## One bubble is a tragedy, and a bag of bubbles is...

##### Jul 19, 2023

From Kathleen Tyson's twitter account, I came across a graphic showing the destinations of Ukraine's grain exports since 2022 under the auspices of a UN deal. This graphic, made by AFP, uses one of the chart forms that baffle me - the bag of bubbles.

The first trouble with a bag of bubbles is the single bubble. The human brain is just not fit for comparing bubble sizes. The self-sufficiency test is my favorite device for demonstrating this weakness. The following is the European section of the above chart, with the data labels removed.

How much bigger is Spain than the Netherlands? What's the difference between Italy and the Netherlands? The answers don't come easily to mind. (The Netherlands is about 40% the size of Spain, and Italy is about 20% larger than the Netherlands.)

While comparing relative circular areas is a struggle, figuring out the relative ranks is not. Sure, it gets tougher with small differences (Germany vs S. Korea, Belgium vs Portugal) but saying those pairs are tied isn't a tragedy.

***

Another issue with bubble charts is how difficult it is to assess absolute values. A circle on its own has no reference point. The designer needs to add data labels or a legend. Adding data labels is an act of giving up. The data labels become the primary instrument for communicating the data, not the visual construct. Adding one data label is not enough, as the following shows:

Being told that Spain's value is 4.1 does little to help estimate the values for the non-labelled bubbles.

The chart does come with the following legend:

For this legend to work, the sample bubble sizes should span the range of the data. Notice that it's difficult to extrapolate from the size of the 1-million-ton bubble to 2-million, 4-million, etc. The analogy is a column chart in which the vertical axis does not extend through the full range of the dataset.

The designer totally gets this. The chart therefore contains both selected data labels and the partial legend. Every bubble larger than 1 million tons has an explicit data label. That's one solution for the above problem.

Nevertheless, why not use another chart form that avoids these problems altogether?

***

In Tyson's tweet, she showed another chart that pretty much contains the same information, this one from TASS.

This chart uses the flow diagram concept - in an abstract way, as I explained in previous post.

This chart form imposes structure on the data. The relative ranks of the countries within each region are listed from top to bottom. The relative amounts of grains are shown in black columns (and also in the thickness of the flows).

The aggregate value of movements within each region is called out in that middle section. It is impossible to learn this from the bag of bubbles version.

The designer did print the entire dataset onto this chart (except for the smallest countries grouped together as "other"). This decision takes away from the power of the underlying flow chart. Instead of thinking about the proportional representation of each country within its respective region, or the distribution of grains among regions, our eyes hone in on the data labels.

This brings me back to the principle of self-sufficiency: if we expect readers to consume the data labels - which comprise the entire dataset, why not just print a data table? If we decide to visualize, make the visual elements count!

## Flowing to nowhere

##### Jun 09, 2023

The New York Times printed the following flow chart about water usage of the Colorado River (link).

The Colorado River provides water to more than 10% of the U.S. population. About half is used to feed livestock, another quarter for agriculture, which leaves a quarter to residential and other uses.

***

This type of flow chart in which the widths of the flows encode relative flow volumes is sometimes called a "sankey diagram."

The most famous sankey diagram of all time may be Minard's depiction of Napoleon's campaign in Russia.

In Minard's map, the flows represent movement of troops. The brown color shows advance and the black color shows retreat. The power of this graphic is found how it depicts the attrition of troops over the course of the campaign - on both spatial and temporal dimensions.

Of interest is the choice to disappear these outflows. For most flows, the ending width is smaller than the starting width, the difference being the attrition. On many flow charts, the design imposes a principle of conservation - total outflows equal total inflows, but not here.

For me, the canonical flow chart describes the physical structure of rivers.

Flow is conserved here (well, if we ignore evaporation, and absorption into ground water).

Most flow charts we see these days are not faithful to reality - they present abstract concepts.

***

The Colorado River flow chart is an example of an abstract flow chart.

What's depicted cannot be reality. All the water from the Colorado River do not tumble out of a single huge reservoir, there isn't some gigantic pipeline that takes out half of the water and sends them to agricultural users, etc. All the flows on the chart are abstract, not physical in nature.

A conservation principle is enforced at all junctions, so that the sum of the inflows is always the sum of the outflows. In this sense, the chart visually depicts composition (and decomposition). The NYT flow chart shows two ways to decompose water usage at the Colorado River. One decomposition breaks usage down into agriculture, residential, commercial, and power generation. That's an 80/20 split. A second decomposition breaks agriculture into two parts (livestock and crops) while it aggregates the smaller categories into a single "other".

