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.

Finnish Election Results

Finland held an election that was worth watching because of the rise of a nationalist party whose name translates to True Finns. The leader of the True Finns was interviewed and at the end he reassured all watching that they “are not extremists. So you can sleep safely.” For Europe, the issue is their opposition to the bailouts of the various European economies, such as Ireland and Greece. And now that Portugal is in the midst of bailout negotiations, the True Finns could complicate matters if they manage to make it into government.

The Finnish Ministry of Justice released a small, interactive piece detailing the results. The parties are represented by acronyms, with PS for the True Finns. And here one can see that they performed third-best with about 19% of the vote. The True Finns actually beat the Centre Party, which was the leading party in the last coalition government. In short, a remarkable rise whose impact is yet unknown.

Overall Vote in Chart Form
Overall Vote in Chart Form

The interactive piece, however, is a tad confusing. While one story is certainly the improvement of the True Finns from the last election to the current one, does that need to be shown in the default view as we have here? And what I perceive to be shading or some sort of split colouration in the bars lends itself to the idea of having two separate sets of data encoded in the bar. Although I can see no such data and am thus confused.

But, fortunately, one can also change one’s views of the data, from column to bar to table. And I daresay that the table, in this instance, I find best. Not because the data could not be visualised in an interesting, compelling and comprehensible fashion, but because it was not.

Overall Vote in Table Form
Overall Vote in Table Form

Certainly, the election results provide interesting data sets. And in this case we clearly have an interesting story, the rise of the True Finns from a small, rural party of 5 seats in the Finnish parliament (200 total seats) to the third-largest party with 39 seats. Alas, this piece leads does not make it easy to tell that story—let alone the results of the election.

Maps Made by Hand (Or Simulations Thereof)

Le Monde is a French-language publication and so I never really bother with it, despite favourable reviews. However, they do have a small site with some content in the English language that I check from time to time. Frequently they have maps or other graphics of some interest, and this time upon visiting—done to see if they have anything on Libya given the lead taken by France and the UK—they had a few maps of the situation in North Africa.

Political Situation in North Africa and the Middle East
Political Situation in North Africa and the Middle East

By and large, nothing radical or ground-breaking in the maps. But, the designer, Philippe Rekacewicz, used a different cartographic perspective than I am at least accustomed to seeing for infographics. And then the aesthetic of the map is interesting, and quite different than what one typically sees. In a refreshingly interesting way. Now, whether he used a texture or filter in Photoshop to create the background map or whether he physically drew the map (and then overlaid the informational elements digitally), it matters little as the style works. I enjoy the idea of mixing the hand-made and data visualisation—though it needs to be well-executed.

He created a few sets of maps; each makes use of a slightly different palette. These certainly help create the visual distinction necessary between data sets. The pie charts are not particularly helpful, but they at least are kept simple: looking at only two parts of the whole. The comparison within each nation by bar charts of internet connectivity and higher-education learning works. It begins to work not so well as one tries to compare country to country. Though, the separation of the bars into ten-percentage point sub-bars begins to alleviate that issue. The main map, that highlights the political situation does a nice job of putting these countries into broader context. That is, who has oil and who has control over the key waterways in the region.

the three smaller maps
the three smaller maps

All in all, a refreshing set of maps that illustrate the fluid situation in North Africa and the Middle East.

Little Red (or blue or yellow or light-blue) Riding (neighbour-)Hoods

While not new news, if you have not heard, Canada’s minority government fell and Canada is having an election. And, as we all know, elections mean infographic insanity. Map mania. Graphs galore. You get my drift.

The Globe and Mail, a Toronto-based newspaper, printed an infographic about the 50 ridings to watch. (A riding is, for my mostly US-based readers, similar to a congressional district.) They complemented this with an online, interactive piece. They did all of this a few days ago.

the print version
the print version

I have been meaning to write about this for a few days, but am only now sitting down to write it up and an interesting thing has happened. Whereas before, I was able to click the Globe and Mail’s link to their print graphic, now I get directed to their Google map pushpin overlay. Bye-bye, print graphic.

