Snowfall in Philadelphia

Today, 9 February, it finally snowed significantly here in Philadelphia. In Chicago it probably snowed shortly after I moved out in September. Today’s graphic is a forecast map from using National Weather Service (NWS) data.

Snowfall in Philadelphia
Snowfall in Philadelphia

I fail to understand the divergent palette—to be fair this is not the only instance of it throughout the meteorological world. There is a split at the six-inch mark—but why? If anything, my eye would think that the 4–6 range is the heaviest, not the yellow. Snowfall is usually more of a continuous range, and so both within the blues and yellows you get that through a softer edge as the colours become more intense. And then you hit the six-inch mark and a violent shift.

I am also curious as to why the choice to use a coloured map background. Especially if the colour, a lightish green-blue is so close to the lightish blue used by the map to forecast snowfall.

In short, I think this Philadelphia map could use some attention from some designers to make the message a bit clearer.

Credit for the piece goes to the graphics department.

Hans Rosling Has Died

It’s easy to miss the news these days. But as a designer who does a lot of work—and writes a blog about—data visualisation and information design, I was fortunate to catch the word that Hans Rosling died. You might know him best from his TED talks, but I became familiar with him through his Gapminder project.

Mind the gap, please.
Mind the gap, please.

Do I agree with the design decisions? Of course not, just ask anyone who has asked me anything about bubble charts. But that is not the point. He and others laid the groundwork for myself and those newer to the field to work on the presentation of data, and its integration into analysis.

Unfortunately his death comes at a time when the field of data visualisation comes under threat. Not from the Chinese stealing our jobs, or robots doing them better for cheaper, but from those who assail the veracity of data and fact itself.

It’s easy to joke about alternative facts and alternative data—I do it on an almost daily basis now. But, as Rosling knew that accepting facts, even if unpleasant or challenging to your view on things, was critical to public discourse. To quote from Claire Provost of the Guardian, who interviewed him in 2013:

“Rosling stood for the exact opposite – the idea we can have debates about what could or should be done, but that facts and an open mind are needed before informed discussions can begin.”

Hans Rosling, dead at the age of 68.

Credit for the piece goes to Hans Rosling.

Diversity in the 115th Congress

Well, we have arrived at 2017. We all know the big political story in the executive branch. But we also saw elections in the legislative branch. But how different will the 115th Congress look from the 114th? The Wall Street Journal took a look at that in an article.

Congressional diversity
Congressional diversity

The article’s graphic does a nice job showing the two different compositions. But if we are truly interested in the growth, we could use a line chart to better showcase the data. So what did I do last night? I made that chart. But as I was playing with the data I saw some numbers that stood out for me. So I compared the proportion of minorities in the original graphic to their proportion of the US national population, per Census Bureau data.

Redesigning the original graphic
Redesigning the original graphic

The line charts, broken out into the House vs. the Senate and then into the two parties, do a really good job of showing how the growth is not equally distributed between the two parties. And the reverse of that is that it shows how one party has failed to diversify between the two congresses.

The 115th Congress might be more diverse than ever. But it has a long way to go.

Credit for the original piece goes to the Wall Street Journal graphics department.

How Healthy Is It?

Happy Friday after the election. Now that we have had our fill on sweets and bitters, we probably need to move towards a more balanced, more moderate diet. A couple of months ago the New York Times put together this scatter plot from the difference between public and nutritionist opinion on whether certain common foods are healthy.

I normally do not comment on the design of my Friday posts, since I intend them to be on the lighter, more humourous side of things. But this piece interests me, because despite the seriousness of the subject matter I find it lighter and less serious. Why? After studying it, I think it is because of the inclusion of photographs of the items. With the labels still present, I am left thinking that a small dot would be equally effective in communicating what falls where.

In general, try to be in the upper right
In general, try to be in the upper right

But more importantly, look at the sizes of the images relative to the plot. Take the bowls of granola or popcorn, for example. They occupy almost an entire square; the actual value could be anywhere with the 10 percentage point range either vertically or horizontally. And for those two, it does not matter a great deal. Each falls firmly on one side of the line. But what about butter? Kind bars? Cheddar cheese? The large graphic size straddles the line, but because the designers opted for photos over more precise dots, we cannot ascertain whether these foods fall on one side of the line or the other.

The point is that the graphics and design of a piece can influence the perceived seriousness of a piece. An image of a can of Coca-Cola certainly can be more engaging than a 10-pixel dot. But the precision of the dot over the image can also be engaging to the right audience, an audience interested in the data behind the story. There are ways of integrating both, because later on in the same article, we see a means of doing just that.

The image lives on the left of the table
The image lives on the left of the table

Here the image provides supplemental information. Just what does a granola bar look like? Well here you can see it. But even here, despite the smaller size and cropped dimensions, the photographs steal a bit of emphasis from the numbers and the charts to the right. (For things like SlimFast, that is no surprise, because the package is designed to capture your attention.)

At the end of the day, the piece interests me because the data interests me. And the story interests me. And I generally like the data visualisation forms the designers chose. But I keep getting hung up the photographs. And not in a good way. What do you think? Do the photos add to the story? Do they make the data clearer?

Credit for the piece goes to Kevin Quealy and Margot Sanger-Katz.

