though. It's that the spike is shown upside down. The level that the arrow points at is 45%, which is the total of the blue columns. The visual suggests the proportion of multiple beneficiaries (2 or more) should be 55%. There is a divergence between what the visual is saying and what the data are saying. Whichever number is correct, the required proportion is the inverse of the level shown on the percentage axis!

***

This is the same chart flipped over.

Junkcharts_redo_wapo_donations

Now, the number we need can be read off the vertical axis.

I also moved the color legend to the right side so that the entries can be printed vertically, in the same direction as the data. This is one of the unspoken rules of data visualization I featured in my feature for DataJournalism.com.

***

In the Trifecta Checkup (link), the issue is with the green arrow between the D corner and the V corner. The data and the visual are not in sync. 

 


Book Review: Visualizing with Text by Richard Brath

Richardbarth_bookcoverThe creative process is sometimes described in terms of diverge-converge cycles. The diverge step involves experimentation and rewards suspending disbelief, while excesses are curbed and concepts refined during the converge step. Richard Brath's just-released book Visualizing with Text is an important resource that expands our appreciation for the place of text in visual displays.

Books on data visualization fall into recognizable types, of which two popular ones are the style guide, such as Edward Tufte, Dona Wong, and Alberto Cairo, and the coding manual, such as Ben Fry (processing) and Hadley Wickham (ggplot, Shiny). Brath's volume belongs to neither of those - it reads more like an encyclopedic catalog of how text can be incorporated into charts and graphs. He challenges us to blow up our imaginative space for characters, words, sentences, paragraphs and prose. It is a valuable aid for the diverge step of our creative process.

In modern data visualization, text is treated as an accessory, frequently found in titles, labels, legends, footnotes or surrounding text. Brath wants us to elevate text to the starring attraction. Starting with baby steps, such as direct labeling of lines and objects, and coordinating colors between chart elements and words, he experiments with inserting text into unlikely crannies, not shying away from ideas that even he admits may be somewhat of a dead-end.

One of the more immediately useful examples is the use of text labels that hug the lines on a line chart, similar to how roads and rivers are labeled on maps. I wish all software developers implement this function without delay.

Barth_riverlabelsonlines

A more esoteric example is to replace these lines with small-size text, as Brath makes an analogy between sentences and lines.

Barth_textinlines

I am still deciding if this is a gold mine or a minefield. It is thought-provoking nonetheless.

Finally, the book includes some flights of fancy, like this one:

Barth_french_departments

The red superscripts are numeric codes for French departments (provinces), arranged in ascending order of a given metric, and placed in proportional distance within the prose!

The converge step is left to the reader, as Brath refrains from bullhorning his opinions about chart types, which is why readers should not expect a style guide. He includes many experimental graphics, and may provide the pros and cons of a form without registering a judgement.

Because many of these ideas have yet to enter the mainstream, we'd need to implement these ideas on our own, which is why readers will not find a coding manual. As mentioned above, even the simplest and least controversial tactic of directly labeling lines is not available in Excel, let alone text that hugs or replaces lines. (This proves Brath's point that our community has done text a disservice.) Other ideas explored in later chapters require such features as italicizing numeric proportions of a word, rather than the entire word.

Recently, text has become a mainstay of Big Data. Visualizing with Text is timely, relevant and provocative. It is also clearly written, and tightly organized. Chapter 13 neatly summarizes the key concepts that have appeared along the way. There are plenty of use cases, primarily derived from research or business. After reading this book, you'll revel in the new sandbox of text, and long to free yourself from the constraints of your tool.


***

I recommend that you get the paper copy of the book. I reviewed the electronic version, and what irony! As you may have guessed, the electronic version ruins the typesetting. On every page, certain paragraphs show up in tiny font that resist all attempts to magnify, making Brath's case that legibility is an important metric for text visualization. Some of the more unusual fonts are dropped. The images are too small, even when popped up.

[P.S. Richard has a webpage where he included larger images and some code.]


Making better pie charts if you must

I saw this chart on an NYU marketing twitter account:

LATAMstartupCEO_covidimpact

The graphical design is not easy on our eyes. It's just hard to read for various reasons.

The headline sounds like a subject line from an email.

The subheaders are long, and differ only by a single word.

