## The radial is still broken

##### Jun 21, 2024

It's puzzling to me why people like radial charts. Here is a recent set of radial charts that appear in an article in Significance magazine (link to paywall, currently), analyzing NBA basketball data.

This example is not as bad as usual (the color scheme notwithstanding) because the story is quite simple.

The analysts divided the data into three time periods: 1980-94, 1995-15, 2016-23. The NBA seasons were summarized using a battery of 15 metrics arranged in a circle. In the first period, all but 3 of the metrics sat much above the average level (indicated by the inner circle). In the second period, all 15 metrics reduced below the average, and the third period is somewhat of a mirror image of the first, which is the main message.

***

The puzzle: why prefer this circular arrangement to a rectangular arrangement?

Here is what the same graph looks like in a rectangular arrangement:

One plausible justification for the circular arrangement is if the metrics can be clustered so that nearby metrics are semantically related.

Nevertheless, the same semantics appear in a rectangular arrangement. For example, P3-P3A are three point scores and attempts while P2-P2A are two-pointers. That is a key trend. They are neighborhoods in this arrangement just as they are in the circular arrangement.

So the real advantage is when the metrics have some kind of periodicity, and the wraparound point matters. Or, that the data are indexed to directions so north, east, south, west are meaningful concepts.

If you've found other use cases, feel free to comment below.

***

I can't end this post without returning to the colors. If one can take a negative image of the original chart, one should. Notice that the colors that dominate our attention - the yellow background, and the black lines - have no data in them: yellow being the canvass, and black being the gridlines. The data are found in the white polygons.

The other informative element, as one learns from the caption, is the "blue dashed line" that represents the value zero (i.e. average) in the standardized scale. Because the size of the image was small in the print magazine that I was reading, and they selected a dark blue encroaching on black, I had to squint hard to find the blue line.

## What is the question is the question

##### Sep 20, 2023

I picked up a Fortune magazine while traveling, and saw this bag of bubbles chart.

This chart is visually appealing, that must be said. Each circle represents the reported revenues of a corporation that belongs to the “Global 500 Companies” list. It is labeled by the location of the company’s headquarters. The largest bubble shows Beijing, the capital of China, indicating that companies based in Beijing count \$6 trillion dollars of revenues amongst them. The color of the bubbles show large geographical units; the red bubbles are cities in Greater China.

I appreciate a couple of the design decisions. The chart title and legend are placed on the top, making it easy to find one’s bearing – effective while non-intrusive. The labeling signals a layering: the first and biggest group have icons; the second biggest group has both name and value inside the bubbles; the third group has values inside the bubbles but names outside; the smallest group contains no labels.

Note the judgement call the designer made. For cities that readers might not be familiar with, a country name (typically abbreviated) is added. This is a tough call since mileage varies.

***

As I discussed before (link), the bag of bubbles does not elevate comprehension. Just try answering any of the following questions, which any of us may have, using just the bag of bubbles:

• What proportion of the total revenues are found in Beijing?
• What proportion of the total revenues are found in Greater China?
• What are the top 5 cities in Greater China?
• What are the ranks of the six regions?

If we apply the self-sufficiency test and remove all the value labels, it’s even harder to figure out what’s what.

***

Moving to the D corner of the Trifecta Checkup, we aren’t sure how to interpret this dataset. It’s unclear if these companies derive most of their revenues locally, or internationally. A company headquartered in Washington D.C. may earn most of its revenues in other places. Even if Beijing-based companies serve mostly Chinese customers, only a minority of revenues would be directly drawn from Beijing. Some U.S. corporations may choose its headquarters based on tax considerations. It’s a bit misleading to assign all revenues to one city.

As we explore this further, it becomes clear that the designer must establish a target – a strong idea of what question s/he wants to address. The Fortune piece comes with a paragraph. It appears that an important story is the spatial dispersion of corporate revenues in different countries. They point out that U.S. corporate HQs are more distributed geographically than Chinese corporate HQs, which tend to be found in the key cities.

There is a disconnect between the Question and the Data used to create the visualization. There is also a disconnect between the Question and the Visual display.

