What's a histogram?

Mar 12, 2024

Almost all graphing tools make histograms, and almost all dataviz books cover the subject. But I've always felt there are many unanswered questions. In my talk this Thursday in NYC, I'll provide some answers. You can reserve a spot here.

***

Here's the most generic histogram:

Even Excel can make this kind of histogram. Notice that we have counts in the y-axis. Is this really a useful chart?

I haven't found this type of histogram useful ever, since I don't do analyses in which I needed to know the exact count of something - when I analyze data, I'm generalizing from the observed sample to a larger group.

Speaking of Excel, I felt that the developers have always hated histograms. Why is it much harder to make histograms than other basic charts?

***

Another question. We often think of histograms as a crude approximation to a probability density function (PDF). An example of a PDF is the famous bell curve. Textbooks sometimes show the concept like this:

This is true of only some types of histograms (and not the one shown in the first section!) Instead, we often face the following situation:

This isn't a trick. The data in the histogram above were generated by sampling the pink bell curve.

***

If you've used histograms, you probably also have run into strange issues. I haven't found much materials out there to address these questions, and they have been lingering in my mind, hidden, for a long time.

My Thursday talk will hopefully fill in some of these gaps.

My talk next week on histograms

Mar 08, 2024

Next Thursday (March 14), I'll be presenting at the Data Visualization New York Meetup, hosted by Naomi and Cameron. The event is in-person at Datadog's office. You can reserve your spot here.

This talk is brand new, based on some work inspired by a blog post by Andrew Gelman. One of Andrew's correspondents asked about a particular type of histogram. While exploring this topic, I filled some of my own gaps in knowledge about this deceptively simple chart form. I'll be sharing this story.

Bits and pieces have appeared before on my blog. See this, this, and this for background.

If you're attending the talk, come up and say hi.

The cult of raw unadjusted data

Jan 23, 2024

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.

***

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.

***

In 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.

***

The following chart by the EPA roughly implements the above:

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.

To a new year of pleasant surprises

Jan 01, 2024

Happy new year!

This year promises to be the year of AI. Already last year, we pretty much couldn't lift an eyebrow without someone making an AI claim. This year will be even noisier. Visual Capitalist acknowledged this by making the noisiest map of 2023:

I kept thinking they have a geography teacher on the team, who really, really wants to give us a lesson of where each country is on the world map.

All our attention is drawn to the guiding lines and the random scatter of numbers. We have to squint to find the country names. All this noise drowns out the attempt to make sense of the data, namely, the inset of the top 10 countries in the lower left corner, and the classification of countries into five colored groups.

A small dose of editing helps. Remove most data labels except for the countries for which they have a story. Provide a data table below for those who want details.

***

In the Methodology section, the data analysts (possibly from a third party called ElectronicsHub) indicated that they used Google search volume of "over 90 of the most popular generative AI tools", calculating the "overall volume across all tools per 100k population". Then came a baffling line: "all search volumes were scaled up according to the search engine market share in each country, using figures from statscounter.com." (Note: in the following, I'm calling the data "AI-related search" for simplicity even though their measurement is restricted to the terms described above.)

It took me a while to comprehend what they could have meant by that line. I believe this is what that sentence means: Google is not the only search engine out there so by only researching Google search volume, they undercount the true search volume. How did they deal with the missing data problem? They "scaled up" so if Google is 80% of the search volume in a country, then they divide the Google volume by 80% to "scale up" to 100%.

Whenever we use heuristics like this, we should investigate its foundations. What is the implicit assumption behind this scaling-up procedure? It is that all search engines are effectively the same. The users of non-Google search engines behave exactly as the Google search engine users. If the analysts somehow could get their hands on the data of other search engines, they would discover that the proportion of search volume that is AI-related is effectively the same as seen on Google.

This is one of those convenient, and obviously wrong assumptions – if true, the market would have no need for more than one search engine. Each search engine's audience is just a random sample from the population of all users.

