Comparing the (Display of) Results in Colorado

Mitt Romney lost badly last night. No way around that. But as I watched the results come in through various sources, I noticed two interesting design decisions that made me think; one from the Guardian (the British perspective), and the other from the New York Times.

Using only Colorado as an example, here is the map of county results by the Guardian.

Results map from the Guardian
Results map from 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.

Results map from the New York Times
Results map from 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.

Results table from the Guardian
Results table from the Guardian

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.

Results table from the New York Times
Results table from the New York Times

So interesting design decisions lead to one view that I find far more successful in showing the data: the New York Times.

Apple And Its Suppliers

American companies have long been moving their manufacturing overseas. Apple is no exception. However, Apple does audit its suppliers to ensure they are in compliance with the company’s code of conduct. The New York Times reported on this and included a graphic along with its article.

Apple Audits Its Suppliers
Apple Audits Its Suppliers

We have small multiples of line charts with small blurbs of text to highlight key stories. Clean, clear, and communicative. I contrast this with the number of charts one might see in business presentations, which presumably would have similar content in terms of audits and performance for a company, where these lines would normally be smashed together into one chart. At that point lines become indistinguishable from each other and the individual stories are missed among a muddle of a main story. Furthermore, in my experience, a business presentation would make full use of the width of the medium, in this case some 900 pixels or so. And for this story in particular that would mean, at most, by my count, 900 pixels for 5 plotted points in a timeline.

Seeing work like this is refreshing.

Show Europe the Money

The Guardian has an interactive piece that details payments to and from European Union member states to institutions, determining whether each state is a giver or receiver.

Comparing payments and receipts in EU member states
Comparing payments and receipts in EU member states

The concept sounds all well and good. However, the piece itself feels clumsy with too much scrolling and whipping about to pan across the whole EU. The charts look a tad heavy—which could have been remedied for a more concise piece—and the callouts beg for a level of interactivity that is otherwise lacking.

Lastly, I have concerns about the list of countries at the top, although these may stem only from the point of view of an American not too familiar with Europe. Flags are not circles, they are, in most cases, rectangular in shape. Does cropping a symbol or icon of a country make it more or less useful of a symbol or icon? Furthermore, do the British recognise the flags of their fellow EU member states?

The country icons/flags call for some type of sorting function, to compare payments and receipts and their balance. But, instead, they sit there in unalterable silence, providing only an economic overview when clicked. An overview that through its staid design feels more like an afterthought.

Killed in Action in Iraq, State by State

The Iraq War is over. And now it is time to reflect on what we have gained and what we have lost. This map by the Guardian details the number of soldiers killed in action in Iraq. (Other options include total wounded, killed by non-hostile, &c.)

Killed in Action in Iraq by State
Killed in Action in Iraq by State

Unfortunately, I call it a ‘no kidding’ type of map. The data, accessible via the Guardian here, corresponds nicely with a list of states by total population. Of the top ten countries in KIA, only Virginia is not among the top ten in population; it is 12th. The country thus not in the top ten in KIA, but in population is North Carolina. It’s rank in terms of KIA? 11th.

The data is interesting and worth depicting if we are to reflect. But, perhaps a more suitable visualisation could have been chosen.

On a personal note, these Google Maps overlays are annoying when, in the cases of, e.g., Wisconsin and Massachusetts, the shapes are incorrect. Perhaps coastlines are not as easy as states with ‘straight lines’ for boders, but we would do well to try and make irregular coasts at least somewhat correct.

The European Debt Crisis. Again.

Nearly a month ago, the New York Times released an interactive piece along with a printed infographic about the European debt crisis in an attempt to explain just what is going on; I wrote about it here.

Now, the BBC has an interactive graphic showing how different countries relate to each other. The width of the lines relates to the amount of debt and the colours fall into three groups: red for high risk, yellow for medium risk, and grey for low risk. These are all fairly sensible and are echoed in the New York Times piece.

The BBC's explanation of the European debt crisis
The BBC's explanation of the European debt crisis

However, one advantage of the diagram used by the BBC is that the arrows emerge from an arc and show the total amount of debt going to the selected European (and US) economies. At least, I hope they do. That is how I read it, but it is not explicitly stated. I hope that I am correct. If so, this is better than the Times version which simply has a proportionally wide line starting from a circle. But without other lines, one cannot see the useful supplemental information about how much total trade the country has.