## Graph workflow and defaults wreak havoc

##### May 12, 2023

For the past week or 10 days, every time I visited one news site, it insisted on showing me an article about precipitation in North Platte. It's baiting me to write a post about this lamentable bar chart (link):

***

This chart got problems, and the problems start with the tooling, which dictates a workflow.

I imagine what the chart designer had to deal with.

For a bar chart, the tool requires one data series to be numeric, and the other to be categorical. A four-digit year is a number, which can be treated either as numeric or categorical. In most cases, and by default, numbers are considered numeric. To make this chart, the user asked the tool to treat years as categorical.

Many tools treat categories as distinct entities ("nominal"), mapping each category to a distinct color. So they have 11 colors for 11 years, which is surely excessive.

This happens because the year data is not truly categorical. These eleven years were picked based on the amount of rainfall. There isn't a single year with two values, it's not even possible. The years are just irregularly spaced indices. Nevertheless, the tool misbehaves if the year data are regarded as numeric. (It automatically selects a time-series line chart, because someone's data visualization flowchart says so.) Mis-specification in order to trick the tool has consequences.

The designer's intention is to compare the current year 2023 to the driest years in history. This is obvious from the subtitle in which 2023 is isolated and its purple color is foregrounded.

How unfortunate then that among the 11 colors, this tool grabbed 4 variations of purple! I like to think that the designer wanted to keep 2023 purple, and turn the other bars gray -- but the tool thwarted this effort.

The tool does other offensive things. By default, it makes a legend for categorical data. I like the placement of the legend right beneath the title, a recognition that on most charts, the reader must look at the legend first to comprehend what's on the chart.

Not so in this case. The legend is entirely redundant. Removing the legend does not affect our cognition one bit. That's because the colors encode nothing.

Worse, the legend sows confusion because it presents the same set of years in chronological order while the bars below are sorted by amount of precipitation: thus, the order of colors in the legend differs from that in the bar chart.

I can imagine the frustration of the designer who finds out that the tool offers no option to delete the legend. (I don't know this particular tool but I have encountered tools that are rigid in this manner.)

***

Something else went wrong. What's the variable being plotted on the numeric (horizontal) axis?

The answer is inches of rainfall but the answer is actually not found anywhere on the chart. How is it possible that a graphing tool does not indicate the variables being plotted?

I imagine the workflow like this: the tool by default puts an axis label which uses the name of the column that holds the data. That column may have a name that is not reader-friendly, e.g. PRECIP. The designer edits the name to "Rainfall in inches". Being a fan of the Economist graphics style, they move the axis label to the chart title area.

The designer now works the chart title. The title is made to spell out the story, which is that North Platte is experiencing a historically dry year. Instead of mentioning rainfall, the new title emphasizes the lack thereof.

The individual steps of this workflow make a lot of sense. It's great that the title is informative, and tells the story. It's great that the axis label was fixed to describe rainfall in words not database-speak. But the end result is a confusing mess.

The reader must now infer that the values being plotted are inches of rainfall.

Further, the tool also imposes a default sorting of the bars. The bars run from longest to shortest, in this case, the longest bar has the most rainfall. After reading the title, our expectation is to find data on the Top 11 driest years, from the driest of the driest to the least dry of the driest. But what we encounter is the opposite order.

Most graphics software behaves like this as they are plotting the ranks of the categories with the driest being rank 1, counting up. Because the vertical axis moves upwards from zero, the top-ranked item ends up at the bottom of the chart.

***

Moving now from the V corner to the D corner of the Trifecta checkup (link), I can't end this post without pointing out that the comparisons shown on the chart don't work. It's the first few months of 2023 versus the full years of the others.

The fix is to plot the same number of months for all years. This can be done in two ways: find the partial year data for the historical years, or project the 2023 data for the full year.

(If the rainy season is already over, then the chart will look exactly the same at the end of 2023 as it is now. Then, I'd just add a note to explain this.)

***

Here is a version of the chart after doing away with unhelpful default settings:

## Finding the story in complex datasets

##### Mar 16, 2023

In CT Mirror's feature about Connecticut, which I wrote about in the previous post, there is one graphic that did not rise to the same level as the others.

This section deals with graduation rates of the state's high school districts. The above chart focuses on exactly five districts. The line charts are organized in a stack. No year labels are provided. The time window is 11 years from 2010 to 2021. The column of numbers show the difference in graduation rates over the entire time window.