Let's make up some numbers. Let's say Google has 80% share of search volume in Country A, and AI-related search 10% of the overall Google search volume. The remaining search engines have 20% share. Scaling up here means taking the 8% of Google AI-related search volume, divide by 80%, which yields 10%. Since Google owns 8% of the 10%, the other search engines see 2% of overall search volume attributed to AI searches in Country A. Thus, the proportion of AI-related searches on those other search engines is 2%/20% = 10%.

Now, in certain countries, Google is not quite as dominant. Let's say Google only has 20% share of Country B's search volume. AI-related search on Google is 2%, which is 10% of its total. Using the same scaling-up procedure, the analysts have effectively assumed that the proportion of AI-related search volume in the dominant search engines in Country B to be also 10%.

I'm using the above calculations to illustrate a shortcoming of this heuristic. Using this procedure inflates the search volume in countries in which Google is less dominant because the inflation factor is the reciprocal of Google's market share. The less dominant Google is, the larger the inflation factor.

What's also true? The less dominant Google is, the smaller proportion of the total data the analysts are able to see, the lower the quality of the available information. So the heuristic is the most influential where it has the greatest uncertainty.

***

Hope your new year is full of uncertainty, and your heuristics shall lead you to pleasant surprises.

If you like the blog's content, please spread the word. I'm looking forward to sharing more content as the world of data continues to evolve at an amazing pace.

Disclosure: This blog post is not written by AI.

Stranger things found on scatter plots

Nov 29, 2023

Washington Post published a nice scatter plot which deconstructs scores from the recent World Championships in Gymnastics. (link)

The chart presents the main message clearly - the winner Simone Biles scored the highest on both components of the score (difficulty and execution), by quite some margin.

What else can we learn from this chart?

***

Every athlete who qualified for the final scored at or above average on both components.

Scoring below average on either component is a death knell: no athlete scored enough on the other component to compensate. (The top left and bottom right quadrants would have had some yellow dots otherwise.)

Several athletes in the top right quadrant presumably scored enough to qualify but didn't. The footnote likely explains it: each country can send at most two athletes to the final. It may be useful to mark out these "unlucky" athletes using a third color.

Curiously, it's not easy to figure out who these unlucky athletes were from this chart alone. We need two pieces of data: the minimum qualifying score, and the total score for each athlete. The scatter plot isn't the best chart form to show totals, but qualification to the final is based on the sum of the difficulty and execution scores. (Note also, neither axis starts at zero, compounding the challenge.)

***

This scatter plot is most memorable for shattering one of my expectations about risk and reward in sports.

I expect risk-seeking athletes to suffer from higher variance in performance. The tennis player who goes for big serves tend to also commit more double faults. The sluggers who hit home runs tend to strike out more often. Similarly, I expect gymnasts who attempt more difficult skills to receive lower execution scores.

Indeed, the headline writer seemed to agree, suggesting that Biles is special because she's both high in difficulty and strong in execution.

The scatter plot, however, sends the opposite message - this should not surprise. The entire field shows a curiously strong positive correlation between difficulty and execution scores. The more difficult is the routine, the higher the excution score!

It's hard to explain such a pattern. My guesses are:

a) judges reward difficult routines, and subconsciously confound execution and difficulty scores. They use separate judges for excecution and difficulty. Paradoxically, this arrangement may have caused separation anxiety - the judges for execution might just feel the urge to reward high difficulty.

b) those athletes who are skilled enough to attempt more difficult routines are also those who are more consistent in execution. This is a type of self-selection bias frequently found in observational data.

Regardless of the reasons for the strong correlation, the chart shows that these two components of the total score are not independent, i.e. the metrics have significant overlap in what they measure. Thus, one cannot really talk about a difficult routine without also noting that it's a well-executed routine, and vice versa. In an ideal scoring design, we'd like to have independent components.

When words speak louder than pictures

Jul 11, 2023

I've been staring at this chart from the Wall Street Journal (link) about U.S. workers working remotely:

It's one of those offerings I think on which the designer spent a lot of effort, but ultimately didn't realize that the reader would spend equal if not more effort deciphering.