***

The Colorado River flow chart can be produced without knowing a single physical flow from the river basin to an end-user. The designer only requires total water usage, and water usage by subgroup of users.

For most readers, this may seem like a piece of trivia - for data analysts, it's really important to know whether these "flows" are measured data, or implied data.

## Parsons Student Projects

##### May 19, 2023

I had the pleasure of attending the final presentations of this year's graduates from Parsons's MS in Data Visualization program. You can see the projects here.

***

A few of the projects caught my eye.

A project called "Authentic Food in NYC" explores where to find "authentic" cuisine in New York restaurants. The project is notable for plowing through millions of Yelp reviews, and organizing the information within. Reviews mentioning "authentic" or "original" were extracted.

During the live presentation, the student clicked on Authentic Chinese, and the name that popped up was Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which serves dim sum in Chinatown that often has lines out the door.

Curiously, the ranking is created from raw counts of authentic reviews, which favors restaurants with more reviews, such as restaurants that have been operating for a longer time. It's unclear what rule is used to transfer authenticity from reviews to restaurants: does a single review mentioning "authentic" qualify a restaurant as "authentic", or some proportion of reviews?

Later, we see a visualization of the key words found inside "authentic" reviews for each cuisine. Below are words for Chinese and Italian cuisines:

These are word clouds with a twist. Instead of encoding the word counts in the font sizes, she places each word inside a bubble, and uses bubble sizes to indicate relative frequency.

Curiously, almost all the words displayed come from menu items. There isn't any subjective words to be found. Algorithms that extract keywords frequently fail in the sense that they surface the most obvious, uninteresting facts. Take the word cloud for Taiwanese restaurants as an example:

The overwhelming keyword found among reviews of Taiwanese restaurants is... "taiwanese". The next most important word is "taiwan". Among the remaining words, "886" is the name of a specific restaurant, "bento" is usually associated with Japanese cuisine, and everything else is a menu item.

Getting this right is time-consuming, and understandably not a requirement for a typical data visualization course.

The most interesting insight is found in this data table.

It appears that few reviewers care about authenticity when they go to French, Italian, and Japanese restaurants but the people who dine at various Asian restaurants, German restaurants, and Eastern European restaurants want "authentic" food. The student concludes: "since most Yelp reviewers are Americans, their pursuit of authenticity creates its own trap: Food authenticity becomes an americanized view of what non-American food is."

This hits home hard because I know what authentic dim sum is, and Nom Wah Tea Parlor it ain't. Let me check out what Yelpers are saying about Nom Wah:

1. Everything was so authentic and delicious - and cheap!!!
2. Your best bet is to go around the corner and find something more authentic.
3. Their dumplings are amazing everything is very authentic and tasty!
4. The food was delicious and so authentic, and the staff were helpful and efficient.
5. Overall, this place has good authentic dim sum but it could be better.
6. Not an authentic experience at all.
7. this dim sum establishment is totally authentic
8. The onions, bean sprouts and scallion did taste very authentic and appreciated that.
9. I would skip this and try another spot less hyped and more authentic.
10. I would have to take my parents here the next time I visit NYC because this is authentic dim sum.

These are the most recent ten reviews containing the word "authentic". Seven out of ten really do mean authentic, the other three are false friends. Text mining is tough business! The student removed "not authentic" which helps. As seen from above, "more authentic" may be negative, and there may be words between "not" and "authentic". Also, think "not inauthentic", "people say it's authentic, and it's not", etc.

One thing I learned from this project is that "authentic" may be a synonym for "I like it" when these diners enjoy the food at an ethnic restaurant. I'm most curious about what inauthentic onions, bean sprouts and scallion taste like.

I love the concept and execution of this project. Nice job!

***

Another project I like is about tourism in Venezuela. The back story is significant. Since a dictatorship took over the country, the government stopped reporting tourism statistics. It's known that tourism collapsed, and that it may be gradually coming back in recent years.

This student does not have access to ready-made datasets. But she imaginatively found data to pursue this story. Specifically, she mentioned grabbing flight schedules into the country from the outside.

The flow chart is a great way to explore this data:

A map gives a different perspective:

I'm glad to hear the student recite some of the limitations of the data. It's easy to look at these visuals and assume that the data are entirely reliable. They aren't. We don't know that what proportion of the people traveling on those flights are tourists, how full those planes are, or the nationalities of those on board. The fact that a flight originated from Panama does not mean that everyone on board is Panamanian.

***

The third project is interesting in its uniqueness. This student wants to highlight the effect of lead in paint on children's health. She used the weight of lead marbles to symbolize the impact of lead paint. She made a dress with two big pockets to hold these marbles.