The five lines look basically the same, if we ignore what looks to be noisy year-to-year fluctuations. This is due to the weird aspect ratio imposed by stacking.

Why are those five districts chosen? Upon investigation, we learn that these are the five districts with the biggest improvement in graduation rates during the 11-year time window.

The same five schools also had some of the lowest graduation rates at the start of the analysis window (2010). This must be so because if a school graduated 90% of its class in 2010, it would be mathematically impossible for it to attain a 35% percent point improvement! This is a dissatisfactory feature of the dataviz.

***

In preparing an alternative version, I start by imagining how readers might want to utilize a visualization of this dataset. I assume that the readers may have certain school(s) they are particularly invested in, and want to see its/their graduation performance over these 11 years.

How does having the entire dataset help? For one thing, it provides context. What kind of context is relevant? As discussed above, it's futile to compare a school at the top of the ranking to one that is near the bottom. So I created groups of schools. Each school is compared to other schools that had comparable graduation rates at the start of the analysis period.

Amistad School District, which takes pole position in the original dataviz, graduated only 58% of its pupils in 2010 but vastly improved its graduation rate by 35% over the decade. In the chart below (left panel), I plotted all of the schools that had graduation rates between 50 and 74% in 2010. The chart shows that while Amistad is a standout, almost all schools in this group experienced steady improvements. (Whether this phenomenon represents true improvement, or just grade inflation, we can't tell from this dataset alone.)

The right panel shows the group of schools with the next higher level of graduation rates in 2010. This group of schools too increased their graduation rates almost always. The rate of improvement in this group is lower than in the previous group of schools.

The next set of charts show school districts that already achieved excellent graduation rates (over 85%) by 2010. The most interesting group of schools consists of those with 85-89% rates in 2010. Their performance in 2021 is the most unpredictable of all the school groups. The majority of districts did even better while others regressed.

Overall, there is less variability than I'd expect in the top two school groups. They generally appeared to have been able to raise or maintain their already-high graduation rates. (Note that the scale of each chart is different, and many of the lines in the second set of charts are moving within a few percentages.)

One more note about the charts: The trend lines are "smoothed" to focus on the trends rather than the year to year variability. Because of smoothing, there is some awkward-looking imprecision e.g. the end-to-end differences read from the curves versus the observed differences in the data. These discrepancies can easily be fixed if these charts were to be published.

##### Mar 08, 2023

This dataviz project by CT Mirror is excellent. The project walks through key statistics of the state of Connecticut.

Here are a few charts I enjoyed.

The first one shows the industries employing the most CT residents. The left and right arrows are perfect, much better than the usual dot plots.

The industries are sorted by decreasing size from top to bottom, based on employment in 2019. The chosen scale is absolute, showing the number of employees. The relative change is shown next to the arrow heads in percentages.

The inclusion of both absolute and relative scales may be a source of confusion as the lengths of the arrows encode the absolute differences, not the relative differences indicated by the data labels. This type of decision is always difficult for the designer. Selecting one of the two scales may improve clarity but induce loss aversion.

***

The next example is a bumps chart showing the growth in residents with at least a bachelor's degree.

This is more like a slopegraph as it appears to draw straight lines between two time points 9 years apart, omitting the intervening years. Each line represents a state. Connecticut's line is shown in red. The message is clear. Connecticut is among the most highly educated out of the 50 states. It maintained this advantage throughout the period.

I'd prefer to use solid lines for the background states, and the axis labels can be sparser.

It's a little odd that pretty much every line has the same slope. I'm suspecting that the numbers came out of a regression model, with varying slopes by state, but the inter-state variance is low.

In the online presentation, one can click on each line to see the values.

***

The final example is a two-sided bar chart:

This shows migration in and out of the state. The red bars represent the number of people who moved out, while the green bars represent those who moved into the state. The states are arranged from the most number of in-migrants to the least.

I have clipped the bottom of the chart as it extends to 50 states, and the bottom half is barely visible since the absolute numbers are so small.

I'd suggest showing the top 10 states. Then group the rest of the states by region, and plot them as regions. This change makes the chart more compact, as well as more useful.