However, the following paragraph lifted straight from the article says exactly what needs to be said:

Workers overall spent an average of 5 hours and 25 minutes a day working from home in 2022. That is about two hours more than in 2019, the year before Covid-19 sent millions of workers scrambling to set up home oces, and down just 12 minutes from 2021, according to the Labor Department’s American Time Use Survey.

***

Why is the chart so hard to read?

It's mostly because the visual is fighting the message. In the Trifecta Checkup (link), this is represented by a disconnect between the Q(uestion) and the V(isual) corners - note the green arrow between these two corners.

The message concentrates on two comparisons: first, the increase in amount of remote work after the pandemic; and second, the mild decrease in 2022 relative to 2021.

On the chart, the elements that grab my attention are (a) the green and orange columns (b) the shading in the bottom part of those green and orange columns (c) the thick black line that runs across the chart (d) the indication on the left side that tells me one unit is an hour.

None of those visual elements directly addresses the comparisons. The first comparison - before and after the pandemic - is found by how much the green column spikes above the thick black line. Our comprehension is retarded by the decision to forego the typical axis labels in favor of chopping columns into one-hour blocks.

The second comparison - between 2022 and 2021 - is found in the white space above the top of the orange column.

So, in reality, the text labels that say exactly what needs to be said are carrying a lot of weight. A slight edit to the pointers helps connect those descriptions to the visual depiction, like this:

I've essentially flipped the tactics used in the various pointers. For the average level of remote work pre-pandemic, I dispense of any pointers while I'm using double-headed arrows to indicate differences across time.

Nevertheless, this modified chart is still too complex.

***

Here is a version that aligns the visual to the message:

It's a bit awkward because the 2 hour 48 minutes calculation is the 2021 number minus the average of 2015-19, skipping the 2020 year.

Redundancy is great

Jul 05, 2023

I have been watching some tennis recently, and noticed that some venues (or broadcasters) have adopted a more streamlined way of showing tiebreak results.

(This is an old example I found online. Can't seem to find more recent ones. Will take a screenshot next time I see this on my TV.)

For those not familiar with tennis scoring, the match is best-of-three sets (for Grand Slam men's tournaments, it's best-of-five sets); each set is first to six games, but if the scoreline reaches 5-5, a player must win two consecutive games to win the set at 7-5, or else, the scoreline reaches 6-6, and a tiebreak is played. The tiebreak is first to seven points, or if 6-6 is reached, it's first player to get two points clear. Thus, the possible tiebreak scores are 7-0, 7-1, ..., 7-5, 8-6, 9-7, etc.

A tiebreak score is usually represented in two parts, e.g., 7-6 (7-2).

At some point, some smart person discovered that the score 7-2 contains redundant information. In fact, it is sufficient to show just the score of the losing side in a tiebreak - because the winner's points can be inferred from it.

The rule can be stated as: if the displayed number is 5 or below, then the winner of the tiebreak scored exactly 7 points; and if the displayed number is 6 or above, then the winner scored two points more than that number.

For example, in the attached image, Djokovic won a tiebreak 7-6 (2) which means 7-6 (7-2) while Del Potro won a tiebreak 7-6 (6) which means 7-6 (8-6).

***

While this discovery satisfies my mathematical side - we always like to find the most concise way to do a proof or computation - it is bad for data communications!

It's just bad practice to make readers do calculations in their heads when the information can be displayed visually.

I found where I saw this single-digit display. It's on the official ATP Tour website.

***

Just for fun, if we applied the same principle to the display of the entire scoreline, we would arrive at something even more succinct :)

4-6, 7-6(6), 6-4 can simply be written as 4-, -6(6), -4

6-3, 7-6(4), 6-3 is -3, -6(4), -3

6-1, 6-4 is -1, -4

7-5, 4-6, 6-1 is -5, 4-, -1

The shortened display contains the minimal information needed to recover the long-form scoreline. But it fails at communications.

In this case, redundancy is great.

More on equal-area histograms

May 31, 2023

Today, I'm returning to those "equal-area histograms" that Andrew wrote about last month. I have two previous posts about this. The first post introduces the concept: in a traditional histogram, the columns have the same bin width while the column heights can represent a variety of metrics, such as counts, relative frequencies (i.e. proportion of the data) and densities; in the equal-area histogram, the columns have varying widths while the area of each column is constant, and determined by the number of bins (columns).