One element that sticks out is the selected state of the diagram. This uses a blue line that is rather crudely drawn atop the arc. Distractingly so. The colour choice works as blue contrasts with the reds, yellows, and greys, but the execution of the line drawing is simply poor.

Overall, the data is interesting, and if my assumption is correct, and presents a more meaningful picture of trade relations between the chosen countries. However, the execution of the piece’s design does leave me wanting more. And that, given the need to tell this story both completely and correctly, is unfortunate.

Much Improved Mapping of American Migration

Forbes released Jon Bruner’s latest map of migration in the United States. It uses IRS figures to show inbound and outbound movement from counties across the United States. The work itself is an improvement from his map from last year, which was a bit more difficult to read. Beneath is the new version, and at the end, for comparison, the old.

This year's migration map
This year's migration map

Firstly, the colour palette is far more sophisticated. Secondly, and most crucially, the user can hide the lines on the map, which obscures a key part of the story of migration in urban areas—higher income people moving out of the city and into the suburbs. Thirdly, the map data now includes additional years, which are available by clicking the small chart in the upper right—a welcome addition that allows the data from last year’s map to become accessible this year. Fourthly, and to be fair this may have existed previously but not that I can recall, the new map is accompanied by essays.

These essays use the map and its data to tell stories and explain what one sees going on with the data. It is (relatively) easy for one to put together a piece of data visualisation from a data set. But, without knowing where to look, users may not actually find anything valuable in the visualisation. By pointing to these essays, the map—already much improved from a design perspective—takes on a much more rounded and mature character and becomes more about generating information and knowledge than simply figures and statistics.

Last year's migration map
Last year's migration map

7 Billion Is a Big Number

We have seven billion living on the planet today. Or at least we think we do. Really, who knows? But for the sake of this blog post and many others like it along with news stories and water cooler conversations, let’s just say we’re at seven billion, okay?

So where do you fit into the giant seven billion-ness of the world?

The BBC can tell you.

You enter a few data points such as your birthday and the country in which you live, and you get a customised you-are-a-unique-snowflake report on how special you are.

The graphs are not particularly fancy, but they work. More interesting of the whole set is the world population where you are placed in the context of the global population.

Where You Fit Within the World Population
Where You Fit Within the World Population
Where Your Country of Residence Fits Within the World
Where Your Country of Residence Fits Within the World

Less interesting are the maps, which serve only to show you where in the world your country is located and then those of the greatest and least population growth or life expectancy. The secondary cases could be useful if the countries were small and relatively unknown. But in terms of life expectancy the highest growth is Japan most people know where Japan is located. The other countries noted, Qatar, Moldova, and the Central African Republic are probably less well-known by some, but could the data be better represented? Probably.

Troop Levels in Iraq

A few days ago, President Obama announced that all but perhaps 150 US troops in Iraq would be home before 1 Jan 2012. While the mission may have been accomplished over 8 years ago, we are finally seeing an end to the Iraq War.

Both the BBC and the New York Times created charts to show the strength of US forces in Iraq since the start of the war up until the end—the New York Times also compares these to troop levels in Afghanistan where we have a new ‘surge’ of troops.

The two are slightly different. The first from the New York Times is an interactive piece that allows you to mouse over each bar and access the actual number of troops present in Iraq that month. The bars are spaced tightly together with only the necessary gap to break apart years and provide the vertical scale.

New York Times chart
New York Times chart

The BBC piece is a static image with no interaction. I do not care for the clustering of years, it breaks the visual rhythm of the piece and interrupts the story. I think in the design of the piece that the New York Times has the better and more effective chart. However, where the BBC truly succeeds is in offering bits of explanation for changes in the chart.

BBC chart
BBC chart

One might think that the war lasted several years with periods of great battles and great troop losses because the  number of soldiers stays roughly at 140 thousand. But the text lets us know otherwise. The first is obvious, the war begins. But it progresses to things like the declaring of mission accomplished, the surge, and when US troops left Iraqi cities.

These are not difficult pieces of analysis, nor do they require much investigatory journalism, but they provide the context that allows the chart to tell the story in its numbers.