***

There are many other charts, and I encourage you to visit and support this data journalism.

## Area chart is not the solution

##### Feb 14, 2023

A reader left a link to a Wiki chart, which is ghastly:

This chart concerns the trend of relative proportions of House representatives in the U.S. Congress by state, and can be found at this Wikipedia entry. The U.S. House is composed of Representatives, and the number of representatives is roughly proportional to each state's population. This scheme actually gives small states disporportional representation, since the lowest number of representatives is 1 while the total number of representatives is fixed at 435.

We can do a quick calculation: 1/435 = 0.23% so any state that has less than 0.23% of the population is over-represented in the House. Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming are all close to that level. The primary way in which small states get larger representation is via the Senate, which sits two senators per state no matter the size. (If you've wondered about Nate Silver's website: 435 Representatives + 100 Senators + 3 for DC = 538 electoral votes for U.S. Presidental elections.)

***

So many things have gone wrong with this chart. There are 50 colors for 50 states. The legend arranges the states by the appropriate metric (good) but in ascending order (bad). This is a stacked area chart, which makes it very hard to figure out the values other than the few at the bottom of the chart.

A nice way to plot this data is a tile map with line charts. I found a nice example that my friend Xan put together in 2018:

A tile map is a conceptual representation of the U.S. map in which each state is represented by equal-sized squares. The coordinates of the states are distorted in order to line up the tiles. A tile map is a small-multiples setup in which each square contains a chart of the same design to faciliate inter-state comparisons.

In the above map, Xan also takes advantage of the foregrounding concept. Each chart actually contains all 50 lines for every state, all shown in gray while the line for the specific state is bolded and shown in red.

***

A chart with 50 lines looks very different from one with 50 areas stacked on each other. California, the most populous state, has 12% of the total population so the line chart has 50 lines that will look like spaghetti. Thus, the fore/backgrounding is important to make sure it's readable.

I suspect that the designer chose a stacked area chart because the line chart looked like spaghetti. But that's the wrong solution. While the lines no longer overlap each other, it is a real challenge to figure out the state-level trends - one has to focus on the heights of the areas, rather than the boundary lines.

[P.S. 2/27/2023] As we like to say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Twitter reader with the handle LHZGJG made the tile map I described above. It looks like this:

You can pick out the states with the key changes really fast. California, Texas, Florida on the upswing, and New York, Pennsylvania going down. I like the fact that the state names are spelled out. Little tweaks are possible but this is a great starting point. Thanks LHZGJG! ]

## What do I think about spirals?

##### Mar 25, 2022

This video hides the lede so be patient or jump ahead to 0:56 and watch till the end.

Let's first describe what we are seeing.

The dataset consists of monthly average global temperature "anomalies" from 1880 to 2021 - an "anomaly" is the deviation of the average temperature that month from a reference level (seems like this is fixed at the average temperatures by month between 1951 and 1980).

A simple visualization of the dataset is this:

We see a gradual rise in temperature from the 1980s to today. The front half of this curve is harder to interpret. The negative values suggest that the average temperatures prior to 1951 are generally lower than the temperature in the reference period. Other than 1880-1910, temperatures have generally been rising.

Now imagine chopping up the above chart into yearly increments, 12 months per year. Then wrap each year's line into a circle, and place all these lines onto the following polar grid system.

Close but not quite there. The circles in the NASA video look much smoother. Two possibilities here. First is the aspect ratio. Note that the polar grid stretches the time axis to the full circle while the vertical axis is squashed. Not enough to explain the smoothness, as seen below.

The second possibility is additional smoothing between months.

The end result is certainly pretty:

***

Is it a good piece of scientific communications?

What is the chart saying?

I see red rings on the outside, white rings in the middle, and blue rings near the center. Red presumably means hotter, blue cooler.

The gridlines are painted over. The 0 degree (green) line is printed over again and again.

The biggest red circles are just beyond the 1 degree line with the excess happening in the January-March months. In making that statement, I'm inferring meaning to excess above 1 degree. This inference is purely based on where the 1-degree line is placed.