Here is a comparison of the two types of histograms.

In a second post, I explained the differences between using counts, frequencies and densities in the vertical axis. The underlying issue is that the histogram is not merely a column chart, in which the width of the columns is arbitrary and data-free - in the histogram, both the heights and widths of columns carry meaning. One feature of the histogram that almost everyone expects is that the area of the columns sum up to 1. This aligns with a desired interpretation of probabilities of data falling into specified ranges, as we'd like the amount of data in the entire range to add up to 100%. Unfortunately, the two items are usually incompatible with each other.

If the height of the columns represents the probability of data falling into the range as indicated by its width, then the sum of the column heights is 1, which implies that the sum of the column areas cannot be 1. On the other hand, if the column areas add up to 1, then the column heights will not add up to 1, and thus, in this scenario, we cannot interpret the column heights to be probabilities. As explained in the second post, the column heights in this situation are densities, which can be defined as the proportion of data divided by the bin width. Intuitively, it gives information on how dense or sparse the data are within the specified range.

***

Today's post start with a toy dataset, containing randomly generated values from a normal distribution (bell curve) centered at 4 and with standard deviation 1.

Here is the traditional histogram of the dataset, using 100 equal-width bin. (I generated 10,000 values)

Next, I created a panel of four equal-area histograms, with increasingly number of bins. Each is built from the same underlying dataset.

The first histogram divides the data into 4 bins; then 10 bins, 20 bins and 100 bins.

In the 4-bin case, each column contains 1/4 = 25% of the data. The middle two columns contain 50% of the data, and they have high densities, as the widths of these columns are low. It's a crude approximation of the familiar bell curve.

As we increase the number of bins, the columns in the middle of the distribution, where most of the data are concentrated, become narrower. In the sparse regions, the column width doesn't necessarily grow because each column must contain 1/n of the data, where n is the number of columns. As the number of columns increases, each column contains less of the data.

The bottom chart is the "percentogram", which is what Andrew's correspondent proposed. The number of bins is set to 100, so each column contains exactly 1 percent of the data. For a normal distribution, the columns in the middle are very tall and thin.

The reason why the middle of the percentogram looks faded is that I asked for a white border around each column. But when the columns are so thin, even if one sets the border width very small, what readers see is a mixture of orange and white.

With high number of bins, we notice a few things: a) the outline of the histogram becomes "ragged" (the more bins there are), b) the middle columns become razor-thin c) the width conceded by the middle columns is absorbed not by the columns at the edges but those between the peak and the edge.

I'm struggling a bit to justify this percentogram versus the typical, equal-width histogram.

Let me go down a different path.

***

In "principled" histograms, the column heights represent data densities, while the total area of the columns add up to 1. This leads us to a new understanding of the relationship between the equal-width histogram and the equal-area histogram.

We start with data density defined by (proportion of data) / (bin width). Those two values are not independent - one is fully determined by the other, given the underlying dataset. In a traditional equal-width histogram, the question is: how much of the data is found in a column of fixed width? In the new equal-area histogram, the question is: how wide is the bin that contains a fixed amount of data? In the former, the denominator is fixed while the numerator varies; the opposite occurs in the latter.

***

We also recognize that given the range of the data, there is a relationship between the the set of bin widths in the two types of histograms. In the traditional histogram, all bin widths have the same value, equal to the range of the data divided by the number of bins. Think of this as the average bin width. In an equal-area histogram, the set of bin widths varies: however, the sum of the bin widths must still add up to the range of the data. For two comparable histograms with the same number of bins, the average of the bin widths must be the same for both sets. (I'm ignoring any rounding situations in which the range of the histogram is larger than the range of the data.)

Now, consider the middle of the normal distribution where the data are dense. In the traditional histogram, the column in the middle still has width equal to the average bin width. In the equal-area histogram, the middle column has width much smaller than the average bin width. In other words, we can think of the column in the traditional histogram being broken up into many thin and slim columns in the equal-area histogram, each containing 1% of the data in the case of the percentogram.