Even if one prefers pie charts, they can be improved by following a few guidelines.

First, start the first sector at the 12-oclock direction. Like this:

Redo_junkcharts_latamceo_orientation

The survey uses a 5-point scale from "Very Good" to "Very Bad". Instead of using five different colors, it's better to use two extreme colors and shading. Like this:

Redo_junkcharts_latamceo_color

I also try hard to keep all text horizontal.

Redo_junkcharts_latamceo_labels

For those who prefers not to use pie charts, a side-by-side bar chart works well.

Redo_junkcharts_latamceo_bars

In my article for DataJournalism.com, I outlined "unspoken rules" for making various charts, including pie charts.

 

 

 


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.

Redo_junkchats_fraziercornellreopeningsuccess2

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

Pfrazier_cornellreopeningupdate

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.

 

 


A testing mess: one chart, four numbers, four colors, three titles, wrong units, wrong lengths, wrong data

Twitterstan wanted to vote the following infographic off the island:

Tes_Alevelsresults

(The publisher's website is here but I can't find a direct link to this graphic.)

The mishap is particularly galling given the controversy swirling around this year's A-Level results in the U.K. For U.S. readers, you can think of A-Levels as SAT Subject Tests, which in the U.K. are required of all university applicants, and represent the most important, if not the sole, determinant of admissions decisions. Please see the upcoming post on my book blog for coverage of the brouhaha surrounding the statistical adjustments (to be posted sometime this week, it's here.).

The first issue you may notice about the chart is that the bar lengths have no relationship with the numbers printed on them. Here is a scatter plot correlating the bar lengths and the data.

Junkcharts_redo_tes_alevels_scatter


As you can see, nothing.

Then, you may wonder what the numbers mean. The annotation at the bottom right says "Average number of A level qualifications per student". Wow, the British (in this case, English) education system is a genius factory - with the average student mastering close to three thousand subjects in secondary (high) school!

TES is the cool name for what used to be the Times Educational Supplement. I traced the data back to Ofqual, which is the British regulator for these examinations. This is the Ofqual version of the above chart:

Ofqual_threeAstar

The data match. You may see that the header of the data table reads "Number of students in England getting 3 x A*". This is a completely different metric than number of qualifications - in fact, this metric measures geniuses. "A*" is the U.K. equivalent of "A+". When I studied under the British system, there was no such grade. I guess grade inflation is happening all over the world. What used to be A is now A+, and what used to be B is now A. Scoring three A*s is tops - I wonder if this should say 3 or more because I recall that you can take as many subjects as you desire but most students max out at three (may have been four).

The number of students attaining the highest achievement has increased in the last two years compared to the two years before. We can't interpret these data unless we know if the number of students also grew at similar rates.

The units are students while the units we expect from the TES graphic should be subjects. The cutoff for the data defines top students while the TES graphic should connote minimum qualification, i.e. a passing grade.

***
Now, the next section of the Ofqual infographic resolves the mystery. Here is the chart:

Ofqual_Alevelquals

This dataset has the right units and measurement. There is almost no meaningful shift in the last four years. The average number of qualifications per student is only different at the second decimal place. Replacing the original data with this set removes the confusion.

Junkcharts_redo_tes_alevels_correctdata

While I was re-making this chart, I also cleaned out the headers and sub-headers. This is an example of software hegemony: the designer wouldn't have repeated the same information three times on a chart with four numbers if s/he wasn't prompted by software defaults.

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The corrected chart violates one of the conventions I described in my tutorial for DataJournalism.com: color difference should reflect data difference.

In the following side-by-side comparison, you see that the use of multiple colors on the left chart signals different data - note especially the top and bottom bars which carry the same number, but our expectation is frustrated.

Junkcharts_redo_tes_alevels_sidebyside

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[P.S. 8/25/2020. Dan V. pointed out another problem with these bar charts: the bars were truncated so that the bar lengths are not proportional to the data. The corrected chart is shown on the right below:

Junkcharts_redo_tes_alevels_barlengths

8/26/2020: added link to the related post on my book blog.]


Everything in Texas is big, but not this BIG

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

Covidtracking_texassquare

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.

Redo_texasdeathsquares_process

The final product:

Redo_texasdeaths_columns

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.

Redo_texasdeaths_distortion

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