I also see in the months of December and January, there may have been "cooling", as the blue circles edge toward the -1 degree gridline. Drawing this inference actually refutes my previous claim. I had said that the bulge beyond the +1 degree line is informative because the designer placed the +1 degree line there. If I applied the same logic, then the location of the -1 degree line implies that only values more negative than -1 matter, which excludes the blue bulge!

Now what years are represented by these circles? Test your intuition. Are you tempted to think that the red lines are the most recent years, and the blue lines are the oldest years? If you think so, like I do, then we fall into a trap. We have now imputed two meanings to color -- temperature and recency, when the color coding can only hold one.

The only way to find out for sure is to rewind the tape and watch from the start. The year dimension is pushed to the background in this spiral chart. Instead, the month dimension takes precedence. Recall that at the start, the circles are white. The bluer circles appear in the middle of the date range.

This dimensional flip flop is a key difference between the spiral chart and the line chart (shown again for comparison).

In the line chart, the year dimension is primary while the month dimension is pushed to the background.

Now, we have to decide what the message of the chart should be. For me, the key message is that on a time scale of decades, the world has experienced a significant warming to the tune of about 1.5 degrees Celsius (35 F2.7 F). The warming has been more pronounced in the last 40 years. The warming is observed in all twelve months of the year.

Because the spiral chart hides the year dimension, it does not convey the above messages.

The spiral chart shares the same weakness as the energy demand chart discussed recently (link). Our eyes tend to focus on the outer and inner envelopes of these circles, which by definition are extreme values. Those values do not necessarily represent the bulk of the data. The spiral chart in fact tells us that there is not much to learn from grouping the data by month.

The appeal of a spiral chart for periodic data is similar to a map for spatial data. I don't recommend using maps unless the spatial dimension is where the signal lies. Similarly, the spiral chart is appropriate if there are important deviations from a seasonal pattern.

## Dots, lines, and 2D histograms

##### Mar 21, 2022

Daniel Z. tweeted about my post from last week. In particular, he took a deeper look at the chart of energy demand that put all hourly data onto the same plot, originally published at the StackOverflow blog:

I noted that this is not a great chart particularly since what catches our eyes are not the key features of the underlying data. Daniel made a clearly better chart:

This is a dot plot, rather than a line chart. The dots are painted in light gray, pushed to the background, because readers should be looking at the orange line. (I'm not sure what is going on with the horizontal scale as I could not get the peaks to line up on the two charts.)

What is this orange line? It's supposed to prove the point that the apparent dark band seen in the line chart does not represent the most frequently occurring values, as one might presume.

Looking closer, we see that the gray dots do not show all the hourly data but binned values.

We see vertical columns of dots, each representing a bin of values. The size of the dots represents the frequency of values of each bin. The orange line connects the bins with the highest number of values.

Daniel commented that

"The visual aggregation doesn't in fact map to the most frequently occurring values. That is because the ink of almost vertical lines fills in all the space between start and end."

Xan Gregg investigated further, and made a gif to show this effect better. Here is a screenshot of it (see this tweet):

The top chart is a true dot plot so that the darker areas are denser as the dots overlap. The bottom chart is the line chart that has the see-saw pattern. As Xan noted, the values shown are strangely very well behaved (aggregated? modeled?) - with each day, it appears that the values sweep up and down consistently.  This means the values are somewhat evenly spaced on the underlying trendline, so I think this dataset is not the best one to illustrate Daniel's excellent point.

It's usually not a good idea to connect lots of dots with a single line.

[P.S. 3/21/2022: Daniel clarified what the orange line shows: "In the posted chart, the orange line encodes the daily demand average (the mean of the daily distribution), rounded, for displaying purposes, to the closed bin. Bin size = 1000. Orange could have encode the daily median as well."]

## What is the price for objectivity

##### Jun 15, 2020

I knew I had to remake this chart.

The simple message of this chart is hidden behind layers of visual complexity. What the analyst wants readers to focus on (as discerned from the text on the right) is the red line, the seven-day moving average of new hospital admissions due to Covid-19 in Texas.

My eyes kept wandering away from the line. It's the sideway data labels on the columns. It's the columns that take up vastly more space than the red line. It's the sideway date labels on the horizontal axis. It's the redundant axis labels for hospitalizations when the entire data set has already been printed. It's the two hanging diamonds, for which the clues are filed away in the legend above.