It's not your standard visualization. One can quibble that dividing the marbles into two pockets doesn't serve a visualziation purpose, and so on. But at the end, it's a memorable performance.

## Following this pretty flow chart

##### Nov 14, 2022

Bloomberg did a very nice feature on how drought has been causing havoc with river transportation of grains and other commodities in the U.S., which included several well-executed graphics.

I'm particularly attracted to this flow chart/sankey diagram that shows the flows of grains from various U.S. ports to foreign countries.

It looks really great.

Here are some things one can learn from this chart:

• The Mississippi River (blue flow) is by far the most important conduit of American grain exports
• China is by far the largest importer of American grains
• Mexico is the second largest importer of American grains, and it has a special relationship with the "interior" ports (yellow). Notice how the Interior almost exclusively sends grains to Mexico
• Similarly, the Puget Sound almost exclusively trades with China

The above list is impressive for one chart.

***

Some key questions are not as easy to see from this layout:

• What proportion of the total exports does the Mississippi River account for? (Turns out to be almost exactly half.)
• What proportion of the total exports go to China? (About 40%. This question is even harder than the previous one because of all the unlabeled values for the smaller countries.)
• What is the relative importance of different ports to Japan/Philippines/Indonesia/etc.? (Notice how the green lines merge from the other side of the country names.)
• What is the relative importance of any of the countries listed, outside the top 5 or so?
• What is the ranking of importance of export nations to each port? For Mississippi River, it appears that the countries may have been drawn from least important (up top) to most important (down below). That is not the case for the other ports... otherwise the threads would tie up into knots.

***

Some of the features that make the chart look pretty are not data-driven.

See this artificial "hole" in the brown branch.

In this part of the flow, there are two tiny outflows to Myanmar and Yemen, so most of the goods that got diverted to the right side ended up merging back to the main branch. However, the creation of this hole allows a layering effect which enhances the visual cleanliness.

Next, pay attention to the yellow sub-branches:

At the scale used by the designer, all of the countries shown essentially import about the same amount from the Interior (yellow). Notice the special treatment of Singapore and Phillippines. Instead of each having a yellow sub-branch coming off the "main" flow, these two countries share the sub-branch, which later splits.

## Graphing highly structured data

##### Dec 08, 2021

The following sankey diagram appeared in my Linkedin feed the other day, and I agree with the poster that this is an excellent example.

It's an unusual use of a flow chart to show the P&L (profit and loss) statement of a business. It makes sense since these are flows of money. The graph explains how Spotify makes money - or how little profit it claims to have earned on over 2.5 billion of revenues.

What makes this chart work so well?

The first thing to notice is how they handled negative flows (costs). They turned the negative numbers into positive numbers, and encoded the signs of the numbers as colors. This doesn't come as naturally as one might think. The raw data are financial tables with revenues shown as positive numbers and costs shown as negative numbers, perhaps in parentheses. Like this:

Now, some readers are sure to have an issue with using the red-green color scheme. I suppose gray-red can be a substitute.

The second smart decision is to pare down the details. There are only four cost categories shown in the entire chart. The cost of revenue represents more than two-thirds of all revenues, and we know nothing about sub-categories of this cost.

The third feature is where the Spotify logo is placed. This directs our attention to the middle of the diagram. This is important because typically on a sankey diagram you read from left to right. Here, the starting point is really the column labeled "total Spotify revenue". The first column just splits the total revenue between subscription revenue and advertising revenue.

Putting the labels of the last column inside the flows improves readability as well.

On the whole, a job well done.

***

Sankey diagrams have limitations. The charts need to be simple enough to work their magic.

It's difficult to add a time element to the above chart, for example. The next question a business analyst might want to ask is how the revenue/cost/profit structure at Spotify have changed over time.

Another question a business analyst might ask is the revenue/cost/profit structure of premium vs ad-supported users. We have a third of the answer - the revenue split. Depending on relative usage, and content preference, the mix of royalties is likely not to replicate the revenue split.

Yet another business analyst might be interested in comparing Spotify's business model to a competitor. It's also not simple to handle this on a sankey diagram.

***

I searched for alternative charts, and when you look at what's out there, you appreciate the sankey version more.

Here is a waterfall chart, which is quite popular:

Here is a stacked column chart, rooted at zero:

Of course, someone has to make a pie chart - in this case, two pie charts:

## Speaking to the choir

##### Nov 10, 2021

A friend found the following chart about the "carbon cycle", and sent me an exasperated note, having given up on figuring it out. The chart came from a report, and was reprinted in Ars Technica (link).