European Debt Crisis Explained

The European debt crisis affects all of us. Shares fall on the exchanges in Frankfurt, Paris and London and then ripple westward to New York before finally reaching Hong Kong and Tokyo. But does anyone understand actually understand who owes whom what?

This interactive piece is yet another from the New York Times and is an online version of a print graphic that appeared in Sunday’s paper. Online, interactivity is used to focus attention on particular elements of the story, highlighting key components of the tangled debt web that anchors the whole piece. The width of the lines relate the difference between borrowers and lenders.

An Overview of the European Debt Crisis
An Overview of the European Debt Crisis

Hidden in the width of the arrows, however, is the gross lending. The lending may appear to cancel itself out, but the banks and other sources of the loans may not all be lending to each other, i.e., some big players could still take a hit if the crisis worsens.

The colours reflect the level of ‘worry’ in the country—though how worry is defined is left unstated.

Different parts of the story and potential scenarios are revealed by clicking buttons on the left-hand side of the piece. Elements of the large graphic that are not needed to tell that part of the story, though remaining pieces remain in place. This is an effective means of reminding the audience where they are situated in the overall web, but I wonder if not a slight shadow or faint trace of the web in the background could have been used instead of losing all the information entirely.

Overall, the interactive piece is quite effective in telling the story. But, because this was in the Sunday paper, the lazy afternoon paper, we also have a large-scale printed infographic that the interactive piece accompanied.

The Printed Explanation
The Printed Explanation

This has a lot more text—dreaded words—to further explain just what is happening. In my mind this adds to the story. For example, what I noted above about the net loans between two parties obscures the gross loans of both sides. This point is explicitly made about Britain and Ireland, which have enjoyed a very strong bilateral trade arrangement for a number of years. This context is added by a little text blurb crafted into the overall design of the piece.

Different scenarios are highlighted at the bottom with a reduction of the main piece creating small multiples of the diagram instead of how the interactive piece removed unnecessary elements. I think this is an equally effective means of solving that problem.

The New York Times created two separate but very much related pieces to explain a story that affects us all. The first media, the interactive piece, takes advantage of the ability to replace on the screen what is not necessary with what is necessary. Further, it allows some data that is not so relevant at first glance to be hidden. Mouse over the various lines and countries to reveal the data behind the problem for each. Do we need this information at first? No. Our first order is to try and work out the web we weaved. Well, that the bankers weaved.

That is very different than the print edition, which cannot be changed. All the content must be available at once. But, the data is made smaller because the print resolution is finer than that of a screen. Small text that might not be legible on a screen can be printed and read just fine. The printed edition also allows more space and thus more text for context. And this is okay knowing that the Sunday paper is likely to be read while relaxing with a fine cup of tea or coffee.

Credit for the piece goes to Bill Marsh.

Year of the Tornado

2011 appears to be the year of the tornado, with killer tornados roaming from Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and small towns in the deep South now to Joplin, Missouri. The latter now holds the record for being the most deadly, 117 confirmed deaths, in US-recorded history.

The New York Times, in its coverage of the aftermath—and the potential for more destruction with the forecasted weather—has mapped, charted, and animated data from the National Weather Service (NWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to illustrate the totality of the devastation witnessed this year.

The piece makes use of a map to illustrate where tornados struck and then their subsequent track, relevant geographic data, and that matches that with known fatalities using the always popular area of a circle datapoints. I am less keen on these for their cross-comparable nature, but here, in this instance, that is less the focus than the overall number of deaths and their locations. Then we also have the dataset over time with the noted caveats that, one, only in 2011 are deaths linked to counties rather than tornados as in all years past and, two, that as our ability to detect and record tornados has increased, we have more data with which to work. In short, it is not necessarily true that 1953 had less tornados than 2011.

Screenshot Detailing 2011 Tornados
Screenshot Detailing 2011 Tornados

Given the severity of the current year, and this outbreak in particular, the New York Times also created a smaller, but by no means lesser, piece to highlight just those tornados striking the Southeast. This piece maps the tornados by touchdown, date, and time. Omitted is data on fatalities or damage. However, this piece complements the larger, broader view of the above by breaking down the 2011 year, thus far, into increments of days. This is a great complementary piece that, by being separate from the first piece, allows each to shine in its own respective area.

The Outbreak of 27 April
The Outbreak of 27 April

Credit to this second piece goes to Archie Tse, Matt Ericson, and Alan McLean.