Here's a version that brings out the message: after Phase 2 re-opening, the number of hospital admissions has been rising steadily.

Dots are used in place of columns, which push these details to the background. The line as well as periods of re-opening are directly labeled, removing the need for a legend.

Here's another visualization:

This chart plots the weekly average new hospital admissions, instead of the seven-day moving average. In the previous chart, the raggedness of moving average isn't transmitting any useful information to the average reader. I believe this weekly average metric is easier to grasp for many readers while retaining the general story.

***

On the original chart by TMC, the author said "the daily hospitalization trend shows an objective view of how COVID-19 impacts hospital systems." Objectivity is an impossible standard for any kind of data analysis or visualization. As seen above, the two metrics for measuring the trend in hospitalizations have pros and cons. Even if one insists on using a moving average, there are choices of averaging methods and window sizes.

Scientists are trained to believe in objectivity. It frequently disappoints when we discover that the rest of the world harbors no such notion. If you observe debates between politicians or businesspeople or social scientists, you rarely hear anyone claim one analysis is more objective - or less subjective - than another. The economist who predicts Dow to reach a new record, the business manager who argues for placing discounted products in the front not the back of the store, the sportscaster who maintains Messi is a better player than Ronaldo: do you ever hear these people describe their methods as objective?

Pursuing objectivity leads to the glorification of data dumps. The scientist proclaims disinterest in holding an opinion about the data. This is self-deception though. We clearly have opinions because when someone else  "misinterprets" the data, we express dismay. What is the point of pretending to hold no opinions when most of the world trades in opinions? By being "objective," we never shape the conversation, and forever play defense.

## Designs of two variables: map, dot plot, line chart, table

##### Jun 01, 2020

The New York Times found evidence that the richest segments of New Yorkers, presumably those with second or multiple homes, have exited the Big Apple during the early months of the pandemic. The article (link) is amply assisted by a variety of data graphics.

The first few charts represent different attempts to express the headline message. Their appearance in the same article allows us to assess the relative merits of different chart forms.

First up is the always-popular map.

The advantage of a map is its ease of comprehension. We can immediately see which neighborhoods experienced the greater exoduses. Clearly, Manhattan has cleared out a lot more than outer boroughs.

The limitation of the map is also in view. With the color gradient dedicated to the proportions of residents gone on May 1st, there isn't room to express which neighborhoods are richer. We have to rely on outside knowledge to make the correlation ourselves.

The second attempt is a dot plot.

We may have to take a moment to digest the horizontal axis. It's not time moving left to right but income percentiles. The poorest neighborhoods are to the left and the richest to the right. I'm assuming that these percentiles describe the distribution of median incomes in neighborhoods. Typically, when we see income percentiles, they are based on households, regardless of neighborhoods. (The former are equal-sized segments, unlike the latter.)

This data graphic has the reverse features of the map. It does a great job correlating the drop in proportion of residents at home with the income distribution but it does not convey any spatial information. The message is clear: The residents in the top 10% of New York neighborhoods are much more likely to have left town.

In the following chart, I attempted a different labeling of both axes. It cuts out the need for readers to reverse being home to not being home, and 90th percentile to top 10%.

The third attempt to convey the income--exit relationship is the most successful in my mind. This is a line chart, with time on the horizontal axis.

The addition of lines relegates the dots to the background. The lines show the trend more clearly. If directly translated from the dot plot, this line chart should have 100 lines, one for each percentile. However, the closeness of the top two lines suggests that no meaningful difference in behavior exists between the 20th and 80th percentiles. This can be conveyed to readers through a short note. Instead of displaying all 100 percentiles, the line chart selectively includes only the 99th , 95th, 90th, 80th and 20th percentiles. This is a design choice that adds by subtraction.

Along the time axis, the line chart provides more granularity than either the map or the dot plot. The exit occurred roughly over the last two weeks of March and the first week of April. The start coincided with New York's stay-at-home advisory.

This third chart is a statistical graphic. It does not bring out the raw data but features aggregated and smoothed data designed to reveal a key message.

I encourage you to also study the annotated table later in the article. It shows the power of a well-designed table.

[P.S. 6/4/2020. On the book blog, I have just published a post about the underlying surveillance data for this type of analysis.]