The problem with the chart is that the designer is speaking to the choir. One must know a lot about the carbon cycle already to make sense of everything that's going on.

We see big and small arrows pointing up or down. Each arrow has a number attached to it, plus a range inside brackets. These numbers have no units, and it's not obvious what they are measuring.

The arrows come in a variety of colors. The colors are explained by labels but the labels dexcribe apparently unrelated concepts (e.g. fossil CO2 and land-use change).

Interspersed with the arrows is a singular dot. The dot also has a number attached to it. The number wears a plus sign, which signals it's being treated differently than the quantities with up arrows.

The singular dot is an outcast, ostracized from the community of dots in the bottom part of the chart. These dots have labels but no numbers. They come in different sizes but no scale is provided.

The background is divided into three parts, showing the atmosphere, the land mass, and the ocean. The placement of the arrows and dots suggests each measured quantity concerns one of these three parts. Well... except the dot labeled "surface sediments" that sit on the boundary of the land mass and the ocean.

The three-way classification is only one layer of the chart. A different classification is embedded in the color scheme. The gray, light green, and aquamarine arrows in the sky find their counterparts in the dots of the land mass, and the ocean.

What's more, the boundaries between land and sky, and between land and ocean are also painted with those colors. These boundary segments have been given different colors so that the lengths of these segments seem to contain data but we aren't sure what.

At this point, I noticed thin arrows which appear to depict back and forth flows. There may be two types of such exchanges, one indicated by a cycle, the other by two straight arrows in opposite directions. The cycles have no numbers while each pair of straight thin arrows gets two numbers, always identical.

At the bottom of the chart is a annotation in red: "Budget imbalance = -1.0". Presumably some formula ties the numbers shown above to this -1.0 result. We still don't know the units, and it's unclear if -1.0 is a bad number. A negative number shown in red typically indicates a bad number but how bad is it?

Finally, on the top right corner, I found a legend. It's not obvious at first because the legend symbols (arrows and dots) are shown in gray, a color not used elsewhere on the chart. It appears as if it represents another color category. The legend labels do little for me. What is an "anthropogenic flux"? What does the unit of "GtCO2" stand for? Other jargon includes "carbon cycling" and "stocks". The entire diagram is titled "carbon cycle" while the "carbon cycling" thin arrows are only a small part of the diagram.

The bottom line is I have no idea what this chart is saying to me, other than that the earth is a complex system, and that the designer has tried valiantly to impregnate the diagram with lots of information. If I am well read in environmental science, my experience is likely different.

## Did the pandemic drive mass migration?

##### May 21, 2021

The Wall Street Journal ran this nice compact piece about migration patterns during the pandemic in the U.S. (link to article)

I'd look at the chart on the right first. It shows the greatest net flow of people out of the Northeast to the South. This sankey diagram is nicely done. The designer shows restraint in not printing the entire dataset on the chart. If a reader really cares about the net migration from one region to a specific other region, it's easy to estimate the number even though it's not printed.

The maps succinctly provide readers the definition of the regions.

To keep things in perspective, we are talking around 100,000 when the death toll of Covid-19 is nearing 600,000. Some people have moved but almost everyone else haven't.

***

The chart on the left breaks down the data in a different way - by urbanicity. This is a variant of the stacked column chart. It is a chart form that fits the particular instance of the dataset. It works only because in every month of the last three years, there was a net outflow from "large metro cores". Thus, the entire series for large metro cores can be pointed downwards.

The fact that this design is sensitive to the dataset is revealed in the footnote, which said that the May 2018 data for "small/medium metro" was omitted from the chart. Why didn't they plot that number?

It's the one datum that sticks out like a sore thumb. It's the only negative number in the entire dataset that is not associated with "large metro cores". I suppose they could have inserted a tiny medium green slither in the bottom half of that chart for May 2018. I don't think it hurts the interpretation of the chart. Maybe the designer thinks it might draw unnecessary attention to one data point that really doesn't warrant it.

***

See my collection of posts about Wall Street Journal graphics.

## Illustrating differential growth rates

##### Jan 29, 2021

Reader Mirko was concerned about a video published in Germany that shows why the new coronavirus variant is dangerous. He helpfully provided a summary of the transcript:

The South African and the British mutations of the SARS-COV-2 virus are spreading faster than the original virus. On average, one infected person infects more people than before. Researchers believe the new variant is 50 to 70 % more transmissible.

Here are two key moments in the video:

This seems to be saying the original virus (left side) replicates 3 times inside the infected person while the new variant (right side) replicates 19 times. So we have a roughly 6-fold jump in viral replication.