The height of the column is the data density. In the traditional histogram, the middle column is the pooled sample of larger size; in the equal-area histogram, each of those thin and slim columns is a partition of the sample. This explains observation (a) above in which the outline of the equal-area histogram is more ragged - it's because each column contains fewer data from which to estimate the data density.

But this raggedness is artificial, sampling noise.

***

The sparse areas are more complicated still. It's also the reverse of the above. On the edges of the normal distribution, the columns of the new histogram are wider than those of the traditional histogram. So, we can think of breaking up the edge column of the new histogram into multiple columns of the traditional histogram.

The interpretation is more complicated because the data are sparse in this region. Obviously, the estimates of density on the traditional histogram in sparse regions are poor because not enough data reside in there. The density estimate on the new histogram is based on a larger sample size.

However.

Yes, however, whether the new histogram's density estimate is better depends on the shape of the tail of the distribution. A normal distribution has exponential tails, which means that the data density declines quite drastically the further we go into the tail. Therefore, the new histogram averages the data densities across a large part of the tail, wiping out the exponential shape while the traditional histogram preserves that shape - at the expense of greater sampling variability due to smaller sample sizes.

***

For what it's worth, let's look at some histograms for an exponential random variable.

The data are extremely dense on the left side while it has a long tail on the right side.

Here are the four equal-area histograms for 4, 10, 20 and 100 bins.

The four-bin version gives a nice summary of the shape. As the number of bins goes up, as before, the denser regions now have tall, thin spikes. Again, because of the white borders, the last histogram with 100 bins is faded where the data are densest. (So obviously, don't follow my lead, and eliminate borders if you want to use it.)

The 100-bin version looks almost the same as the traditional histogram.

***

At this stage of the exploration, I still haven't found a compelling reason to switch to equal-area hist0grams. In the denser regions, it's adding sampling noise. If I don't care about the sparser areas, specifically, the shape of the tails, maybe they provide a cleaner presentation.

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.

May 02, 2023

In the previous post about a variant of the histogram, I glossed over a few perplexing issues - deliberately. Today's post addresses one of these topics: what is going on in the vertical axis of a histogram?

The real question is: what data are encoded in the histogram, and where?

***

Let's return to the dataset from the last post. I grabbed data from a set of international football (i.e. soccer) matches. Each goal scored has a scoring minute. If the goal is scored in regulation time, the scoring minute is a number between 1 and 90 minutes. Specifically, the data collector applies a rounding up: any goal scored between 0 and 60 seconds is recorded as 1, all the way up to a goal scored between 89 and 90th minute being recorded as 90. In this post, I only consider goals scored in regulation time so the horizontal axis is between 1-90 minutes.

The kneejerk answer to the posed question is: counts in bins. Isn't it the case that in constructing a histogram, we divide the range of values (1-90) into bins, and then plot the counts within bins, i.e. the number of goals scored within each bin of minutes?

The following is what we have in mind:

Let's call this the "count histogram".

Some readers may dislike the scale of the vertical axis, as its interpretation hinges on the total sample size. Hence, another kneejerk answer is: frequencies in bins. Instead of plotting counts directly, plot frequencies, which are just standardized counts. Just divide each value by the sample size. Here's the "frequency histogram":

The count and frequency histograms are identical except for the scale, and appear intuitively clear. The count and frequency data are encoded in the heights of the columns. The column widths are an afterthought, and they adhere to a fixed constant. Unlike a column chart, typically the gap width in a histogram is zero, as we want to partition the horizontal range into adjoining sections.

Now, if you look carefully at the histogram from the last post, reproduced below, you'd find that it plots neither counts nor frequencies:

The numbers on the axis are fractions, and suggest that they may be frequencies, but a quick check proves otherwise: with 9 columns, the average column should contain at least 10 percent of the data. The total of the displayed fractions is nowhere near 100%, which is our expectation if the values are relative frequencies. You may have come across this strangeness when creating histograms using R or some other software.

The purpose of this post is to explain what values are being plotted and why.

***

What are the kinds of questions we like to answer about the distribution of data?

At a high level, we want to know "where are my data"?

Arguably these two questions are fundamental:

• what is the probability that the data falls within a given range of values? e.g., what is the probability that a goal is scored in the first 15 minutes of a football match?
• what is the relative probability of data between two ranges of values? e.g. are teams more likely to score in last 5 minutes of the first half or the last five minutes of the second half of a football match?

In a histogram, the first question is answered by comparing a given column to the entire set of columns while the second question is answered by comparing one column to another column.

Let's see what we can learn from the count histogram.

In a count histogram, the heights encode the count data. To address the relative probability question, we note that the ratio of heights is the ratio of counts, and the ratio of counts is the same as the ratio of frequencies. Thus, we learn that teams are roughly 3000/1500 = 1.5 times more likely to score in the last 5 minutes of the second half than during the last 5 minutes of the first half. (See the green columns).

[For those who follow football, it's clear that the data collector treated goals scored during injury time of either half as scored during the last minute of the half, so this dataset can't be used to analyze timing of goals unless the real minutes were recorded for injury-time goals.]

To address the range probability question, we compare the aggregate height of the three orange columns with the total heights of all columns. Note that I said "height", not "area," because the heights directly encode counts. It's actually taxing to figure out the total height!

We resort to reading the total area of all columns. This should yield the correct answer: the area is directly proportional to the height because the column widths are fixed as a constant. Bear in mind, though, if the column widths vary (the theme of the last post), then areas and heights are not interchangable concepts.

Estimating the total area is still not easy, especially if the column heights exhibit high variance. What we need is the proportion of the total area that is orange. It's possible to see, not easy.

You may interject now to point out that the total area should equal the aggregate count (sample size). But that is a fallacy! It's very easy to make this error. The aggregate count is actually the total height, and because of that, the total area is the aggregate count multiplied by the column width! In my example, the total height is 23,682, which is the number of goals in the dataset, while the total area is 23,682 times 5 minutes.

[For those who think in equations, the total area is the sum over all columns of height(i) x width(i). When width is constant, we can take it outside the sum, and the sum of height(i) is just the total count.]

***

The count histogram is hard to use because it requires knowing the sample size. It's the first thing that is produced because the raw data are counts in bins. The frequency histogram is better at delivering answers.

In the frequency histogram, the heights encode frequency data. We can therefore just read off the relative probability of the orange column, bypassing the need to compute the total area.

This workaround actually promotes the fallacy described above for the count histogram. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the total area of all columns is 100%. It isn't.

Similar to before, the total height should be the total frequency but the total area is the total frequency multipled by the column width, that is to say, the total area is the reciprocal of the bin width. In the football example, using 5-minute intervals, the total area of the frequency histogram is 1/(5 minutes) in the case of equal bin widths.

How about the relative probability question? On the frequency histogram, the ratio of column heights is the ratio of frequencies, which is exactly what we want. So long as the column width is constant, comparing column heights is easy.

***

One theme in the above discussion is that in the count and frequency histograms, the count and frequency data are encoded in the column heights but not the column areas. This is a source of major confusion. Because of the convention of using equal column widths, one treats areas and heights as interchangable... but not always. The total column area isn't the same as the total column height.

This observation has some unsettling implications.

As shown above, the total area is affected by the column width. The column width in an equal-width histogram is the range of the x-values divided by the number of bins. Thus, the total area is a function of the number of bins.

Consider the following frequency histograms of the same scoring minutes dataset. The only difference is the number of bins used.

Increasing the number of bins has a series of effects:

• the columns become narrower
• the columns become shorter, because each narrower bin can contain at most the same count as the wider bin that contains it.
• the total area of the columns become smaller.

This last one is unexpected and completely messes up our intuition. When we increase the number of bins, not only are the columns shortening but the total area covered by all the columns is also shrinking. Remember that the total area whether it is a count or frequency histogram has a factor equal to the bin width. Higher number of bins means smaller bin width, which means smaller total area.

***

What if we force the total area to be constant regardless of how many bins we use? This setting seems more intuitive: in the 5-bin histogram, we partition the total area into five parts while in the 10-bin histogram, we divide it into 10 parts.

This is the principle used by R and the other statistical software when they produce so-called density histograms. The count and frequency data are encoded in the column areas - by implication, the same data could not have been encoded simultaneously in the column heights!

The way to accomplish this is to divide by the bin width. If you look at the total area formulas above, for the count histogram, total area is total count x bin width. If the height is count divided by bin width, then the total area is the total count. Similarly, if the height in the frequency histogram is frequency divided by bin width, then the total area is 100%.

Count divided by some section of the x-range is otherwise known as "density". It captures the concept of how tightly the data are packed inside a particular section of the dataset. Thus, in a count-density histogram, the heights encode densities while the areas encode counts. In this case, total area is the total count. If we want to standardize total area to be 1, then we should compute densities using frequencies rather than counts. Frequency densities are just count densities divided by the total count.

To summarize, in a frequency-density histogram, the heights encode densities, defined as frequency divided by the bin width. This is not very intuitive; just think of densities as how closely packed the data are in the specified bin. The column areas encode frequencies so that the total area is 100%.

The reason why density histograms are confusing is that we are reading off column heights while thinking that the total area should add up to 100%. Column heights and column areas cannot both add up to 100%. We have to pick one or the other.

Comparing relative column heights still works when the density histogram has equal bin widths. In this case, the relative height and relative area are the same because relative density equals relative frequencies if the bin width is fixed.

The following charts recap the discussion above. It shows how the frequency histogram does not preserve the total area when bin sizes are changed while the density histogram does.

***

The density histogram is a major pain for solving range probability questions because the frequencies are encoded in the column areas, not the heights. Areas are not marked out in a graph.

The column height gives us densities which are not probabilities. In order to retrieve probabilities, we have to multiply the density by the bin width, that is to say, we must estimate the area of the column. That requires mapping two dimensions (width, height) onto one (area). It is in fact impossible without measurement - unless we make the bin widths constant.

When we make the bin widths constant, we still can't read densities off the vertical axis, and treat them as probabilities. If I must use the density histogram to answer the question of how likely a team scores in the first 15 minutes, I'd sum the heights of the first 3 columns, which is about 0.025, and then multiply it by the bin width of 5 minutes, which gives 0.125 or 12.5%.

At the end of this exploration, I like the frequency histogram best. The density histogram is useful when we are comparing different histograms, which isn't the most common use case.

***

The histogram is a basic chart in the tool kit. It's more complicated than it seems. I haven't come across any intro dataviz books that explain this clearly.

Most of this post deals with equal-width histograms. If we allow bin widths to vary, it gets even more complicated. Stay tuned.

***

For those using base R graphics, I hope this post helps you interpret what they say in the manual. The default behavior of the "hist" function depends on whether the bins are equal width:

• if the bin width is constant, then R produces a count histogram. As shown above, in a count histogram, the column heights indicate counts in bins but the total column area does not equal the total sample size, but the total sample size multiplied by the bin width. (Equal width is the default unless the user specifies bin breakpoints.)
• if the bin width is not constant, then R produces a (frequency-)density histogram. The column heights are densities, defined as frequencies divided by bin width while the column areas are frequencies, with the total area summing to 100%.

Unfortunately, R does not generate a frequency histogram. To make one, you'd have to divide the counts in bins by the sum of counts. (In making some of the graphs above, I tricked it.) You also need to trick it to make a frequency-density histogram with equal-width bins, as it's coded to produce a count histogram when bin size is fixed.

P.S. [5-2-2023] As pointed out by a reader, I should clarify that R and I use the word "frequency" differently. Specifically, R uses frequency to mean counts, therefore, what I have been calling the "count histogram", R would have called it a "frequency histogram", and what I have been describing as a "frequency histogram", the "hist" function simply does not generate it unless you trick it to do so. I'm using "frequency" in the everyday sense of the word, such as "the frequency of the bus". In many statistical packages, frequency is used to mean "count", as in the frequency table which is just a table of counts. The reader suggested proportion which I like, or something like weight.