online version
online version

And that is a shame, because, the print graphic is far better than the interactive. Yes, the pushpin can be clicked to read a small snippet of summary about the riding, however, at the same scale of print graphic, good luck finding all the pushpins. And while one can certainly zoom-in to find all the urban ridings, one loses seeing the whole and that riding’s relationship to the rest of Canada. Compare that to the print graphic where equally-sized boxes represent the ridings, and the boxes are spread out across a map of Canada in the background, showing the total apportionment of ridings to the provinces and territories. Whereas the pushpins do not. The arrangement of the boxes also has urban ridings grouped together and delineated from more rural ridings. Whereas the pushpins do not. And the boxes are not tied specifically to a point. Whereas the pushpins are. And that is most helpful, because one can only assume that the Western Arctic riding is located inside Yellowknife’s city hall. Right?

Pushpins are great for locating a specific point. Note the point of the pin. The boxes are great for eliminating the distorting effects of electoral districts in rural vs. urban settings. For comparison, look at the congressional districts in and around cities like New York and compare them to those in places like Montana.

I think the print graphic is better also because it included three charts that summarised and provided context of the 50-key ridings in the context of the whole general election across Canada. Google’s pushpin map overlay thing…does not.

Is the print graphic perfect, no. As I noted above, it does not specifically name the 50, as one can discover by clicking on the pushpins. Nor does it provide the name of the candidates or a very brief summary of the situation, as one can discover by clicking on the pushpins. But I have a better grasp of how the little piece fits into the whole from the print graphic.

Perhaps the best solution would have been to create a unique interactive piece that married the best of both designs. Scrap the Google maps bit and create a set of interactive boxes that mirror the print graphic, and so by clicking on the boxes one can access the same information in the pushpin. And then one would also have a reason to write something in the print article about checking the website for the online version that has even more information. But that is surely crazy talk.

As an additional point of comparison, the two screenshots are both roughly the same size in width—the main concern in showing all of Canada—and just note the amount of data presented in both versions.

A more interesting question, though, is why was the print graphic was removed from the site? (Or at least made so difficult to find that I could not find it.)

Credit for the print graphic image I have is to the Map Room, which is from where I first learned of the map to begin with.

Complex Nigeria

The BBC has a new feature on Nigeria, one of Africa’s most important—and most complicated—countries. And a few days ago it was supposed to hold elections. But these have been postponed, apparently on logistical problems. This piece attempts to explain the complexities of modern Nigeria across several different metrics via maps. Overall, it is very similar to a piece I mentioned that the BBC ran on South Sudan in the run up to that soon-to-be-country’s independence referendum.

Map of Nigeria by Various Metrics
Map of Nigeria by Various Metrics

Overall, the piece works for me as a means of quickly and broadly explaining the geographic breakdown of Nigeria in terms of ethnicity, politics, health, et cetera. The colours work, especially shifting between hues for the one-variable maps. The one thing that the Nigeria map adds over the Sudan map is the name of each state. However, these begin to become a bit cluttered and distracting—not to mention that in all-caps they sit at roughly the same level of the neighbouring country names despite being a touch smaller. Perhaps the maps could have been made to do more with less, and only label those states mentioned in the explanatory text. Or they could have been included but treated in a subtler fashion.

iPads on eBay

This post comes to us from eBay via cnet. Ebay does a wonderful thing, it fills in the gaps in the marketplace. If you live in, say, the Netherlands, and want something that is available only in the United States, chances are you might find somebody willing to sell it to you from the US.

Among those things that people want are iPad 2s. So here eBay has put together an infographic about their sales of iPad 2s from US sellers to foreign buyers.

sales of iPad 2s abroad
sales of iPad 2s abroad

I must admit to being a bit underwhelmed here. Maps are great and all, but here this map adds nothing to the story except that I can now identify where Poland is. It’s an island country north of Belgium. Or is that France? Wait, what is this lonely sticker-tag for the United Kingdom out in the Atlantic? The data encoded in the map is already present in the datagraphic, if you look to the bar chart of iPad shapes in the lower left quadrant.

But the bar charts do confuse me, I very rarely like using symbols of things for measuring precise numbers of things when those symbols of things represent a number of things more than just one thing. (And that is about as confused as I feel.) And then on another level, I have to strain for a moment to figure out what these three-letter identifiers are. As it just so happens, there is a standardised set of country abbreviations in both two and three letters. When I see UNK, I immediately think Unknown. And RSS makes me think of RSS feeds. Neither connects me to the United Kingdom or Russia.

In the bottom right is the breakdown of sales by model type. Here, where the treatment is simpler we see more success at clearly communicating the information. Could it be more succinct and a touch better organised, yes. But, in all, this is clear and effective. Ergo, it works.

Interestingly, cnet also posted the previous year’s infographic by eBay for sales of the first iPad.

sales of the iPad abroad
sales of iPads abroad

Very loosely (and quickly), I think it is more successful and tells more data. The data on the map, like this year’s, need not be communicated by a map, that much is true—why are the countries two shades of blue, I have no idea if that encodes data. However, the same data is also duplicated in the chart in the lower left quadrant, but here far more succinctly and far more accurately than by weird symbols of the iPad. Last year’s infographic is missing the breakdown by model type, however, instead of those six datapoints, here we have a timeline of iPad sales that, it is safe to say, references more than six datapoints.

In a sense, eBay took a step backwards in their infographics. A pity, because one imagines that if they have the sales data for time periods, they probably have other sets of data that would make for an interesting and richer piece.

Credit to the designers at eBay and cnet for posting the article.

Pie Charts v Bar Charts, Round…Some Really High Number

Not strictly a commentary on a piece or project, instead, this is a link to an interesting opinion piece about the Great Infographic Debate, i.e., most loosely and least helpfully, substance vs. style, vis-a-vis the use of pie charts and such vs. bar charts. Where does one draw the line between clear communication and, frankly, just getting somebody’s attention so that one can communicate?

From the article, an illustration of just how bar charts are significantly better than pie charts at clearly communicating data such as which is the largest data point.

The largest datapoint is obvious, but what about the order of those that follow?
The largest datapoint is obvious, but what about the order of those that follow?

Thanks to Ben for the heads up.

Counting People

The Census Bureau has been releasing state population figures over the past several weeks and one means of accessing those figures is through a small, interactive map feature. Clicking through makes for some interesting observations—although not all states are currently available. In this screenshot, one can see an interesting story. Western Pennsylvania is shrinking whereas eastern Pennsylvania is growing. And, perhaps importantly, Philadelphia has perhaps reversed its long-term trend of population decline and saw a 0-5% increase in population while its further suburbs have seen increases in the 5–25% range.

census map feature
census map feature

If one is not viewing the piece in fullscreen mode, the navigation can be a bit small, especially for small counties. And the counties over which one rolls with the mouse cannot be selected, they are purely rollover functions that display census data from 1960 and the total population as of 2010. I would have liked the ability to select a particular county and then compare it to others by rolling over neighbouring counties. The colour choice, blues and a light, brownish-beige work rather well within the overall blue motif of the site. And by restricting the palette there, one gains the ability to use an altogether different colour, here green, to indicate which counties are rolled over along with differentiating the rollover box from the remainder of the map piece.

I wonder if more could not have done with the ethnic breakdowns on the right. Certainly the overall breakdown is effective, but it appears to lack a summary of sorts. What was the overall change for the state? And on a minor note, the person symbol is downright distracting.

To get to the first state, one clicks on said state from an overall map of the United States. States are blue if they have had their data released, grey otherwise. However, once looking at a state, there is no way back to the overall map as states are chosen from a small button in the upper-right. This works just fine, we are here to look at state data, not for a geography lesson. However, that they use the map at the beginning seems incongruent with the remainder of the experience. I wonder if they could not remove the map at the start, or keep the map but make it more useful. After all, it would be interesting to see the percentage change in the states displayed—the unpublished states could remain grey.

Further below the first map is a second map.

Census map 2
Census map 2

Here, one does have access to the state population change figures. Much of the critique above remains salient here, except the light brown for population loss in the first map is here replaced by a garish and obnoxious orange. An interesting addition is the range of historical data, from the 1910 census through the 2010 census and to see how those population changes affected the apportionment of seats in Congress. Another interesting story that one can glimpse is the ‘filling-in’ of the North American continent. Population density in 1910 was high only in the Northeast, but ever since, the people have spread, concentrating along the coasts and then moving inwards towards the vast centre of the continent.