Later in the video, it appears that every replicate of the old virus finds a new victim while the 19 replicates of the new variant land on 13 new people, meaning 6 replicates didn't find a host.

As Mirko pointed out, the visual appears to have run away from the data. (In our Trifecta Checkup, we have a problem with the arrow between the D and the V corners. What the visual is saying is not aligned with what the data are saying.)

***

It turns out that the scientists have been very confusing when talking about the infectiousness of this new variant. The most quoted line is that the British variant is "50 to 70 percent more transmissible". At first, I thought this is a comment on the famous "R number". Since the R number around December was roughly 1 in the U.K, the new variant might bring the R number up to 1.7.

However, that is not the case. From this article, it appears that being 5o to 70 percent more transmissible means R goes up from 1 to 1.4. R is interpreted as the average number of people infected by one infected person.

Mirko wonders if there is a better way to illustrate this. I'm sure there are many better ways. Here's one I whipped up:

The left side is for the 40% higher R number. Both sides start at the center with 10 infected people. At each time step, if R=1 (right side), each of the 10 people infects 10 others, so the total infections increase by 10 per time step. It's immediately obvious that a 40% higher R is very serious indeed. Starting with 10 infected people, in 10 steps, the total number of infections is almost 1,000, almost 10 times higher than when R is 1.

The lines of the graphs simulate the transmission chains. These are "average" transmission chains since R is an average number.

P.S. [1/29/2021: Added the missing link to the article in which it is reported that 50-70 percent more transmissible implies R increasing by 40%.]

## Unlocking the secrets of a marvellous data visualization

##### Sep 01, 2020

The graphics team in my hometown paper SCMP has developed a formidable reputation in data visualization, and I lapped every drop of goodness on this beautiful graphic showing how the coronavirus spread around Hong Kong (in the first wave in April). Marcelo uploaded an image of the printed version to his Twitter. This graphic occupied the entire back page of that day's paper.

An online version of the chart is found here.

The data graphic is a masterclass in organizing data. While it looks complicated, I had no problem unpacking the different layers.

Cases were divided into imported cases (people returning to Hong Kong) and local cases. A small number of cases are considered in-betweens.

The two major classes then occupy one half page each. I first looked at the top half, where my attention is drawn to the thickest flows. The majority of imported cases arrived from the U.K., and most of those were returning students. The U.S. is the next largest source of imported cases. The flows are carefully ordered by continent, with the Americas on the left, followed by Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

Where there are interesting back stories, the flow blossoms into a flower. An annotation explains the cluster of cases. Each anther represents a case. Eight people caught the virus while touring Bolivia together.

One reads the local cases in the same way. Instead of flowers, think of roots. The biggest cluster by far was a band that played at clubs in three different parts of the city, infecting a total of 72 people.

Everything is understood immediately, without a need to read text or refer to legends. The visual elements carry that kind of power.

***

This data graphic presents a perfect amalgam of art and science. For a flow chart, the data are encoded in the relative thickness of the lines. This leaves two unused dimensions of these lines: the curvature and lengths. The order of the countries and regions take up the horizontal axis, but the vertical axis is free. Unshackled from the data, the designer introduced curves into the lines, varied their lengths, and dispersed their endings around the white space in an artistic manner.

The flowers/roots present another opportunity for creativity. The only data constraint is the number of cases in a cluster. The positions of the dots, and the shape of the lines leading to the dots are part of the playground.

What's more, the data visualization is a powerful reminder of the benefits of testing and contact tracing. The band cluster led to the closure of bars, which helped slow the spread of the coronavirus.

## The windy path to the Rugby World Cup

##### Sep 26, 2019

When I first saw the following chart, I wondered whether it is really that challenging for these eight teams to get into the Rugby World Cup, currently playing in Japan:

Another visualization of the process conveys a similar message. Both of these are uploaded to Wikipedia.

(This one hasn't been updated and still contains blank entries.)

***

What are some of the key messages one would want the dataviz to deliver?

• For the eight countries that got in (not automatically), track their paths to the World Cup. How many competitions did they have to play?
• For those countries that failed to qualify, track their paths to the point that they were stopped. How many competitions did they play?
• What is the structure of the qualification rounds? (These are organized regionally, in addition to certain playoffs across regions.)
• How many countries had a chance to win one of the eight spots?
• Within each competition, how many teams participated? Did the winner immediately qualify, or face yet another hurdle? Did the losers immediately disqualify, or were they offered another chance?

Here's my take on this chart: