I am a graphic designer who focuses on information design. My day job? Well, they asked me not to say. But to be clear, this blog is my something I do on my own time and does not represent the views of…my employers. I think what I can say is that given my interest in information design—be it in the shape of clear charts, maps, diagrams, or wayfinding systems—I am fortunate that my day job focuses on data visualisation. Outside of work, I try to stay busy with personal design work. Away from the world of design, I have become an amateur genealogist and family historian. You will sometimes see that area of work bleed into my posts.
Presidents’ Day is actually Washington’s Birthday. That makes sense when you consider how Washington is still a much beloved president. And according to a recent survey, the most favoured president.
What is worth nothing is that most Americans know little of the 19th century presidents, save the big names like Lincoln, Grant, and (Teddy) Roosevelt. Not until the other Roosevelt (FDR) do we start seeing a decline in “Not Sure” responses. But, by far, Washington and Lincoln are the most favoured presidents.
The questions for all of us on this holiday are who’s your favourite? And how does he stack up? (Get it? Eh, chart humour.)
The crisis in Syria now resembles more of a civil war. The UN General Assembly has condemned the conflict and passed a resolution calling for Bashar al-Assad to step aside along with a host of other steps to resolve the conflict. However, nothing can happen until the Security Council agrees on a measure, which is still unlikely given the previous vetoes by China and Russia.
This piece from the Guardian chronologically explains what has been happening—at least as best as can be determined in the not-so-media-friendly country. As this story focuses on dates and places, a map feels natural. The designers have added some crucial details from the backstory about the ethnic complexities of the country and denoted the larger and more important urban centres.
When one clicks on a date, coloured by what part of the story is taking place, markers with text boxes overlay the original city markers and provide the user information on what happened in that city on that date. Or, if the event is more general, the box appears outside the borders.
The interface is rather simple, but works in focusing a person in on a time. Unfortunately, since much of this story can be seen through the lens of locale, e.g. the city of Homs has borne the brunt of al-Assad’s wrath, one cannot focus in on a place and then add time. For example, clicking on the marker for Homs and then seeing a chronological list of events that occurred there would also be quite useful.
Another slight improvement would be more clearly signifying the date being viewed. It does appear in the text box, but with the visual prominence of the main navigation at the top, on a few occasions when I was going through the piece, I did forget what date I was on and had brief moments of confusion.
The previous two entries have been about visualisations of the administration’s budget proposal for 2013. Today’s will be (probably) the last in such a theme. Perhaps some wonder if not the bubbles and circles of the Times’ visualisation, what?
Some might answer bar charts. Because we all love bar charts. But, as in this example from the Philadelphia Inquirer, sometimes we are left wanting more.
The graphic captures the size of the budget by general spending and revenue areas, but misses the story on how each has changed on account of this new era of austerity. What colour was in the previous examples, here instead we see it used to group the different categories of spending. From an aesthetic standpoint, the depth in the third dimension is distracting and the space between the two stacked bars (and the line separating them) does not aid in comparison.
In brief review, of the three visualisations presented over the past three days, I have to say that the Washington Post’s tree maps are the most useful from a design perspective, but sadly lacks in the granularity we see—regardless of the clarity or lack thereof in presentation—in the piece from the New York Times.
The main visualisation shows spending by department compared against revenue, the difference between being the grey box of deficit. Of note is that this piece also contains the revenue, and not just the spending, unlike the New York Times version. You can also see that the level of granularity is different; the Post looks only at department-level data while the Times delves into specific programmes. Critically, the arrangement of the budget components in this graphic makes it easier to attempt comparisons of area and thus weigh Education against Defence.
If you click a particular department, you swap out the revenue side of the budget equation with the details of previous spending in that area, broken down into presidential administrations that are coloured by party. The same holds true for revenue, clicking on those reveals the amount of revenue taken in by administration. Of some note is the deficit, which shows how we did briefly have a budget surplus back in the 1990s and how that compares to the deficits of today.
All in all, while the level of detail is not present in the Post’s visualisation, I find that the comparison at the departmental level stands strongly in the favour of the Post. The Post also benefits from presenting the other side of the budget story, revenue. Unfortunately, if you care to dig any deeper into any particular part of the budget, say weapons procurement or education grants, you cannot in the Post. That leaves space for a nicely designed, detailed, clear, and informative piece should someone or some organisation be so inclined to build it.
Credit for the piece goes to Wilson Andrews, Dan Keating and Karen Yourish.
Normally, I look forward to the release of the president’s budget proposed budget—fully understanding that it will never pass as proposed. We get to see lots of visualisations trying to show that we really do spend quite a lot on defence. And an awful lot on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. And a little bit on a lot of other varied programs and departments.
Last year was a very nice tree map by the New York Times, see my post about it here to refresh your memory. This year’s, well, frankly, is not so nice. To be fair, the piece is aesthetically pleasing and well designed; the transitions and interactions are all spot on.
What is not so much is the use of circles and bubbles.
In the tree map of last year, all the various leaves fit nicely against each other inside branches as part of the tree. See the below screenshot for a reminder. There were small spaces between the branches and leaves, but no more than necessary. Does the overall shape or size of the tree map represent anything? No, but note how the leaves are grouped by branches. And how, in a pinch, you can compare vertical and horizontal axes of each cell against is neighbours to gain a size comparison.
This year’s overall spending graphic shows large gaps between some circles and overlap of others. It is difficult to compare circle to circle and thus gain any true meaning of the size differences between programmes. Furthermore, the spaces do not group like with like, in fact every time I reload that view, the circles are in a new arrangement, making it difficult to return to the programme I had just been viewing. Compare that to the tree map where everything is ordered by department and, because all the changes and filtering happen within the view, the cells remain in place.
This year’s budget proposal has an additional three views presented: types of spending, changes, and department totals. The first moves the circles into two camps: discretionary and mandatory spending. But, the areas of the circles are hard to compare against each other, and the placement of the circles seems arbitrary. Compare that to last year’s which highlighted the types of spending within the tree map and blanking out the other. The cells remained in place and by their positioning against each other, a more accurate sense of scale and relationship was created.
Changes sorts the circles into department, though that part is not entirely clear at first glance. Otherwise, this view makes sense, though I wonder if a more clean scatter plot could not be more useful in plotting size and growth on the x and y axes with colour remaining the change from the previous year. Though one loses the grouping by government department, such a grouping seems less important throughout the 2013 piece except in the by department view.
That view resorts the circles into a matrix with each department receiving a square-like cell into which its circles are dropped. This was handled much more adeptly and clearly by the tree map of last year.
I appreciate the need to create new and more interesting visualisations every year. But, whereas last year’s was a solid piece, this is a shaky step backward. I would have liked to see a more nuanced and featured improvement to last year’s tree map instead of throwing it out.
Maps are cool. They show the geographic distribution of data. And that is fantastic if there is a story in said distribution. But even if there is a story, sometimes given both the scale of the map and the amount of data encoded in the map, how could you possibly expect to find the story? Which little region of the map do you search to find the interesting nuggets?
On Sunday, the New York Times published an interesting solution to that very quandary. The context is an article looking at the anger and resentment felt by some towards government assistance via the social safety net, and yet how these very same people depend upon that safety net through programmes like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, &c. The map, a choropleth, examines several different metrics that comprise government assistance, e.g. Medicaid payments as a percentage of income.
One can easily toggle through the various metrics at the scale of the entire United States. This is a rather standard feature for such maps. However, in the upper-left corner, the designers placed a ‘guide’ that provides context and stories for each metric. But, not only does the guide provide text to support the map, but it zooms in on specific areas and regions that then support the text and best exemplify the point.
Here we see the map of the whole US for Medicaid, which appears to be scattered pockets of higher percentages. Interesting perhaps, but the user likely has few ideas as to what that visualisation actually means.
Compare that to the guide’s view of the map, which focuses on the large cities on the East Coast.
Providing context and guiding a reader/user through the stories contained in the map, or at least those deemed interesting by the designers and editors, is an interesting solution to the problem of finding the story in maps such as these. However, by moving away from a strict visualisation of the data, the New York Times and others that try similar avenues introduce human biases in the story-telling that may otherwise be unwanted or distracting.
Credit for the piece goes to Jeremy White, Robert Gebeloff, Ford Fessenden, Archie Tse and Alan McLean.
Another image from my 1930s algebra book is on pie charts, or what was then called circle charts. And while the utility of such a chart form has not changed, especially in these examples, the circle chart of the 1930s had one particular good use for students. Constructing it.
Today a student plugs in numbers into a spreadsheet in Google Docs, Excel, or Open Office. He or she presses a button and the circle chart is done. Back in the 1930s, students needed to convert absolutes to percentages and then use protractors to draw the slices on pieces of paper. Fancy that, students having to do math to make a chart.
Often we think of graphs, charts, and other forms of data visualisation as a means to exploring the economic growth of so and so, or visualising traffic patterns, of explaining the complexities of science, or the reporting of yesterday’s news. But, we can all use data visualisation in our own lives to help make better decisions.
While I normally opt not to post links to other data visualisation blogs—I figure most people are also already checking those out—Nathan Yau posted about why he wants to cut the cable, i.e. lose his cable television subscription. He has two separate charts that are simple but effective in driving home the point that he really ought to think about cutting cable out.
The article, while a bit longer than usual, is well worth the read. The charts with the explanation make for a compelling argument.
Using only Colorado as an example, here is the map of county results by the Guardian.
Note how the map is presented in 3-D that therefore allows the use of height as another encoded variable, in this case the size of the lead. Now compare that to the map used by the New York Times.
Note how this map is flat. So much less cool, right? But try to compare the results in Denver County. When I look at the Times’ map, I see blue; Mitt Romney won. When I look at the Guardian’s map, I see…actually, I can’t. That label is in the way. And then even when I begin to interact with the map, Denver County is hidden by the height of Arapahoe County.
But what about the size of the lead? I cannot see that encoded in the New York Times map. No, one cannot. However, they added a toggle function to change the data displayed on the map—though the utility of that view can be left for another discussion.
And now to a minor point about comparing the totals.
Again, a look at the Guardian’s presentation.
And now the New York Times. Numbers are numbers and faces are faces. But look at the graphic element representing the percentage. With the Guardian, I can just barely discern that the size of the circles for Santorum and Romney are not the same. And the same goes for Gingrich and Paul. But when I look at the Times’ presentation, I see a simple bar chart that more clearly shows the relationships between the results.
So interesting design decisions lead to one view that I find far more successful in showing the data: the New York Times.
Bridges are vital parts of infrastructure networks connecting two separate pieces of territory, but often they can be choke points. Damage to a bridge can result to isolation at worst and at best long, circuitous reroutes that add significant time to travel. In the San Francisco area authorities are building a new bridge to replace the current Bay Bridge. But as everyone knows, buildings and infrastructure in that area can be significantly damaged during earthquakes. And the area is waiting for the ‘Big One’ that shall come some day or another.
So how to build a new bridge for the long-term that will also survive a major earthquake? The New York Times explains it in an interactive piece accompanying an article. The interactive piece includes an animation with voiceover explaining the details of the design, with diagrams illustrating the components placed next to the video player. At the bottom, anchoring the piece (pun intended), is a photo-illustration of the new bridge’s design.
Credit for the piece goes to Mika Gröndahl and Xaquín G.V.