Oil.

Oil, sweet oil. How we depend upon you for modern civilisation. BP published a report on world energy that Craig Bloodworth visualised using Tableau.

Oil production
Oil production

The piece has three tabs; one is for production, another consumption, and a third for reserves. (The screenshot above is for production.) But when I look at each view I wonder whether all the data views are truly necessary?

In production for example, is a map of a few countries truly informative? The usual problem of Russia, Canada, the US, and China dominating the map simply because they are geographically large countries reappears. Furthermore the map projection does not particularly help the issue because it expands the area of Siberia and the Canadian arctic at the expense of regions near the Equator, i.e. the Middle East. That strikes me as counter-intuitive since some of the largest oil producers are actually located within the Middle East.

A map could very well be useful if it showed more precisely where oil is produced. Where in the vastness of Russia is oil being sucked out of the ground? Where in Saudia Arabia? In the US? Leave the numbers to the charts. They are far more useful in comparing those countries like Kuwait that are major producers but tiny geographies.

Lastly about the maps (and the charts), the colour is a bit confusing because nowhere that I have found in my quick exploration of the application does the piece specify what the colours mean. That would be quite useful.

Finally, about the data, the total amount of oil produced, but more importantly consumed, is useful and valuable data. But seeing that China is the second largest consumer after the US is a bit misleading. Per capita consumption would add nuance to the consumption view, because China is over three-times as large as the US in population. Consequently, the average Chinese is not a major consumer. The problem is more that there are so many more Chinese consumers than consumers in any other nation—except India.

A bit of a hit and miss piece. I think the organisation and the idea is there: compare and contrast producers and consumers of oil (and consumers of other energy forms). Alas the execution does not quite match the idea.

Credit for the piece goes to Craig Bloodworth, via the Guardian.

Follow the Money. And Enjoy a Donut on the Way. Or a Pie.

Visualising government budgets is always fun. Until you realise that you are seeing where your money is going. But now we look at Australia’s expenditures. And as I pay nothing in taxes to Australia, I get to keep my fun.

Australian budget
Australian budget

This piece is doing some interesting things within the framework of the donut chart I generally dislike. We do get to see the levels of detail for different departments or areas of spending. For example, one can see that costs for building Australia’s new destroyers and how that fits into the whole budget. Or, by clicking on a slice of the donut, one can zoom in to see how pieces fit at the selected level.

But the overall visual comparison of pieces and then identifying them through colour is less than ideal.

Found via the Guardian’s datablog, credit for the piece goes to Prosple and OzDocsOnline.

Economic Development in Africa

This falls under the just-because-it’s-about-geographies-doesn’t-mean-it-should-necessarily-be-visualised-as-a-map category. The Guardian has taken data from the African Economic Outlook, specifically real GDP growth rates, and charted them as a map. This caught my interest initially because of some work I have been doing that required me to read a report on African economic development in coming years. So I figured this could be interesting.

African GDP growth
African GDP growth

But it’s a map. That’s not to say there is anything inherently wrong about the map. Though the arrangement of the legend and size of each ‘bin’ of percentage values is a bit odd. I would have placed the positive at the top of the list and tried to provide an equal distribution of the data, e.g. 3–10 for both positive and negative values. But, without looking in any depth at the data, the designer may have had valid reasons for such a distribution.

That said, two finer points stick out to me. The first is Western Sahara. Long story short, it is a disputed territory claimed by different factions. I am not accustomed to ever seeing any real economic data coming out of there. But, according to the map, its growth is 0–3%. When one looks at the data, however, one finds that as I would have expected the data says “no data”. Ergo the green colour on the map is misleading. Not necessarily incorrect, for the growth could have been between those two points, but without any data one cannot say for sure.

The second concern for me is South Sudan—remember that story? For starters one cannot find it on the map; South Sudanese territory is depicted as part of Sudan. While South Sudan is one of the poorest countries on the earth, its split from Sudan is rather important. Looking at the data, one can see Sudan’s growth went from 8 to 4.5 to 5 to 2.8. Why the sudden drop? Probably because Sudan’s economic boom has largely been built on the boom in oil prices over the past decade or so. But, most of that oil is no longer in Sudan, Not because its been pumped dry, but rather most of the oil fields can now be found in South Sudan.

These are some of the contextual stories that make sense of a data set. But these are the stories lost in a simple, interactive map.

Credit for the piece goes to Nick Mead.

A Not So Smart Smartphone Chart

This piece in the Globe and Mail of Toronto looks at smartphone usage by operating system through a comparison of Canada to both the United States and Japan.

Smartphone use in Canada
Smartphone use in Canada

While I understand the need for aesthetic distinction from having an entire page of bar charts, these ring or donut charts are a touch misleading. Because of the space between rings, the radius of each circle from the central Android icon is significantly increased. This of course proportionally scales up the length of each segment within the rings. In short, it becomes difficult to compare segments of each ring to the corresponding segments on the other rings without looking at the datapoint. And if you need to look at the datapoint, one could argue that the infographic has failed from the standpoint of communication of the data.

Beneath is the original (with the legend edited to fit into my cropping) with two very simple (and hasty) reproductions of the data as straight pie charts placed next to each other and then as clusters of bar charts grouped beneath each other. I leave it to you the audience to decide which is easiest to decode.

The original ring chart with legend moved
The original ring chart with legend moved
Alternate visualisation types
Alternate visualisation types

Credit for the Globe and Mail piece goes to Carrie Cockburn.

The Crisis in Syria

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.

An overview of Syria
An overview of Syria

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.

Syria on 9 Feb 2012
Syria on 9 Feb 2012

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 2013 Budget Proposal Visualisation Comparison Part II

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.

Budget overview
Budget overview

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.

Credit for the piece goes to John Duchneskie.

The 2013 Budget Proposal Visualisation Comparison

Yesterday’s post was about the administration’s 2013 budget proposal as visualised by the New York Times. This morning we have a brief comparison to the visualisation of the Washington Post.

The budget proposal overview
The budget proposal overview

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.

Defence spending details
Defence spending details

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.

Deficit details
Deficit details

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.

2013 Budget Proposal

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.

The 2012 budget proposal tree map
The 2012 budget proposal tree map

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.

All spending in 2013 proposal
All spending in 2013 proposal

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.

Sorting by change in spending
Sorting by change in spending

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.

Credit for the piece goes to Shan Carter.

Adding Guided Context to Maps

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.

Government benefits overview
Government benefits overview

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.

Medicaid's broad overview
Medicaid's broad overview

Compare that to the guide’s view of the map, which focuses on the large cities on the East Coast.

Medicaid's eastern core context
Medicaid's eastern core context

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.

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.