Deportation of Immigrants

Donald Trump announced how he wants to deport 2–3 million undocumented immigrants that have criminal convictions or that belong to gangs. I read up on the issue at FiveThirtyEight and came across the following graphic from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The government's chart on deportations
The government’s chart on deportations

However, when I review the graphic, I found it difficult to understand the FiveThirtyEight article’s point that President Obama has lessened the focus on deportation, but those deported are those convicted of serious criminal offences. So I expanded the size of the y-axis and broke apart the stacked bar chart to show the convicted criminals vs. the non-criminal immigration violators. This graphic more clearly shows the dramatic falloff in deportations, and the emphasis on those with criminal convictions.

A general decline in deportations has also seen a focus on convicted criminals over non-criminal immigration violators
A general decline in deportations has also seen a focus on convicted criminals over non-criminal immigration violators

Credit for the original goes to the graphics department of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The other one is mine.

Detroit’s Housing Market

A few weeks ago the Wall Street Journal published a graphic that I thought could use some work. I like line charts, and I think line charts with two or three lines that overlap can be legible. But when I see five in five colours in a small space…well not so much.

So I spent 45 minutes attempting to rework the graphic. Admittedly, I did not have source data, so I simply traced the lines as they appeared in the graphic. I kept the copy and dimensions and tried to work within those limitations. Clearly I am biased, but I think the work is now a little bit clearer. I also added for context the Great Recession, during which credit tightened, ergo more properties would have been likely purchased with cash. It’s all about the context.

The original:

The original graphic
The original graphic

And my take:

My take on it all
My take on it all

Credit for the original work goes to the Wall Street Journal graphics department.

Tracking Polls One Week Out

Well the election is next Tuesday, and last Friday and this past weekend was…interesting. So one(ish) week to go, and we are going to turn to a few posts that use data visualisation and graphics to explore topics related to the election.

Today we start with the latest tracking polls, released on Friday. The piece comes from the Washington Post and highlights the closing gap between Clinton and Trump with a sudden spike in Republican candidate support. But what I really like about the piece is the plot below. It displays the 0 axis vertically and plots time with the most recent date at the top. And then support for the various demographics can be filtered by selectable controls above the overall plot.

Saturday's polling numbers
Saturday’s polling numbers

Of course the really interesting bit is going to be how much this changes in the next seven days. And then what that means for the results when we all wake up on Wednesday morning.

Credit for the piece goes to Chris Alcantara, Kevin Uhrmacher, and Emily Guskin.

Early Voting So Far

70+ million people watched the debate last week. But, 2.5 million people have already voted. Me? Well in Pennsylvania there is no early voting, so you queue up on Election Day. But that also means I will have had the full election season to brush up on candidates for president and all the other offices. But what about early voters? Well the Washington Post put together an article last week about the numbers of early voters—hence my figures in the opening—and the amount of information they might have missed.

The number of early votes cast
The number of early votes cast

From a design standpoint, it is a really nice article that blends together large centre-piece graphics such as the above to smaller in-line graphics to margin graphics. None are interactive; all are static. But in these cases, users do not need the freedom to interact with the charts. Instead, the designers have selected the points in time or data points more relevant to the story.

Overall the piece is solid work.

Credit for the piece goes to Kevin Uhrmacher and Lazaro Gamio.

Baselines Are Important

Last week the Washington Post published a fascinating article on the data visualisation work of the Donald Trump media campaign. In my last job I frequently harped on the importance of displaying the baseline and/or setting the baseline to zero. When you fail to do so you distort the data. But maybe that is the point of this, for lack of a better term, political data visualisation.

Baselines are important
Baselines are important

My favourite author is George Orwell of 1984 and Animal Farm fame. But Orwell also penned numerous essays, one of which has struck me as particularly relevant in this election cycle: Politics and the English Language. In concluding the essay Orwell wrote:

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

And so political data visualisation? Well I believe it exists to serve the same purpose. The article goes into detail about how the designers behind the graphics fudged the numbers. Now did the campaign intend to mislead people with the data visualisation graphics? It is hard to say, because some of their graphics actually diminish leads that Trump has among certain demographics. Could it be the designer behind the graphics simply does not understand what he or she is doing? Perhaps. We clearly cannot know for certain.

Either way, it points to a need for more understanding of the importance and value of data visualisation in the political discourse. And then the natural follow-up of how to best design and create said visualisations to best inform the public.

But I highly recommend going to the Post and reading the entirety of the article.

Credit for the original work goes to the Trump campaign graphics department, the criticism to John Muyskens of the Washington Post.

Follow the State’s Money

In politics, it is really easy and often popular to bash the federal government. Especially when it comes to its penchant for collecting taxes to pay for things. And sometimes those things are in other states than your own. But do you know how much federal money goes back to your own state? Well now you can thank the Pew Charitable Trusts for putting together this piece that explores what percentage of state budgets is comprised of federal grant money.

Federal money for state budgets
Federal money for state budgets

While the piece also includes a donut chart—because why not?—my biggest gripe is with the choropleth and the choice of colour for the bins. If you look carefully at the legend, you will see how both the lowest and highest bins use a shade of blue. That means blue represents states that receive less than 25% of their budget from federal grants and also states that receive more than 40% of their budget from the same federal grants. But if your state is between 25% and 40%, your state suddenly turns a shade of green. It really makes no sense. I think the same colour, either blue or green, could be used for the entire spectrum. Or, if the designers really wanted a divergent scheme, they could have used the national average and used that as the breakpoint to show which states are above and which are below said average.

Credit for the piece goes to the Pew Charitable Trusts graphics department.